Keri Smith is living in the past, and she loves it. The veteran Costume Designer has worked on contemporary shows and movies, including I Hate My 30’s, My Boys, Answers to Nothing, and Happy Endings, but she’s spent the better part of the last decade happily ensconced in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s thanks to her work on The Goldbergs, Schooled, and ABC’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials, which were produced by Norman Lear and Jimmy Kimmel.
For the star-studded Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials, Smith recreated the looks of All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, The Facts of Life, and Diff’rent Strokes.
Below the Line recently spoke to Smith, who discussed her own personal style before explaining how she broke into the business as well as what it was like to work with a legend like Lear.
Below the Line: How stylish — or not — were you as a kid?
Keri Smith: Oh, this is about me! Wow! Pretty stylish. I was in high school in the ‘80s, if that tells you anything, so it was very important for me to look different from everybody else, but also to follow the trends. For prom, I’d have my mom take me to Seattle. We lived in Portland but I had to go to Seattle so that my prom dress was different from everybody else’s. And I loved dressing other people up. We used to do lots of videos when videos came out, and I loved doing Halloween costumes. It was more fun for me to dress other people than it was to dress myself as I got older.
BTL: What were the shows and movies and clothes that made you take notice and think, “Maybe I can do this?”
Smith: Honestly, I had a strange path to where I am right now. Growing up in Beaverton, Oregon, I didn’t actually know this kind of work existed. I certainly was in awe of what I was seeing, but I didn’t know that that was something I could actually do for a living. Looking back, I’d say pretty much every film in the ‘80s… but it wasn’t a period then. It’d be… Flashdance. ‘Oh my God, did you see that? She had no shirt on underneath that thing. Could I pull that off?’ I don’t think I ever looked at a show, like Bridgerton now, where I would be like, ‘Wow, every detail or every piece of that is so thoughtful.’ I don’t know if I had that in me until I got to be a little bit older and started recognizing what work it took to make those things happen. It wasn’t like something just shocked me.
BTL: Who gave you your big break?
Smith: I moved to L.A. in 1990, and I worked at a location company. Literally, every little road led me to one place. I was in talent agencies, and then I worked at a casting company. When I was in casting, someone sat me down — a director — and was like, ‘What is it you love to do?’ I was being cheeky. I was like, ‘I don’t know, I like to shop.’ He said, ‘Well, there’s a job that you can do that.’ He worked in commercials, Jesse Dylan, and he hooked me up with his stylist. I was an assistant for four months and then started doing it on my own. It was amazing. My track was probably faster than a lot of people’s, getting into the union. I thought it’d be in commercials forever, and then I had a friend who was doing a pilot for TV. I never even thought of television. He was like, ‘I know you can do it.’ It was for ABC and I did it. I jumped into the frying pan and I’ve been in television ever since.
BTL: Jesse Dylan is Bob Dylan’s son, and who was the friend with the pilot?
Smith: Yes, Bob Dylan’s son, not to name drop, but he was a close mentor of mine as I was getting started. And, it was a duo writing team. Harry Elfont, very good friend, and his writing partner, Deborah Kaplan. They’re still a duo today. They do lots of television. They were the first people that were like, ‘I know you can do this.’ Also, the late Jamie Tarses. The pilot didn’t get picked up, but she took me under her wing. She was an executive producer. She got me hooked up with Sony, and I continue doing Sony shows to this day. I really have her to thank for that, too.
BTL: Let’s jump to Live in Front of a Studio Audience. Some of the costumes are so iconic that you’re recreating them. What’s the challenge, from a creative standpoint, on these projects?
Smith: The very first one, All in the Family and The Jeffersons, this was a new concept to attempt live. That was the most challenging, talking to each individual actor and seeing how they wanted to recreate the character. Marissa Tomei doing Edith, she didn’t want it to be spot-on. She didn’t want her dresses to be exactly what she wore. She didn’t want to do a spoof on her. She wanted to create the essence, as though it still looked like the dresses were from her closet. She wanted to be mindful of not doing a caricature. Woody Harrelson was similar. ‘I don’t want to do exactly what (Carroll O’Connor) did. I don’t want anybody to think we’re doing a spoof.’ For those characters — and for that first season show — I did the research, and then I just let it fall into place.
The second one, we got a little bit closer. It was a Christmas episode. I wanted Marisa to look like Edith did in that episode because she had a special Christmas dress on. We specially made that dress for her, with the crazy brooch. That was important to me and to her to honor that. I reached out to each actor. Then, this third one lent itself more to recreating the costumes directly. You’ve got Facts of Life, and they’re in their school uniforms. I wanted to nail those uniforms. I wanted to get the crest exactly right. Jo needed to wear her undone look exactly the same. Then, Diff’rent Strokes, [Kevin Hart] was in that superhero costume. We looked all over for the fabric for the cape and we couldn’t find it exactly. I wasn’t willing to settle. We had the fabric made digitally made so it looked exactly like Arnold’s did. It was a progression into nailing it exactly. I always like to find out from the actors how they want to play it.
BTL: You had another resource in Norman Lear. How much input did you seek, and how much did you get from him?
Smith: The honor of a lifetime is being trusted with this project. I’ll never forget it, but he trusted the actors. His partner Brent was my go-to person. ‘Do you have Norman’s ear? Am I doing this right?’ I wanted to honor him and all of his work as well. When we do the first run-through, which is two nights before the actual live [event], and Norman being like, ‘Thumbs up! This feels right. This is great…’ It’s all I could ask for.
BTL: You’ve also worked on The Goldbergs for a decade and also on the spinoff, Schooled. In terms of styles, how different were the looks, the materials, of the ‘70s versus the ‘80s? And, are you creating facsimiles, or where possible, using the same material that would’ve been used 30, 40, 50 years ago?
Smith: For both shows, we did a lot of rentals in costume houses. Especially for the ‘70s, I feel it’s super-important to get the fabrics and styling right. With Goldbergs we do have a little wiggle room because we have to make a lot of jumpsuits for Beverly. We’ll search for fabric that feels right and feels like the ‘80s, but perhaps the makeup of it is not exactly right. Polyester is the thread that goes through both decades. But a different type. It was great when I worked on a ‘90s show a couple of years ago. At one point I was doing Live, Goldbergs, and Schooled all in the same week, so I was doing the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. It was just genius. It was so fun, but I was like, ‘Okay, I hope I get this right. I don’t want to get the wrong decade and the wrong show.’ It’s so fun to recreate the past decades.
BTL: By the time Goldbergs ends, how many sweaters do you think that Bev will have worn?
Smith: Oh, my goodness. Boy, if I had to calculate… She wears at least seven outfits per episode. Half of those are sweaters. So, let’s say she’s got four sweaters every episode. By the end? We’re at what, 200?
BTL: You’re at 204 episodes right now, so that would be 816 sweaters.
Smith: And I’d say we reuse some of her favorites. At the beginning of every season, I go through her super-favorite ones and we’ll put those through there, but I definitely enjoy hunting. If you go on Etsy or eBay now, people say, “Beverly Goldberg sweater,” and I’m like, ‘Hey!’ But they’re usually right. Sometimes they didn’t quite nail it. Then I have fans write me and they’re like, ‘I have all this stock from my grandmother or my mother we’d love to donate to your show.’ That’s always great, too. I always find little nuggets that are a little rarer.
BTL: Wait a second. Fans have sent in sweaters that have ended up on the show?
Smith: Absolutely. There are quite a few. Then there are some people who, once I trust the stuff that comes to me is in good condition, I’ve reached out to them even more and been like, ‘What are the odds you have some tennis gear?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. My mom was an avid tennis player.’ It’s just been a good connection to our fans and audience.
BTL: What period have you not played in yet that you want to play in?
Smith: I don’t want to go too far back, honestly. I would say the ‘60s would be fun. ‘50s. Okay, all of it! I just don’t want to do military. But there is something fun about doing the research and knowing you’re getting it right. Like I said, with Norman Lear, having someone look at it and be like, ‘This reminds me of what I worked so hard to accomplish, and you did a great job…’ That little pat on the back, it’s always important.
BTL: What would an Emmy nomination mean to you?
Smith: Oh, that’ll never happen. It’d be huge. A lot of people in the world don’t understand how hard a 30-minute single-camera comedy can be… The Goldbergs, let’s say, in comparison to a one-hour drama. It feels goofy, almost like it’s not as serious work, but it is. I don’t think people understand, with gags and trying to design children’s make-believe costumes out of boxes, that kind of stuff. That would feel good. Live is a different beast. It’s usually up against the live, reality, and variety (Emmy categories). I always admire all those other shows, of course. [An Emmy nomination] is important but the most important part was having Norman Lear or anybody involved in the shows we’re recreating tell me we did good work.
Live in Front of a Studio Audience and The Goldbergs are both streaming now on ABC.com.