Franne Lee, Tony winner who also costumed Coneheads, dies at 81

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Franne Lee, Tony winner who also costumed Coneheads, dies at 81
She worked on “Sweeney Todd” and “Candide” and also on the early seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” contributing to the look of the Blues Brothers and the Killer Bees.

by Neil Genzlinger



NEW YORK, NY.- Franne Lee, a costume and set designer who while doing Tony Award-winning work on Broadway in the 1970s also made killer-bee suits and cone-shaped headwear for early “Saturday Night Live” sketches, helping to create some of that era’s most memorable comic moments, died Sunday in Atlantis, Florida. She was 81.

Her daughter, Stacy Sandler, announced the death, after a short illness that she did not specify.

Lee did some of her most high-profile work in the 1970s while in a relationship with set designer Eugene Lee. She collaborated with him on productions including an acclaimed “Candide,” directed by Harold Prince at the Chelsea Theater Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City in 1973. It moved to the Broadway Theater in midtown Manhattan the next year and ran there for 740 performances.

“The production has been designed by those experts, Eugene and Franne Lee,” Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, reviewing the Broadway incarnation, “and they have knocked the innards out of this respectable Broadway house and made it into an obstacle course of seats, musicians’ areas, catwalks, drawbridges and playing platforms, with one conventional stage thrown in at the end of the space for good measure and convenience.”

The Lees shared the 1974 Tony Award for scenic design, and Franne Lee won another for costuming, her specialty. As the story goes, one person who saw that “Candide” was a young producer named Lorne Michaels, who was creating an unconventional late-night show for NBC. He was impressed and brought the Lees in as designers on the show that, when it made its debut in October 1975, was called “NBC’s Saturday Night” but soon became “Saturday Night Live.”

The original “SNL” cast quickly made its mark with outlandish sketches, and Lee was integral to the look of those now famous bits — dressing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in black when they became the Blues Brothers, turning cut-up long johns into the yellow-striped Killer Bee costumes, and more.

It was costume designing on the cheap. Lee’s father, a tool-and-die maker, came up with the bouncy springs that were the Killer Bees’ antennae, which she finished off by sticking Ping-Pong balls on the ends. John Storyk, who first met Lee in 1968 when both worked at the short-lived Manhattan club Cerebrum, recalled in a phone interview dropping by the Lees’ apartment and seeing on her work table the beginnings of the cones that became the defining feature of the Coneheads, the extraterrestrials who were a recurring presence on the show in the late 1970s and later got their own feature film.

In an interview for the book “Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests” (2002), by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, James Signorelli, a longtime “SNL” producer, said Lee influenced fashion beyond the studio walls.

“The way Franne Lee, our costume designer, dressed Lorne for the show suddenly became the way everybody in New York was dressing,” he said. “Lorne used to come out onstage wearing a shirt, jacket and bluejeans. Nobody had ever seen it. But before you knew it, everybody was sitting around in Levi’s and a jacket.”

Laraine Newman, an original “SNL” cast member, recalled one time when Lee became part of the action — not on the show, but during a photo shoot Newman was doing with Francesco Scavullo, the noted fashion and celebrity photographer. Newman was working a vampire look, complete with fangs.

“Franne found me this incredible Edwardian black lace dress,” Newman said by email, “and we did wonderful shots with that, and then Scavullo had this idea that Franne should be my victim, and so there are shots of me like biting Franne’s neck. It was so hard not to laugh because Franne was making these faces trying to look horrified or drained of blood. It’s a wonderful memory, and it still makes me laugh when I think about it. She was so very talented.”




Lee won another Tony Award in 1979 for her costume designs for the original Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd,” the Stephen Sondheim musical about a murderous barber who has his victims made into meat pies. The show was directed by Prince, whom Lee said initially told her he was reluctant to take on the project despite her urging.

“He told me: ‘You’re crazy, absolutely crazy! You can’t do a musical about people eating people,’” she recalled in a 2002 interview with The Tennessean newspaper. “‘I said, ‘Why not?’”

Frances Elaine Newman was born on Dec. 30, 1941, in the Bronx in New York City to Martin and Anne (Marks) Newman. Her father had a small machine shop on Long Island, and her mother was an offset printing supervisor.

Lee was studying painting at the University of Wisconsin, her daughter said, when she discovered her love of theater and costume design. She was married to Ralph Sandler at the time and relocated to Pennsylvania when his job took him there, doing costume and design work for local theaters. The couple divorced in 1967, and Lee relocated to New York.

“Franne and I both answered the same ad,” Storyk said, recalling how they found themselves working at Cerebrum. Storyk designed the club; Lee was what was called a guide, leading patrons through the place, which promoted consciousness-raising and featured various interactive environments. It closed in less than a year.

Lee, though, continued to pursue her theatrical interests, creating costumes for groups including Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. She also met Eugene Lee. Among their earliest collaborations as scenic designers — with Lee still credited as Franne Newman — was a version of “Alice in Wonderland” staged by director André Gregory in 1970 that drew rave reviews.

The two became a couple and Franne adopted Eugene Lee’s name, though the nature of their relationship remained hazy; Patrick Lynch, a longtime aide to Eugene Lee, said the two were never formally married. (He died in February.) In any case, their personal and professional partnership continued until 1980, the year Franne Lee left “Saturday Night Live.”

She continued to design costumes for shows in New York in the 1980s and ’90s, including a few short-lived Broadway productions and, in the mid-’90s at the Public Theater, Christopher Walken’s examination of the life and legend of Elvis Presley, “Him.”

She also tried the West Coast for a time, working on a few television shows and made-for-TV movies. In 2001, she settled in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was involved in founding Plowhaus, a gallery and artists’ cooperative. She later lived in Wisconsin, and since 2017 she had lived in Lake Worth Beach, Florida, about 65 miles north of Miami, designing costumes for theaters in that area.

In addition to her daughter, from her marriage to Sandler, Lee is survived by a son from that marriage, Geoffrey Sandler; a son with Eugene Lee, Willie Lee; a brother, Bill Newman; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

The frugal DIY ethos of her “SNL” years stayed with Lee throughout her costume-designing career. In 2018 she worked on costumes for a production of Conor McPherson’s thriller “The Birds” (based on the same source material as the Alfred Hitchcock movie) at the Garden Theater in Winter Garden, Florida. It required a wedding dress, which she bought at a thrift shop for $45.

“I’m a senior citizen,” she told The Orlando Sentinel, “so if I go on Wednesday, things are half price.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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