ALAMEDA -- When the performers in Altarena Playhouse's recent show "Always ... Patsy Cline" came on stage, the audience admired their singing and acting talents -- as well as their costumes.

"I heard 'awe' at times when Margaret Belton, who played Patsy, came out on stage," said costume designer Janice Stephenson, a longtime Alameda resident. "It always feels so good to be recognized, especially when the shows are sold out."

Stephenson's main task was to make sure Belton looked like a musical star in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"Janice took me under her wing," said Belton, who played Cline in the show. "I was living a dream with a major role in the show, and fashion was a big part of it.

"Every sparkle, every bedazzle and the length of outfits, she knew just what to do," Belton added. "She has a great eye for detail, down to the earrings, stockings and shoes."

Stephenson has honed her talent in the Bay Area since coming here in the 1970s from Minnesota, where her family has its roots in the Chippewa Tribe. She started sewing at age 5.

"I always wanted to be a costume designer," she said. "From the time that I was young, I always have had to prove and explain myself. It's taken a long time to get where I am."

Designing costumes and dressing performers is hard work, Stephenson said. And she should know, having been part of the union that represents professional dressers and those preparing outfits in the entertainment world for nearly 30 years.


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The flip side of all that effort, of course, is the satisfaction that comes with working on productions including "The Lion King" and "Jersey Boys" in San Francisco and a Lady Gaga concert in San Jose.

"It's always a who's-who list of people, who make a lot more money than we do," she said, with a bit of a chuckle.

The work, though, is truly a labor of love, Stephenson said. Her eyes light up as she described her time touring with dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey about 15 years ago.

"I traveled with him to sew for the crew after he said, 'Come to New York with your passport,' " she said. "We went to Johannesburg, South Africa, Europe and all over."

Stephenson has worked on many shows at Altarena over the past five years.

"The cast and crew are like a big family," she said. "And I feel so blessed to be a part of it."

For "Always ... Patsy Cline," for instance, she made the perfect red cowgirl suit, complete with white fringe on the sleeves of the jacket and two bucking broncos on the front of the skirt.

"I always thought of the singer wearing red," Stephenson said.

She also made a pair of gold pants out of material used for curtains and found the perfect coral-colored bathrobe, classic coat, white heels, vintage gray dress and a sweater decorated with just the right amount of sequins.

"That was my favorite era -- the '50s and '60s. I just love it. It's so all-American," said Stephenson, who loves making costumes for nonactors as well during the holidays and for special events.

"What Janice put together was so appropriate for the time frame when Cline was alive and kicking," Belton said. "An actor or actress has to be comfortable in what they are wearing on stage, and it's so important to be free to move around, which she really understands."

Others in the show agreed.

"She just has such a great eye for detail, down to the belts, for instance," said Julie Etzel, who played Cline's best friend, Louise Seger. "It made you feel like you were back in the late '50s. Her work is just lovely, and the outfits are so beautiful."

The period-perfect outfits caught the eye of many members of the show's audience.

"They would tell me, 'My grandmother wore that! Where can I get that?' "Stephenson said. "I always know that with the jewelry, the outfits and putting everything together on stage something really good is going to come out of it."