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Stages Costume Shop
20,000 Characters for Rent in Wheeling

Text and photographs by Carl E. Feather

A “Seven Dwarfs” character – Sneezy – is portrayed by Stages employee Lisa Beck in front of the shop on Main Street in Wheeling.
The head is made of papier mache and dates to the 1930’s. Photograph by Carl E. Feather.

On a fateful day in the late 1800’s, Wheeling circus owner and contortionist Albert J. Meredith decided to cut his lawn with a sickle. The hard work left a blister on Albert’s thumb, and that led to blood poisoning and amputation.

The amputation brought down the curtain on the knife-tossing act Albert had developed – his wife and niece stood against knife boards as Albert outlined their bodies with his knives. To make the task more challenging for Albert and more harrowing for his subjects, he tossed the knives through a large sheet of paper placed between himself and the ladies. One assumes that once the women realized that Albert no longer possessed full control of his knives, they insisted he find another line of work or different subjects for his act.

Thus did Albert Meredith go into the theatrical costume business, which would become the germ of Stages, a Main Street, Wheeling, shop. Owned today by Dan and Gael Fincham, the shop is a ready place to find a new identity, just as its founder had to reinvent himself following the blister blunder.

Stages is a custom costuming company that makes and rents costumes for theatrical productions, parties, and, of course, Halloween and other holidays. Gael Fincham says that, to the best of her knowledge, Stages is one of only three such businesses in West Virginia. Although the business has moved around the city in its 100-plus years of history, Stages and its predecessors have always been in Wheeling.

Gael admits that Wheeling is an unlikely location for a theatrical costume shop, but with determination and long hours, she and Dan have made it work.

“It’s inexpensive, and we live here,” she says, summing up why they keep their business rooted in Wheeling, despite the paucity of professional theater there. However, the Ohio Valley is rich in community theaters, small colleges/universities, and high schools that patronize the shop.

“Colleges and universities probably spend the most money for costumes,” Gael says. “High schools spend a tremendous amount of money on their spring musicals.”

Several directors who used Stages while working in the Wheeling area, and have since relocated to other states, continue to draw upon Stage’s vast inventory.

“You call us for an order, and we’re packing it up while you are still on the phone,” Gael says of the staff’s eagerness to serve every customer who patronizes them.

She says most of their business is generated by repeat customers, word of mouth, and the high visibility of their location. While they have a Facebook page and basic Web site, Dan says their experience with selling/renting on the Internet is that it “breeds disappointment.”

The Wickham family owned the company from 1948 to 1989, when Dan and Gael purchased the inventory of costumes, some of which dated back to the 1940’s.

“I have always wanted this business,” Gael says. “We were very, very lucky to get the opportunity to buy it.”

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.