As an Emmy-winning makeup artist who’s worked in both film and TV, Charlotte’s John Bayless knows the importace of getting intricate details right in telling a story.
That’s why, he said, he’s going the extra mile for Matthews Playhouse’s production of “Grey Gardens The Musical.” It’s a version of the (real-life) lives of Big Edie Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie – aunt and cousin to Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis who became renowned and eccentric recluses. The pair came to fame after a 1975 documentary by Albert and David Masyles, and was made into a musical in 2006.
Bayless has re-created pieces from the Beales’ lives, from an elaborate brooch worn by Little Edie to the carving on headboards of mother-and-daughter twin beds. He bought a photo of Phelan Beale (Big Edie’s husband, Little Edie’s father), had it enlarged, then painted it to look like a portrait, hung over the fireplace.
The musical has two acts: In the first, mother and daughter are amid vast riches in the 1940s; the second is set in 1970, when the pair lives in poverty-stricken conditions in their decaying East Hampton mansion.
“What we’re trying to do is re-create the scene as closely as the documentary presents,” Bayless, set designer for the show, said. This meant spending days re-creating that broach, or searching high and low for an avocado-colored bathroom scale seen in the film.
“All those little things that seem so crazy and mundane that you wouldn’t go out of your way in another production ... we’re really trying to go out of our way for, to find those items the audience will recognize and appreciate.”
Bayless has been involved in several of Matthews Playhouse’s productions, including its holiday show, “Miracle on 34th Street.” The nonprofit was founded in 1995 by June Bayless, who’s his wife, so he’s often volunteers to help, he said, when he isn’t away for months on a film set.
Originally from California, Bayless said he’s always been drawn to theater. He studied it in both undergraduate and graduate school, earning his bachelor’s from the University of California, Davis, and his master’s from Penn State.
It was in his undergraduate years he realized the theater aspect he loved most was makeup. He became an apprentice to Dick Smith, known for his work on “The Exorcist” and shared an Academy Award for makeup for “Amadeus.”
“I enjoy doing the facial hair work – the beards and mustaches – and the people in general,” Bayless said. The biggest challenge? Time. “We never have as much time as we’d like to have to create, but that’s also part of the excitement of it and part of why I enjoy doing it.”
He’s worked on films and shows such as “Paper Towns,” “Degrassi,” and the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” for which he shared an Emmy for prosthetic makeup. (MTV wrote a story headlined: “HBO’s John Adams and the Best Fake Noses in TV/Film History.”)
Bayless said he’s drawn to period pieces because he loves the research. And that pursuit of detail makes him a perfect fit for this show with director Billy Ensley, says June Bayless. “Billy has studied this show for years, so he couldn’t be any happier to have someone as excited as he is,” she said.
“I had no idea (John) would go this far,” she continued with a laugh. “He has, for months, immersed himself in it. He wanted to make it look and feel like you’re actually at Grey Gardens.”
The play runs Feb. 1-10; tickets are $22 ($19 for students and seniors).
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with Thrive Campaign for the Arts.