Clothes Encounters Of The Fifth Grade

Jeanie Joe (above) at work on some of the costumes for the upcoming fifth-grade musical “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” Also pictured, Joe’s home work space, and some of the costumes she’s already finished as the play’s Feb. 7 opening draws near. Photos by Kamala Kirk

Every year, SPEF, the South Pasadena Educational Association, stages a fifth-grade musical —  a tradition that brings together kids from all three of the city’s elementary schools. And for each of the last 15 years, Jeanie Joe has stitched it all together.


With this year’s production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.’’ just weeks away, Joe, a South Pas resident for more than 30 years, is busy creating and sewing some 60 costumes for two casts of 45 kids each. She began work in early December and will be wrapping up soon, as the performance dates run from Feb. 7 to 9 at the High School auditorium.

The musical is produced by SPEF and Upstage Theatre Schools, which has established itself as one of the best summer and after-school theater programs for young performers in Los Angeles, producing shows and classes in South Pasadena and Westwood. Adrian Cohen is the artistic director and founder of Upstage Theatre Schools, and Patrick Hallahan directs the musical.

“All of our musicals are the junior versions, which are toned down,” said Joe. “I’ve done Annie, Fiddler on the Roof, Pirates of The Penzance, Lion King and many others over the years.

“The kids know me when I walk into the room holding the costumes, and they get all excited. Usually by the end of January, they’ve been working hard and rehearsing three days a week, so they’re tired, but then when I come in with my big rolling rack, they perk up and run towards me.”

Every year, Joe and Hallahan work together to create a unique vision for the kids’ costumes, which Joe then executes along with a team of parent volunteers.

“We don’t have a blonde Alice with a white apron, although she does wear a blue dress,” Joe said. “It’s a dream, so the only normal person in the play is Alice. The rest of the cast is a dream sequence, and it has more of a Tim Burton-esque mystery quality to it, but a cool mystery, not a scary mystery.

“I like the challenge of coming up with stuff and making things that look really good on stage out of found objects, castoffs and donations. In the past, I’ve made Shrek ears out of a pool noodle. When I run into a challenge, I just go back out and come in another door. You can always find another way to do things and make it work.”

When she isn’t working on the SPEF musical, Joe teaches sewing at ArtCenter’s South Campus in Pasadena. She was recently awarded the ArtCenter Faculty Project Grant, an annual endowment from Samsung.

“Their objective is to invest in faculty projects in art, innovation, research and design and give opportunity for personal project enrichment and for students to experience new work by faculty,” Joe said.

“For my project, I’m launching a new website and blog dedicated to sharing costume-making tips for theatrical plays and musicals for schools and small theater, and for all who endeavor to make costumes on a tight budget. I’m sharing all my tips, techniques and how-tos I have developed over the past 15 years relating to getting a cool costume out of a think-outside-the-box philosophy.”

In her spare time, Joe enjoys making purses, which she sells in Camille DePedrini Boutique in South Pasadena. Back in 2008 she used to have a store of her own, Sew Joe, which was located on Mission Street. Besides selling fabric and sewing supplies, Joe taught sewing lessons and provided studio rental time to customers who wanted to come in and make things on one of her sewing machines.

After closing the business in 2011, Joe continued to sell her creations via her Etsy store, MarthaNina, where she lists handbags, clutches, totes and other items for sale.

When asked about the most interesting items she has ever made, two come to mind: a pair of red furry overalls for a young man who wanted “party pants,” along with a quilted cover for a satellite that NASA sent up into space.

“Sewing is very therapeutic to me — it’s like clean gardening,” Joe said. “But it’s also fun to do things that you just come up with — it’s very satisfying, and I like doing that. I think what I do can translate all over the world.”

SPEF’s production of Alice in Wonderland Jr. runs Friday, Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. For more information and for tickets, visit