Tucked in the most inconspicuous of places, where travelers whiz by with barely a mindless glance, sits a property with as rich and unusual a history as its owner and its contents. The resident is a charming gentleman, not quite an octogenarian but knocking on the door. His laughter – like his voice – is soft and earnest, a giggle that sparkles as brightly as his eyes. The genuine affection he has for his home and his memories is as endearing as his affable nature and instant warmth. Tony Townsend never feels like a stranger. Not even the first moment you meet him.
Maybe I was captivated by the very old things that decorate his life, or the thousands of costumes glimmering with millions of sequins, or the plethora of accessories and odd masks piled into his 245 year old property, but from the moment I entered Tony’s world I couldn’t help but feel as though I had fallen into some kind of wonderland. I could tell from the gasps of my photographer, Kristina, and the rapid clicking of her lens that I was not alone in my awe.
There on an errand, or maybe an excuse, Kristina and I wrestled with our suddenly unruly ability to focus. We asked Tony the obvious questions and were lured deeper into curiosity by his answers, which made apparent our need to return on day when we had more time. That day came several weeks later.
In the large parlor of his home, amid an orderly collection of neatly presented dolls, a life-size replica of Tut’s sarcophagus, and countless books, Tony unfurled the long history of the Cargill Costume Company, his home, and himself. His serene, tonal voice flowed comfortably as he spoke, clearly warmed at the core by the recollection of it all. With Kristina clicking in the background, I fell into his story.
Born in upstate New York, during the second World War, Tony was the younger of two boys. Despite never divorcing, his mother raised her sons alone after his father left to maintain a relationship with his younger mistress and their daughter. Tony has almost no memory of father who passed a week before his tenth birthday. At 18, he went off to study theater at Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University. Attracted to the school by noteworthy playwright and director Father Gilbert Hartke, Tony found the constant interruptions to the course schedule in observance of every Catholic holiday frustrating and left only a handful of months later.
Capitalizing on his extended family’s proximity to New York City, Tony took up residence in Bergenfield, New Jersey, with an aunt and uncle. He commuted to the city with his uncle, who headed a fur business in the Tiffany Building, and found work at Ziv Television delivering scripts to the likes of Lloyd Bridges and setting film reels for the salesmen to preview. Tony laughs when he recalls how he had “no knowledge of these things, and [the salesmen] were very sweet. They would come back and say, ‘We’re just gunna adjust this. It’s a little out of focus.’”
A few months later, he received an offer to perform in summer stock theater in Skowhegan, Maine. The call came late in the evening, but the train departed early the next day. Tony packed and rode with his new castmates in the morning, while his uncle explained the sudden resignation to Ziv. He did two summers of stock theater – working with Hollywood legends like Ginger Rogers and Groucho Marks and making lifelong friends like the one he had in Academy and Tony Award winner Celeste Holm. He touched his hands together over and over as he recalled the time spent with these renowned performers, sort of padding them together as though calming both excitement and grief. Nostalgia is a funny thing.
Tony’s biggest breaks would come during these years, but they would not take him into the spotlight. If wealth were measured by the quality of our relationships and the sincerity of love, Tony’s big moments took him to a far richer place than stardom ever could have. Not only did he meet his partner of 45 years, a composer for dance legend Martha Graham, among others, Tony also came to meet the Cargills.
Working winters in NYC for a theater producer, Tony was answering phones and running errands but his employer felt Tony needed “something better to do.” So, the gentleman put a call into Mr. Jerome Cargill of the Cargill Company. A unique type of producer, Mr. Cargill started in 1917 producing fundraiser shows for businesses and organizations. He would provide personnel, such as directors and choreographers, as well as costumes and scenery. The hiring organization provided the location and the “actors” from their own human resources pool. They would practice together for two or three weeks before selling tickets and performing for supporters.
Tony was hired after a brief meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Cargill and Alfred Berk, the director of the costume department and a former Ted Shawn dancer. Tony went to work the very next day as a “do all.” He fell in love with the Cargills and dedicated himself to any task he was set to. A couple years later, the Office Manager passed away, and Tony was sent to fill the spot. Aside from running the business office, he was flown all over North America to see the company’s performances and get feedback from the groups that hired them. The Cargills were very successful and retained groups for decades. The performances became tradition, woven into their companies’ culture, with some accounts lasting 40 years or more.
While business was growing, space in New York was shrinking. The Cargills packed up everything from clipboards to curtains and moved a few times in a few years, never more than a few blocks. In the early 70’s, they finally decided, for stability’s sake, to take the operation to their 78 acre farm in Upper Black Eddy. The sets and costumes were stored in the barn, and the office was run from a renovated garage, but it was business as usual. Tony, of course, went with them. By now, he was family.
With no children of their own, the Cargills “sort of adopted” Tony.
“Particularly, Mrs. Cargill. She and my mother shared me,” he laughed. “We’d go to restaurants in New York, and she would introduce [my mother] and say ‘…and this is our son, Tony.’”
He traveled with them on holidays to London, where they’d stay at the Savoy Hotel and go to the theater. “Mr. Cargill didn’t believe in holidays,” Tony chuckled, his eyes again damp and shining. “He wanted to celebrate when he wanted to celebrate, and he didn’t want to be obligated to have friends in for Thanksgiving dinner. He was a fabulous cook. So, we would go off to London… Mr. & Mrs. Cargill were just so wonderful to me.”
His voice trails off a bit. There is a deep emotion that quiets him. Tony left his pursuit of the stage when he joined the Cargills in 1962. His love for them and their company satisfied him beyond measure. He dedicated his life to their pursuit, and so it was fitting that Tony inherited both the business and Cargills’ holdings when the couple passed just five years apart, in 1986 and 1991.
Wanting to make things smaller and more manageable, Tony refocused the company on costume and set rental only. He sold the 78-acre parcel in Upper Black Eddy after an arduous search for a place that could house what he estimates to be 20,000 costumes and an extensive collection of curtains, backdrops, and the like.
“I had been searching and searching for weeks on end. I went to all kinds of real estate people. None of them, for some reason, would come to Upper Black Eddy and look at what I had. A barn full of costumes and scenery and stuff. And they would take me to places with a two-car garage, and I kept saying ‘Nope. I need bigger, bigger, bigger.’”
Tony’s laughter becomes contagious as he recalls what was surely a frustration at the time. He had exhausted his options and the agents when the last realtor he knew brought him to the collection’s current home. He leans over and says, “She told me ‘This is the last one that I have to show you, and if you don’t like this one, you’re going to have to find someone else to work with.’”
They went into the barn first. “The only thing that was in there was a basketball hoop on the second floor, where the children would play.”
Then, he walked through the house, room to room, falling deeper and deeper in love. He returned to the agent downstairs and said, “This is my home. I am going to live here.”
Maybe the house and its history played to his theatrical side, or maybe – like so many – Tony is just a lover of storied things. What started as a two room, fieldstone cottage in 1774 had grown into an inn and restaurant. Later, it was a general store and post office. It is even rumored to have served as a brothel for a time, something Tony loves to tell people about the house.
The collection in Upper Black Eddy was packed again. It traveled a much shorter distance this time, to the 9- acre property in Wismer, taking with it most of the inventory and a talented seamstress named Janet who came on board with the Cargills in 1965. Together, Tony and Janet design costumes of all kinds and make countless repairs.
“We give them to them on hangers, but they come back in bags,” Tony giggles, shaking his head, as we step over piles of costumes being sorted and stitched and rehung.
Some are kept in sacred places, like the crowd favorite – a period gown requiring a hoop skirt, layer upon layer of ruffles, red flowers on white.
“It is made from my mother’s [bed] linens,” he smiles. It is his favorite, too.
The curtains, scrims, and painted backgrounds have all been passed on to local theaters, like the Music Mountain Theater in Lambertville. Much of their business is driven by these small theaters and the high schools. I confessed that I may have stolen a cape when I was Nancy in “Oliver!” during my senior year, but Tony laughed and patted my arm in a show of forgiveness.
“What will happen to the costumes when you’re through with all this?” I ask.
Tony laughs through his words, “Well, that is something we are trying to figure out.”
There is a loose plan, as it turns out, but for now Tony and Janet are quite happy toiling away in their 245-year-old home, with their 102-year-old collection, at their lifelong labor of love. They are tireless in their devotion and a credit to the artistic community. A unique and historical story of creative passion and real love nestled in the hills of Bucks County.