The Man Behind the Masks
George Goebel has been in the costuming business for over half a century
Published: November 21, 2012
Resting his hand on a suit of armor, one of dozens decorating the walls of the showroom of A. T. Jones and Sons, George Goebel wonders aloud about his age. “I’m 80 or 82, 83?” he asks before resolving the issue. “I’ll be 85. I was born in July.”
Goebel’s back is sloped with age, and when he sits down to talk, his stooped spine pushes his face forward, narrowing any gap that might allow the world to sneak in and dilute the conversation. His great, warm smile is framed by an impeccably groomed snow-white goatee that matches the snowy twin tufts that ruffle out above his ears on either side of his kindly bald head, and he holds court with the grace of a long-life-long performer.
Goebel chooses a seat in the crook between a pair of enormous display cabinets. In front of him, a full-sized, armored horse and rider stare down, seemingly transfixed, as the old man shares the stories of the oddities on display: conquistador helmets and racks of old muskets, a great ostrich plume erupting from a bejeweled turban, a poncho and sombrero that A.T. Jones supplied to Ronald Reagan for his performance at Washington, D.C.’s famous Gridiron Dinner, and, finally, the old-timey swimsuit William Donald Schaefer wore for his famous dip in the Aquarium’s seal pool.
A.T. Jones, the man, was a North Carolina artist who came to Baltimore in 1861 to collect a $500 prize he’d won from The Sun and MICA, then called the Maryland Institute. When the Civil War trapped him in the Monumental City, Jones began supplying masquerade costumes for the annual Oriole, a parade that once rivaled New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. He also made battle flags for the Army of Northern Virginia and smuggled them out of Maryland, hidden in the hoopskirts of women sympathetic to the South. After the war, he diversified into actors’ costumes and around 1868 he opened his store.
Goebel met A.T. Jones’ son, Walter, while still a student at Poly. Goebel was the magician in the Poly Follies, for which A.T. Jones did the costumes. When he graduated, Goebel called on Jones for a job, and in September 1950, he went to work in the costuming business. He bought the store from the Jones family 40 years ago, working seven days a week ever since. Recently he’s backed off, however, and for the last few weeks, he’s only worked six. “I’m still not sure I’m going to stick around,” he says.
Goebel was also a great stage magician—even legendary, in magic circles. He and his wife, Carole, appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show. There’s even a biography, Goebel: The Man with the Magical Mind. But it is as a costumer that Goebel is truly unmatched.
A.T. Jones isn’t like the Spirit shops that come and go in abandoned strip malls; Goebel’s shop specializes in theatrical productions, and ships costumes all over the world, some of which are reproductions of the few surviving pieces of the store’s collection, which dates back to the 1800s. “About 99 percent of our business now is opera,” Goebel says, though he has made a number of notable costumes for local institutions, including City Paper’s own beloved Besty mascot, all of the original characters from the Enchanted Forest, the old Baltimore Colts mascot, and the first Naval Academy Bill the Goat.
But Goebel wants to show off his shop’s greatest treasure. Walking past his old, sleeping German shepherd and his son’s blue-fronted Amazon parrot—perhaps the only creature on Earth immune to his charm—Goebel arrives at the garment loft, with workstations set with old button-holers and industrial Singer sewing machines, which are still used every day. “They’re not that old,” Goebel notes. “Not a hundred. They were here when I started, though,” he adds, before venturing into his great collection.
Pushing through racks marked “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “Beauty and the Beast,” winding through corridors of crates labeled “Flying Monkeys,” and “Tin-man Parts,” he comes to stacks and racks of mascot heads back in a dusty corner. “A guy came in and asked if we could build an oriole bird,” Goebel says, tantalizingly. “He’s got to look friendly—and tough. Cocky, but not mean.” And there on a nearly forgotten shelf, covered in old Baltimore dust and a cloud of Orioles magic, sits a familiar face: the plaster cast of the original Bird. In front of it, a disintegrating foam beak, and the metal frame of the bird’s first head. Gazing up, Goebel’s snow-white beard frames a broad, bright smile.
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