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Remembering Tony Award-winning costume designer Franne Lee

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We pay tribute now to Tony Award-winning costume designer Franne Lee. She created the looks of some of the first characters on "Saturday Night Live," including the Coneheads and Killer Bees. She also worked on Broadway and helped bring "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street" to life. Lee died last week in Florida at 81. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Franne Lee once said she had no fear of designing without money. She said it makes you more creative. And in the early years of "SNL," she had to get very creative.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

GILDA RADNER: (As Baba Wawa) Hello, I'm Baba Wawa.

BLAIR: For Baba Wawa, a parody of journalist Barbara Walters, Lee gave Gilda Radner a plaid blouse and vest. Lee said she made lots of visits to Goodwill to find costumes for "SNL." For Radner's nerdy Emily Litella on Weekend Update, it was a prim, red sweater.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

RADNER: (As Emily Litella) What's all this fuss I keep hearing about violins on television?

BLAIR: And for the Coneheads, it was pretty self-evident - bare, flesh-colored, towering cones.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DAN AYKROYD: (As Beldar) I am Beldar. This is Prymatt and Connie. I trust we have arrived at the pre-designated time coordinates.

BLAIR: Last year, in an interview with the podcast "Ian Talks Comedy," Lee told Ian Fermaglich she liked the camaraderie on the show but wasn't always nuts about the material.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "IAN TALKS COMEDY")

FRANNE LEE: I didn't like a lot of the writing, (laughter) to be honest with you. I thought some of it was good, but I thought it was very sophomoric.

BLAIR: Throughout her career, Franne Lee collaborated with her spouse, a set designer, Eugene Lee. They both won Tony Awards for their work on the Broadway musical "Candide." Later, they designed the look of "Sweeney Todd," starring Angela Lansbury.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET")

ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) Now let's stop all this foolish chatter and just sit here, nice and quiet.

BLAIR: Franne Lee's papers are at the New York Public Library. Theater curator Doug Reside said that Lee found ideas in vintage cartoon images from the satirical magazine Punch.

DOUG RESIDE: I think that's kind of actually representative of Franne's work, that she tends to take something that's sort of silly and comic and bring a kind of seriousness to it.

BLAIR: Later in life, she spent time painting and started an artist co-op. Her daughter, Stacy Sandler, tells NPR her mom loved creating costumes out of found pieces - rags and other things. She says even when she had bigger budgets to play with, Franne Lee was always looking for the deal.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.