UW Band seamstress from Beaver Dam sews final costume
The final spring concert series of University of Wisconsin-Madison Band Director Mike Leckrone’s 50-year career begins tonight.
Other than Leckrone himself, no one may be more aware of how many minutes are left before the curtain rises than Lois Levenhagen of Beaver Dam.
Levenhagen is the band’s talented seamstress — the woman behind Leckrone’s elaborate costumes for the past 27 years — and she was still busy hand-crafting this year’s suit the day before the first of three shows.
Her involvement with the band started in 1991 when her daughter, Kathy Kahl, attended UW-Madison and played in the band. Someone was needed to shorten and alter the band’s uniforms, and after a year of resistance, Levenhagen decided to answer the call.
The following spring, Leckrone asked her to design a sequined vest for the annual concert and her intricate work has become part of UW history.
The tradition of Leckrone donning a snazzy outfit started five years into his tenure, when he sweated through his red blazer at the first UW Varsity Band Spring Concert.
The enthusiastic conductor emerged for the second half of that show in an ostentatious shirt he happened to have handy.
“He told me that from that day on, he’s wanted each outfit to be more over-the-top,” Levenhagen said. “When I came on board, he asked for tons of glitz. He calls it ‘Wisconsin gaudy.’”
Leckrone and Levenhagen collaborate on the design each year, finding inspiration in old Cole Porter, Elvis and Liberace costumes.
“We weave our ideas together and take the theme of the concert into consideration,” Levenhagen said. “Of course, the number 50 comes into play this time.”
Each costume takes about 80-100 hours to put together. Surprisingly, Levenhagen and Leckrone didn’t begin discussing their thoughts for this year’s ensemble until March 26.
“I usually start on the jacket sooner, but it’ll get done in time,” she said Wednesday. “When I get in the groove, I just sew and sew for hours on end — last night I had four hours of sleep, and the day before I only had two hours.”
The three-day concert series at the Kohl Center, which is sold out for all three nights, is a mammoth spectacle with pyrotechnics, aerial stunts and multimedia displays.
Levenhagen said Leckrone’s measurements have remained relatively the same through the years, but she’s had to change the design of his pants to accommodate the safety harness and hooks he wears in order to fly through the Kohl Center’s rafters.
The costume’s design has always been a heavily guarded secret. Levenhagen keeps the ensemble hidden in a garment bag and delivers it to Leckrone the day of the first show.
“I met with Mike on Monday for the first fitting,” Levenhagen said. “PBS was there filming because they are doing a documentary about his career. It won’t air until December, but it makes me nervous that they saw it beforehand.”
Although the costumes are featured center stage, Levenhagen usually remains in the background. That will change tonight. She is retiring from working with the band as well and will be recognized for her dedication.
“I am going to all three shows this year and I get to bring Mike his jacket in front of the audience.” she said. “I’ll admit, I’m nervous.”
But before that moment arrives, she still has “a hell of a lot of Swarovski crystals” to add to the red and white costume for Leckrone, who announced last summer that he would retire after this school year.
“He is a great showman and friend,” she said. “I’m excited for his grand finale and seeing him sparkle in front of thousands, but it will be hard to see it all end.”
Spectators snatched up tickets for the concert series quickly, but for those who would still like to see the show, there is an alternative option. Wisconsin Public Television is livestreaming Leckrone’s last concert online Saturday starting at 7 p.m.