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Hurricane costumer is in mask production

HURRICANE, W.Va. -- The inside of Dale Morton Studio Mascot Costumes in Hurricane is the kind of place you'd want to get lost in if you were a child. Hanging along the wall in one room is a collection of full-body suits with a shelf full of matching masks. You could be just about anything here: a tiger, a reindeer, a robot.

Morton's has it all.

For the past 20 years, the 43-year-old designer and costume maker has made the kinds of costumes seen in television commercials, at store openings and at ballparks and stadiums around the country.

He's made costumes for schools and businesses big and small. Morton makes the mascot costumes for Dick's Last Resort, a deliberately downscale restaurant chain where the wait staff is intentionally obnoxious. The chain has 11 locations around the country. He also made a robot mascot for film producer and director George Lucas' company THX.

Locally, Morton made the costumes for Charleston Area Medical Center's campaign featuring toddlers in animal costumes.

"That was a really great experience," he said. "They matched up the personalities of the kids with the costumes. It was just amazing to be part of that."

However, he didn't have anything to do with the mascots for the West Virginia Power.

Morton shrugged. You win some, you lose some. Besides, most of the work he gets comes from out of state.

Costumes and make believe have been close to Morton's heart for almost as long as he can remember. Growing up in the late 1970s and '80s, he was fascinated with movie makeup and special effects. He loved science fiction, horror and fantasy films.

"You used to be able to get magazines like Fangoria and Starlog," he said. "These were movie magazines about horror and science fiction. They'd have a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, including occasional tips on how filmmakers made their costumes."

By the mid-1980s, Morton had started doing his own makeup for Halloween and special occasions. He also got involved in theater productions around Charleston and began making masks.

"I picked up what I could and I taught myself." He added, "And I had a lot of practice."

He also spent a lot of time in and out of Magic Makers, a costume shop in Huntington where he bought supplies. Morton got to know the owners and wound up working for them from 1991 to 1993.

While working for Magic Makers, he taught himself how to sculpt and how to make molds to create the oversized heads frequently used in mascot costumes.

In 1993, Morton left Magic Makers to pursue an education, while still occasionally making mascot heads on a contract basis for the shop. Morton studied at West Virginia State University and Marshall University and tried his hand at a couple of other jobs before going back to making costumes full time.

In 2000, he married, and then decided to go into business on his own. In 2001, he opened his first shop in Hurricane. In July, he moved to a new location, in an old house just a couple of blocks away.

"This used to be a wedding dress shop," he said, showing off the industrial sewing machines. "It's like twice as much space as we had before. We really couldn't be happier with where we are now."

The extra space comes in handy. The process for one of Morton's creations can be lengthy. Sometimes companies or schools send him specifications for what they want. Other times, he has to create costumes from scratch.

Completion of a costume is done in stages and takes weeks, sometimes months to finish. Morton works on several projects at once, and he doesn't work alone.

"My cousin Travis works with me," he said. "He's a great artist in his own right."

After the design is approved, Morton sculpts the head of the costume out of reusable oil-based clay, which is later made into a mold. From the mold, the shape is built up using papier-mâché and fiberglass to create the basic form. Felt, artificial fur and paint are added before the mask is finished.

"For costumes we sell to the South, like in Florida, the costumes have to come with a cold vest and a fan that goes in the head," Morton said.

Otherwise, an actor wearing a heavy turtle character costume outside a shopping mall in Miami might be cooked alive in less than an hour during the summer season.

The typical mascot costume, Morton said, has a lifespan of 10 to 12 years. "But that really depends on how well it's taken care of."

Most of the work Morton gets comes from corporations, but he also works for individuals. Some of his jobs come from the science fiction and fantasy convention crowd who are looking for premium cosplay costumes to take with them to conventions like the annual DragonCon in Atlanta.

Morton still considers himself part of that scene. He hasn't lost interest in science fiction, fantasy and horror, though with a wife, two children and a business to run, it's hard to get away sometimes.

"I love going just to get ideas and to see what other people are doing," he said.

Of all the things Dale Morton Studio Mascot Costumes can do, there is one thing it doesn't: rent or lease its wares.

"Magic Makers can do that," he said. "It just doesn't make sense for us."

Still, with the new space on Main Street, Morton aims to turn his shop into more than just a workspace for him and his cousin. He thinks it would make for a nice, little tourist attraction.

"We get walk-in customers anyway," he said. "And we love visitors."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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