In front of a weathered old Singer sewing machine, in the middle of one of the oldest costumes shops in the South, 83-year-old Fortunato Mata sits surrounded by costumes from nearly every period and place in time. The Dallas Costume Shoppe has been outfitting big time Broadway bombshells in decadent silk, frat boys looking for vintage togas and everyone in between since the early 1900s, and Mata has been there for most of it. It has been his home away from home since 1942, when he was adopted into the world of theater.
"I was one of four children who were orphaned in the '30s," Mata said as he set his work down to talk. "In '43 the war was still raging and my new adopted mother and father, the Worths [Hal and Edna], were in the theater, and they had this costume shop downtown."
Mata had been living in the Dunne Memorial Home for Boys after his mother died during childbirth. Hal and Edna Worth were on their way to New Orleans to see their son Jerry off. He was heading to Normandy with the 3rd Army, and no one could be certain he was coming back.
"So Edna called the orphanage and said they [needed] someone to look after their little farm," Mata said. The Worths eventually adopted Mata and enrolled him in Dallas Jesuit, were he graduated in 1947 at the age of 16. After that it wasn't too hard for Hal to convince Mata to take up the family business. (Jerry Worth died that year in Dallas, accidentally shot at White Rock Lake by a park patrolman. He survived the war without a scratch.)
"Hal Worth looked at me [and said], 'You don't wanna go to college, do you?'" Mata remembers with a laugh. He didn't. "So they worked me into the business and taught me."
"Let's go back to 1900," Mata said as he began to reminisce on the family that took him in. "Edna was born in El Paso in 1900 and Hal was a working actor there in El Paso. He was a young juvenile man, handsome dog, and of course, he got him a gig at the local opera house."
Hal had to keep is aspirations for acting a secret in order to keep his day job at a local bank, however. "An actor was not to be trusted, a ne'er-do-well, a lazy lout who didn't work for a living," Mata explained.
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On the night of the gig, as the lights dimmed, Hal walked on stage. "Hal Worth, you're fired!" Mata said, imitating Hal's boss at the bank, who just happened to be in the audience that night. "As the lights were dimming he caught sight of a beautiful young girl, she must've been around 17 or 18, in the audience, Edna. He didn't care if had gotten fired, cause he had seen the future love of his life."
Hal and Edna met back stage after the show, and they never looked back. They ended up in Dallas and bought the shop. Edna ran the store proper, while Hal looked for side work to keep the shop going.
The theater scene in Dallas was a far cry back then from what it is today, and Hal was a master rustling up business. He put Mata to work, doing everything from flame proofing curtains in theaters and military barracks to driving carnival floats down to El Paso. Hal Worth died in 1957, and Edna ran the shop with Mata until she too passed in 1986. "She made me promise, don't ever shut the shop down, keep it running until you get a buyer," Mata said, getting choked up at the thought. Mata kept his promise.
Around 12 years later he convinced Michael Robinson to make an offer on the shop. Mata offered to let Robinson buy the building and threw in the costumes free of charge. A few weeks later, Mata handed over the keys and fulfilled his mother's dying wish. Robinson offered Mata a job, to which the then sexagenarian jokingly replied: "Yeah, that'll keep me off the streets." This year will be his 71st with the Dallas Costume Shoppe, but as the saying goes, the show must go on.