Sharlot Battin has made a full career out of building shoes, boots and sandals for Broadway actors — and beyond.
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Who’d think that someone born and raised in the old railroad town that is Whitefish, Montana, would establish a highly unique career in New York City building leather footwear for celebrities of stage and screen?
“My grandparents had 200 acres in Whitefish,” said Sharlot Battin, reminiscing about her childhood. “We spent a lot of time with horses and cows and friends with dairy barns. But it was pretty boring,” she admitted of the predictable pace of life in the rural stopover town between Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
She didn’t fully know it at the time, but something deep down in her psyche yearned for the excitement of a richly textured, crazily creative lifestyle. Now, at age 75, Battin finds herself home again in Whitefish, reflecting on her 46-year-long enterprise and how it all began.
Her destiny sparked the day she saw her very first live Broadway show in New York. It was 1963, and after finishing her third year of high school, she and her mother, Margaret, embarked on an adventurous 2,290-mile-long car trip to Washington, D.C. Then, from the nation’s capital, they drove 228 miles north to New York and the Manhattan theater district.
“My mother was an elementary school teacher — way ahead of her time. She believed that music, theater and art enhanced education,” Battin said.
The play they saw was Tovarich, a musical starring Vivien Leigh of Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire fame. “It was an old chestnut of a play,” Battin said of the two-act show staged at the Majestic Theater. After the show, my mother and I went backstage along alleyways to get Vivien’s autograph.”
Battin did get the desired signature on her playbill, which she still has stashed somewhere amid a pile of papers. But she never got to meet Leigh in person behind the tightly shut stage door. “You have to be somebody special to get through the stage door. I said to my mother, ‘They’re going to open that stage door for me, someday!’ ”
Back in Whitefish, she graduated from high school in 1964, and went on to Brigham Young University in Utah. “But that initial trip with my mom set things off. In 1965, I drove to Washington, D.C. with the daughter of a congressman and a couple of other college students. While there, I took the bus to New York City. I saw a play every night and every matinee. I got to see Funny Girl with Streisand. I was a huge Barbra Streisand fan and lived it and breathed it.”
After her thrilling big-city visit, Battin returned to Montana and in 1968, graduated from BYU. Her first serious job was working for about two years with the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), a major theater company based in San Francisco. “I got to work with some pretty amazing people,” she said.
Not surprisingly, in 1971, she moved to New York. At the time, a friend was working in the city as crafts department supervisor for the Brooks-Van Horn Costume Company. “He wanted me to come out and work with him. When I arrived in New York, a man who was head of the costume company abruptly asked me, ‘Do you need a job?’ ”
“I said, ‘Yes!’ He said, ‘You’re hired!’ ”
That quirky hire was an uncanny piece of luck. “I didn’t get to make shoes until later on. But this was a place that made costumes for everything and everyone. It was also a costume rental house. It was an enormous business. It took up an entire six-story building. I got the big one!” she said.
That job marked the genesis of her long career. Four years later, in 1976, she officially incorporated her business as Montana Leatherworks, LTD. Along with that career, for 33 years she taught shoemaking at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a public college in New York City.
“I was like an old cowgirl in New York,” she said, reflecting upon her long career. “In fact, I have several pairs of cowboy boots that I made for myself. They are so labor intensive!”
IF THE SHOE FITS
Thrust into a sink-or-swim situation while working for the huge costume company, Battin managed to conjure up the needed chutzpah to tap into talents that she didn’t even know she had. “I made it up as I went along,” she said. During her roughly two-year stint with the company, she made elephant blankets for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and lots of costume accessories, like crowns, armor, helmets and jewelry.
The person who got her into creating leather footwear for actors was British costume designer Jane Greenwood, who at the time was also designing costumes for the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.
“I had to learn how to make these silly peasant slippers. It involved using a sewing machine. My grandmother laughed at me about that. I had hated sewing when I lived in Whitefish. But, from then on all I did was all-leather shoes. Everything was leather — uppers, linings, soles, insoles and heels, except for the occasional stuffing between the upper and the lining,” she said.
“I worked with every kind of leather you can imagine,” she added: “Lambskin, pigskin, frogskin, snakeskin, ostrich and more. And, I used lots of cowhide in different weights. Good old cowhide was used in 90 percent of everything I made. I’d use the whole hide because I could use a lot of odd pieces — everything but the moo. Designers often wanted a certain textured look, so the footwear would appear as though it had been worn for 20 years. I also did a lot of linings in nice high-quality lambskin.” However, she wasn’t crazy about working with lambskin. “It’s so thin and stretchy,” she said.
In her early shoemaking years, she only had to walk a couple of blocks to her favorite leather store to get materials. “In 1978, I had moved into a loft in the downtown Soho area, before it became trendy, so it was perfect for me. I was only a short walk away from stores that had zippers, thread and leather. I could match any color or texture.”
These days, however, except for a few companies like Global Leather, which is still a large presence in the New York garment district, she noted that a number of those wonderful supply stores are gone. “The area is now full of high-priced residential lofts, restaurants and clothing stores.”
Battin pointed out that the process involved in crafting boots and shoes for a show like The Phantom of the Opera was essentially the same process used for other shows she worked for, such as The Lion King, Scarlet Pimpernel, Cats, The Crucible, Camelot and plenty more. And she took on extra projects, like repairing shoes for the precision dance troupe the Radio City Rockettes.
“I got to look at all the designers’ sketches and decide what I can and cannot build. Then, I’d have to turn in a bid to the producer. I could turn it down. But you have to put bids in before you start making things,” she explained. If she got the go ahead, she then measured the actor’s feet and got the whole color palette together.
“Basically, all I did was shoes. That’s it. Assistant designers have to deal with all the scheduling and all the costume measurements. I did the foot measuring. If you’re doing a pirate boot, for example, you have to measure up to the thigh. I personally did the measurements. I got down on my knees and measured every actor. Then I’d go and buy my material.”
Doing foot measurements gave her numerous up-close moments with actors. The following are some of the celebrities she got to meet by doing their feet, singer-actor Patti Labelle (If Only You Knew); Al Pacino (Hunter and The Godfather); Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada and Les Misérables); Sarah Jessica Parker (two Emmy and four Golden Globe awards, Sex and the City); Christopher Reeve (Superman); Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Rain Man) and many more.
Battin also needed to select the shoe last that best matched an actor’s foot. “I had to have a lot of lasts,” she said of the forms that give shoemakers a foundation for building a shoe.
And she worked under tight deadlines. “You have to have stuff done before dress rehearsal. Everything has to be on stage, and everything has to fit. I didn’t know what a weekend was. The show must go on! I didn’t do anything the same way twice. I had to accommodate the show and the designer,” she explained.
BACK HOME AGAIN
Although life in the big city was stimulating, it was not idyllic. Battin soon realized that she couldn’t stand the oppressive heat of New York summers. Once again, her mom came through for her only child. “My mother built me a studio in the late ‘80s, the size of a three-car garage in Whitefish, so I could work from Montana in the summer.”
Her mother passed away in 2014. But today, the studio she built is still there for her daughter. “When I first got home to Whitefish, I was making shoes for The Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera, and the Public Theater. But then, Covid slammed into show biz. Everything closed down.”
Now, four years into semi-retirement, Battin still plays with ideas about how best to use her studio, including its plethora of shop materials and her extensive experience. Overall, these days are a lot less hectic than work and life in New York.
“I live all alone with my fabulous cat, Diamond, on 200 acres in a family home, with five bedrooms, three full baths and the studio that Mom built, with windows all around attached to the garage,” she said. “I’m getting inspired to go on with something. It’s not like I have to pay the rent. I own everything. The land here is under a conservation easement, so it never can be developed.
“But, whenever I enter my Montana studio,” she continued, “I go through the last 50 years of my life. I have piles of foot measurements, sketches, shoe lasts, tools, leather and flat files full of shoe patterns. I have contemplated teaching adults or college students, or to segue into leatherwork. I could, and can, do anything here that I could do in New York.”
The following highlights are a few examples of the theatrical footwear that Sharlot Battin built for stage and screen actors, great and small. “Mostly, I did historical period shows,” she said. Over a 46-year-long career, she estimates that she built thousands of pairs of leather shoes, boots and sandals.
THE MIGHTY ROAR
The musical version of The Lion King debuted on Broadway in 1997, and was an overnight success. “I started out doing Lion King footwear for Simba, Mufasa and a few other characters, like Zazu, the bird,” Battin recalled. “Later, they asked me to do boots for Scar, the bad uncle.”
Reviews praised the colorful New York production as “a theatrical achievement unrivaled in its beauty, brains and ingenuity.” And the show was applauded for its “great singing, great dancing, great props, great stage effects.” Lyrics were by Tim Rice and music written by Elton John.
Still running on Broadway, the musical is set this season to tour the U.S., the U.K. and Ireland. “These hit shows go everywhere — Africa —Asia,” she said. “I worked for 24 years on Lion King. I made shoes for the New York company until two years ago, but no longer because of Covid and because I left New York.”
MUSIC OF THE NIGHT
Among Battin’s most memorable shoe-crafting experiences was the work she did for The Phantom of the Opera. The musical opened at the Majestic Theater on Broadway in 1988. A block-busting success, the show is still playing at the Majestic 34 years later — the longest running musical in Broadway history.
The show’s costume and set designer was the late Maria Bjornson, who received a Tony Award for both costumes and sets. “She was brilliant. She did the sketches. She knew every single detail of clothing, every stitch, every piece of fabric for the entire show,” Battin said. Music and lyrics were by Andrew Lloyd Webber:
“Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses.”
— from “Music of the Night”
“The Phantom wore a really simple, lace-up black ankle boot — a nice, round, sort of old-fashioned, 19th-century-style boot. Michael Crawford was the first Phantom,” she said, noting that Crawford played the lead role in the musical’s first run in the U.K., and then again when it opened on Broadway. “He wanted a red lining inside the black leather lace-up boot. The insoles, soles and linings were leather,” she recalled.
“The cast for The Phantom of the Opera was huge — singers, dancers, actors. Different scenes were going on and I’d have to do different shoes to go with different costumes. To get the show up, I was making approximately 40 pairs of boots, shoes and sandals. Usually, you have about six weeks. I mostly did this by myself, but I did have an employee now and then. And I’d be there for final fittings,” she said.
When the play first opened, Battin didn’t realize that she’d be crafting shoes for five consecutive Phantom companies. “As soon as the show hit, producers started putting together touring companies. I overbought material for that show, some of which is now stored in my Montana studio.”
A FOUNDING FATHER
Battin’s last big show was Hamilton, a smash hit written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The fast-paced, hip-hop musical, in which most of the cast is non-white, tells of the dramatic twists and turns of the brilliant but tragic life of immigrant and American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. The show premiered off-Broadway February 2015, at the Public Theater in New York. In the original production, Miranda played Hamilton.
“He is one of the finest human beings I ever met,” she said of the playwright. “I have Miranda’s original fitter’s boot. He and all the actors in the original production are amazing human beings. I’m old enough to be their grannie. To me, they were all kids — the sweetest kids on the face of the Earth. I was so blown away doing measurements for all of them — that they were all wearing my boots! Who knew that it was going to be an enormous success?”