Losing A Fine Artist

The work of renowned costume designer Travis Halsey — who grew up near Springfield — is on display in this 2017 Yankton Area Arts Association (YAAA) exhibit.

SPRINGFIELD — As a world-renowned costume designer, Travis Halsey could have spent Easter relaxing or taking in the many offerings of his Chicago home.

Instead, he returned to his boyhood home of southeast South Dakota that weekend in 2018 to complete nearly 200 costumes on deadline for a Yankton High School musical.

His ability to perform such a feat — and his willingness to return to South Dakota to do it — spoke about his deep love for his home area and his incredible talent.

But with a promising future ahead of him, he passed away earlier this month at age 39 after a battle with cancer.

Halsey grew up on a farm near Springfield and worked with the Lewis and Clark Playhouse in Yankton. He maintained those connections even after establishing himself in Omaha, Houston and Chicago for his costume design and construction.

However, YHS director Amy Miner thought even someone as accomplished as Halsey was taken aback when he realized the size of the task of costuming “Seussical The Musical.”

“I wasn’t sure Travis understood how many kids we had to cast when you do a musical. We had at least 95 to 100 kids on stage, and many of them didn’t wear just one costume,” she said. “They appeared in multiple scenes, so there could have been 175 costumes or more that needed to be designed and constructed.”

However, Halsey’s professionalism rose to the top.

“At first, I think it scared him off. Then, he was up for the challenge,” Miner said. “He brought out so much vibrancy and texture, more than you can imagine. It was fantastic.”

Besides his work with theater companies, Halsey formed his own costuming firm, halseyonstage. In 2018, he received the DF/Kitty Leech Young Master Award during a New York City ceremony.

After his death this month, Halsey received accolades from some of the nation’s top theater members. However, family and friends also recall a fun-loving, creative and caring young man who knew what he wanted in life and reached out to share it with others.

For Jim and Cheryl Halsey, their son’s creativity and love of life expressed itself in many ways outside of theater.

“Travis loved riding horses,” Jim said. “He rode up and down along the (Missouri) River.”

Sometimes, Travis just enjoyed driving the lawn mower in the farmyard or to his nearby grandparents, Jim said. “You could hear Travis driving around and singing show tunes. He was a happy camper,” Jim said with a chuckle.

The lawnmower wasn’t Travis’ only mode of transportation. He learned to walk on stilts for fun, walking up the hill on stilts to visit his grandparents.

Sometimes, Travis surprised his family — which included his sister, April — with unexpected performances.

“Travis was in high school, came out on stage during a show and started singing (a solo),” Jim said. “Cheryl and I just sat in the back of the room and listened. I didn’t know Travis could sing. But the audience loved him and gave him a standing ovation.”

Travis put his talent to work, as he delivered singing telegrams — in tuxedo and top hat — for the Pied Piper Flower Shop in Yankton, owned at the time by Jim and Kathleen Piper.

Another time, Travis and friend Rachel (Coyle) Finzen attended the Czech Days festival in Tabor wearing authentic Czech costumes. The outfits not only represented their ancestral region but were made of fabric ordered from the Czech Republic. The friends specially made their costumes for the Tabor celebration.

In a 2018 interview, Bon Homme High School theater director Linda Haar said she wasn’t surprised at Halsey’s achievements. As a BHHS student, he came into a room with an armful of material and recruited fellow students to cut strips. They had no idea what was happening at the time, but his instruction and enthusiasm became infectious.

Halsey undertook a similar effort in recent years when he returned to Springfield and coordinated a community effort, recruiting local seamstresses to mass produce costumes for him on deadline.

Haar wasn’t surprised at Halsey’s loyalty to his home area and his willingness to tackle any challenge that comes his way.

“Travis has got such a work ethic like nobody else I know,” she said at the time. “He’s got boundless energy, and he can really think outside the box. He was a very big inspiration to me. There are so many things I lacked in certain ways. On certain days, I would ask myself, ‘What would Travis do?’”

Halsey’s friendships included Haley (Piper) Haas of Yankton, as they met during a production of “Oklahoma!” at the Lewis and Clark Playhouse in Yankton. A chorus member twisted his ankle, and Halsey stepped in as a replacement. He became interested in costume design and construction while working with Pam Kallis on the production.

An early achievement convinced Piper that her friend could be destined for great things.

“One of the first things I remember about Travis was his genius that presented itself so early. He was like 15 years old and entered a costume competition at USD. The contest was focused on college drama students, but there were no rules saying otherwise,” she said. “He didn’t use a pattern, just a tutorial on YouTube. He figured it out on his own and won the award at USD with an Elizabethan gown. It was the first thing he ever made, and he won against all these college kids.”

Halsey used his design talent in other ways, Piper said.

“One day, on a whim, he got wood from a torn-down fence that he found at a landfill and built a working pontoon boat,” she said. “When it was done, he put it on the (Missouri) river and floated around.”

Halsey and Piper continued their friendship during college in Omaha. They both started at Creighton University, and Halsey later transferred to the University of Nebraska-Omaha to complete his degree.

Piper initially planned to attend the University of South Dakota, 23 miles down the road in Vermillion.

“Travis was somebody who inspired me, and he got me to take a risk and move to Omaha,” she said. “I can’t imagine making that big a move without him.”

While in college, they lived in a duplex, and Halsey converted the basement into a costume shop and shipped more than 100 costumes to an East Coast theater — all while finishing his theater degree.

Halsey continued entertaining audiences with stilt performances at festivals and gatherings. He served sculptor Matthew Placzek’s model for the 14-foot-statue of a mime on stilts near the CHI Health Center in Omaha.

After college, Halsey worked for the Houston Ballet and then the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago before launching the only independent costume shop in the Windy City.

“Travis kept working until the end,” Piper said. “No one else would do anything like that, but that was Travis.”

Miner recalled a similar passion while working with Halsey on “Seussical.” He and Kallis remained in constant contact on the costumes.

“He just moved his whole shop from Chicago to Yankton over Easter and sat back in the senior lounge for five days and just sewed and sewed and sewed,” she said.

Halsey also inspired others and was very willing to share his knowledge and to learn from others. A number of the YHS students spent their Easter vacation with him, making costumes in addition to rehearsals.

Halsey shared his talent during a Yankton Area Arts Association exhibit of his ballet costumes at GAR Hall in spring 2017. Finzen also worked with the costumes, which were displayed on dummies around the gallery.

YAAA executive director Julie Amsberry said the exhibit drew one of the largest attendances to the gallery’s showing.

“Travis told me there were only one or two other people in the world who knew how to make the (pancake) tutu so it remained absolutely flat, and he was one of them,” she said. “He would tell me about people who had costumes specially made for Mardi Gras parties. He would take on anything and figure it out.”

Halsey’s passing drew memories from a wide variety of colleagues.

Mona Schlautman operated the costume shop for a ballet company that was part of the Rose Theater in Omaha.

“We ran an ad in 2003 for a costume assistant and Travis responded. He came in with the biggest smile carrying a large portfolio. I hoped he was serious as he promised me the moon,” she said.

“Although he had experience in theater, ballet was new to him. It was never touched on in college. He was full of ideas and more than eager to learn, which was exactly what I needed.”

During his three years with the company, he designed complete ballets.

“He would put in whatever time it took to complete a project — and on time! I have had many assistants; no one measured up to Travis!” she said. “He brought fun and joy to whatever environment we were in. The dancers, students and parents all enjoyed his company, as we also enlisted a lot of volunteer help, especially around Nutcracker production. His personality was electric!”

Halsey became a close friend with Schlautman’s family and friends. They not only celebrated birthdays a day apart, but he helped with painting homes the Schlautmans were flipping to “playing butler” at family gathering. He conversed about everythinsg from farm equipment and animals to toys with toddlers.

While in Omaha, Halsey met Adam Schnell, who now serves as artistic director/CEO of Ballet Vero Beach in Florida.

Halsey shone in the world of costume design, especially dance, Schnell said.

“From the most outrageous and over-the-top designs, to very subtle restrained work, to the artistry he put into the fabrics he would have digitally printed, and even new ways of accomplishing old tricks, Travis seemed to have no limits to his creativity,” Schnell said. “To top it off, his construction techniques were beyond reproach. If you were wearing something created by him or his team, you knew it would fit you like a second skin.”

Halsey became friends as well as colleagues seeking to express themselves in their creative work, Schnell said.

“Aside from his incredible talent, he was the guy you wanted in the room — to make folks laugh, to call people out when they weren’t up to the standards of the profession, and to just bring that amazing Travis brand of light and humor to the space,” he said.

“The only thing that comforts me with this most difficult loss is that he was so concerned with teaching others what he knew. We may have lost Travis, but he made sure he passed as much insight about clothes and life, on before he left us.”

As a pinnacle in his career, Halsey shared the stage with renowned-award winning costume designer Holly Hynes at the 2018 awards in New York City.

They met in 2008 when he was a draper at Houston Ballet. Halsey draped and created many of the leading ladies’ outfits with a flair for his love of “tinsel town,” Hynes said.

“Besides our projects together in Houston, he crafted beautiful organza robes for my Layla and Majnun for Nashville Ballet in 2016, choreographed by Paul Vasterling, supervising the silk screening of images of Persian tiles. The results were breathtaking,” she said.

Halsey worked with her on “Nutcracker” in Kansas City and Charlotte, North Carolina. In a tribute to her, Halsey texted a picture of him and his husband, Carlo Butacan, standing in front of an Oslo, Norway, display case with a tunic she designed for the ballet there.

“I was thrilled to be able to bring his name forward to receive the 2018 TDF/Irene Sharaff Award for Young Master in Costume Design. The vote was unanimous,” she said.

Halsey met Butacan n 2010, and they married in the Black Hills. The couple traveled extensively around the and world.

The Halseys share their son’s work. Cheryl helped at the Pepper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Jim punched holds in leather for costumes in ing icon Madonna’s production.

And they not only attended the NYC awards presentation for their son — where designer Bob Mackie approached and predicted great things for him — but also the celebration dinner with Travis’ friends and colleagues.

“Travis wanted to include us in what he was doing,” Cheryl said. “He just always knew what he was going to do in life, and he always loved what he was doing.”

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