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Don’t Call Her Harriet

A Dance Industry Legend: Don’t Call Her Harriet, By Marsha Proser Cohen

A Dance Industry Legend: Don’t Call Her Harriet
By: Marsha Proser Cohen

Source: GoldRushDance

Don’t call her Harriet

Born Harriet Hermaine Gumbassy, this feisty octogenarian answers only to Taffy (even to her children!), a name that has become synonymous with innovation, creativity, integrity and excellence in the dance business. When women were relegated to the kitchen, Taffy defied convention and created an empire.

“I had no idea what the hell I was doing,” Taffy laughed. “I was told I was operating with no sense, but it worked.”

While colleagues and friends call her fearless, Taffy says she didn’t know enough about the dancewear business to do what was considered appropriate, so she just did what she thought seemed right. And this diminutive, bright-eyed, fun-loving young woman with the perpetual smile and deep, throaty laugh managed to change an industry When she created the first color catalogue, which was only a single postcard, she did it because she thought the teachers would want to see the costumes in color.

“I wanted to be the Neiman Marcus of dancewear, and didn’t care how much I spent as long as I produced quality and style,” she told Goldrush Magazine.

She was first called Taffy by a group of servicemen stationed at an Air Force base in Reno during WWII. Her husband, Harvey Epstein, was stationed at the base, and while married couples received special housing on the base, many of the servicemen lived off the base.  Harriet, then an accountant, had a car and shuttled the men back and forth from their quarters to the base. At the time, Milt Caniff’s comic strip, “Terry and The Pirates,” was a favorite among the servicemen because, they said, Caniff seemed to have an uncanny ability to predict where and when they would be deployed next. One day, with the excessive heat in Reno, Taffy cut her hair before coming to the base. Coincidentally it was the same day that Caniff’s character, Taffy Tucker, cut her hair.  When the servicemen saw Harriet, they began calling her Taffy—and the nickname stuck.

She never legally changed her name. From then on, she was Taffy, which did present problems, according to her daughter, Susan Epstein, former president of the United Dance Merchants of America, and currently Show Producer of the UDMA Costume Preview Shows. For example, following Taffy’s heart surgery, the nurses in the recovery room were unable to wake her. After several hours of no response, her family was alerted that the surgery went well, but she was just not responsive. Susan walked into the recovery room to hear them calling, “Harriet, wake up. Harriet.”

“I called, ‘Taffy,’ and she popped right up. Because Harriet was the name on her insurance, it was the name on the hospital bracelet…and she just wasn’t answering to Harriet,” Susan recalls.

In another instance, Taffy couldn’t cash a traveler’s check in Italy because the check  were issued to Taffy. She was Harriet on all of her ID, including her passport. She had to go to the American Express office in Italy and have them wire back to the United States to verify that she was Harriet. Today her passport nameline  includes: “Also known as Taffy.”

“I remember the first time I met Taffy,” says Art Stone, President of Art Stone/The Competitor and Dance Olympus/Danceamerica. “I had just started my costume company in New York, and I shared the office with my father, Jules Stone. Taffy came to visit, and I remember feeling as if I had met the head of Saks or Bergdorf Goodman’s. She was so striking and had such a commanding presence that all I could think was WOW…so that’s what a successful businesswoman looks like.”

When Nancy Stone, Art’s wife, attended her first United Dance Merchants of America meeting, she said she sat toward the back watching the “big dogs” arrive. “Through the doors and a little late came the most striking woman dressed in a mustard brown business suit, wearing heels that perfectly matched her purse and carrying a leather attaché case. I was so impressed with Taffy, I went out and purchased an attaché case to carry to the next UDMA meeting. But what [Taffy] looked like was only a wrapping for the beautiful person she is on the inside,” Nancy recalls.

Taffy’s empire began in Cleveland, Ohio. Harvey Eptein was in the shoe business, and one of his vendors who manufactured theatrical footwear told him that no one was selling dancewear; and dance shoes were being sold through department stores. Harvey thought Taffy, an accountant at the time, could spend more time with their children if she did something other than accounting. There was no dance shop in Cleveland, and he thought it would be a nice little “hobby” for Taffy.

It was 1954. Taffy was reading her favorite column in the Cleveland Press one day where she found this notation: ‘Some people get mink for Christmas, but if Taffy Epstein will go down to 138 the Old Arcade, she will find her Christmas present.’

“I jumped in a cab, and when I got to the address, I found a dance footwear store. It was a gift from Harvey,” she remembers.

Of course, when the customers kept coming in asking if it was Taffy’s place, the name was quickly changed from Cleveland Dance Footwear to simply “Taffy’s”

Things were simpler then. Rita Ford, Taffy’s first employee, recalls, “The Selva ballet shoes sold for $3.50. Danskin supplied the leotards and tights.” Eventually, the store grew to include records and other dance items.

Several months after opening the store, Taffy, the visionary, realized that children’s costumes were primarily sewn by their parents or by local seamstresses. Taffy had the notion that teachers would like to buy not only ready-made costumes, but costumes for an entire class at once. One company was making costumes, but only on a local basis. Taffy saw a market for ready-made costumes on a national level. She bought three costumes. After compiling a mailing list of nearly 1,000 names from phone  books in the library, she sent out the color postcards with three children modeling the costumes. “Everyone in the industry thought she was crazy,” Rita said.

“I had no experience,” Taffy said. “…didn’t know what I was doing, I just thought the teachers would like to see the costumes in color.”

The fact that nobody else was doing it didn’t matter. Taffy always went with her gut. If it seemed right and it was fun, she did it. She got about 100 orders the first year. Before the costumes could be shipped, one company’s union workers went out on strike. No one wanted to cross the picket line to get the costumes, so Harvey crossed the picket line and pulled out her order.

Then a leaking roof flooded the manufacturer in Columbus. Some of the costumes were ruined. The manufacturer was busy cleaning up instead of sorting through the costumes to find and ship the undamaged ones. Taffy rented a plane, flew to Columbus and, with Rita, worked around the clock going through the costumes, packaging and shipping the ones they could salvage.

“We packed costumes and sent them to the customers directly, Rita said, “…but we inadvertently packed a bat in one of the boxes. The teacher was horrified, and so were we.” The teacher’s order was free.

With Taffy’s quest to provide quality along with her contagious energy, the business grew. “Success was important but having a good time was more than equal,” Rita said. To promote the costumes, Taffy, a consummate hostess, regularly hosted fashion shows at posh Cleveland restaurants. “The response was terrific,” Rita said.

Taffy soon found costuming, as it was, inadequate and too complex. “I really didn’t want to make costumes,” she said. But Taffy found the manufacturers unwilling to make costumes the way she wanted them made — put together better and with better-wearing, more comfortable fabrics — for dancewear. The manufacturers, according to Susan, wouldn’t make the costumes Rita designed. So to create a better quality product to meet the demands of her customers, Taffy had no choice but to start making her own.

With Rita Ford as her designer, in the late 1950s, Taffy’s Costumes was born. Never caring about the money, Taffy focused on style and quality. She always wanted to be on the cutting edge in everything she did. For example, while manufacturers used photographs in the costume catalogues, they did not in the dancewear catalogues. In 1976, Taffy was the first to use photographs rather than sketches in the dancewear books.

“She was very close to dance,” Susan said. She used nice-looking dancers to model the costumes. She had dancers on the set to ensure the techniques were accurate with the bodies positioned just right, and she had a professional dancer-turned-photographer do the photography. She welcomed and encouraged creativity among her staff. For example, by the 1970s, she was using smoke and other special effects to add professionalism and pizzazz to the catalogue photos. Taffy expected and got excellence. Besides the outstanding selection of costumes, the catalogues themselves were “the best out there” and quickly set the industry standard.

Her retail stores grew to 14 (Cleveland; Dallas; Marietta, GA; Boston; Parma, OH; Fort Worth; San Jose; Salt Lake City; Memphis; New York; and two stores in Seattle.). Taffy never had an office but preferred to be out there working with everyone else. She was hands-on and “elbow-to-elbow” with her employees, taking an active part in the day-to-day business.

Danny Lather, a former manager of the Buckhead [Atlanta] store said, “ She was a workaholic. The warehouse and stores were her life, and we [employees] were all her children. She knew everything that went in or out of the stores.

“She is proud of the fact that she opened every piece of mail that came in,” Susan said, “so she always knew what was going on.”

“I think Taffy was the first to put the costumes on computer,” Danny said, “but before computerization, Taffy took every costume order home and often sat up through the night working on the spreadsheets before sending them to the factory.”

Taffy truly cared about her “people.” Danny recalled the time he got a call one Sunday morning that the Buckhead store burned down. He was frantic when he called Taffy in Cleveland. Taffy told him, “Don’t worry. It can all be replaced”…as long as no one was hurt.

“Taffy,” Danny said, “kept our heads on straight and was supportive. If any of us needed anything, she was there in a heartbeat, and that was the way she treated all of us.”

Taffy’s mail order and national business took off when she began attending dance conventions. “The people who had been in the business like Leo’s, Kalmo Textiles, Capezio were all going to conventions,” Taffy said.

When someone asked why Taffy, with such a tiny business was going to the shows, she said she thought she might meet some teachers. She was right. When the Cleveland teachers visited Taffy’s table and told her they were enjoying the show but were weary and hungry, Taffy got on the phone with room service and had coffee and Danish delivered to the hospitality room.

“Those days were so much fun. I was the only woman in the business, which always surprised me since the teachers were all women…and I traveled with the men,” she said. Because organizations like Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America didn’t allow time for the teachers to visit the exhibitors in 1959, UDMA was created, and Taffy, because she was the only woman, was the secretary.

“I had so much fun…it was a virgin field. TV had just come in, and dance exploded….it was an exciting time. The industry was growing. It was a whole new world—new friends— the camaraderie,” Taffy said.

But Taffy always seemed to be having fun. During those early years in Cleveland, Taffy’s home was “a revolving door” of celebrities. “It seemed as if there was always a party at our house,” Susan said. Harvey, at the time, had an equity theater company and produced shows bringing a parade of celebrities to Cleveland (some of whom had been black-listed during the McCarthy hearings). Among the guests coming to party at Taffy’s were Dick Gregory, Shelley Berman, Howard DeSilva, Alan Alda as well as celebrities from other local venues. When the ballet was in Cleveland, the performers also were entertained at Taffy’s with what has been called “unassuming generosity.”

“Nureyev and Balanchine were there,” Susan said, “and often with three or four parties in a row, I learned early how to straighten up quickly and put out the candy and cigarettes for the next party.”

Taffy, according to colleagues and friends, despite her success, never changed from the determined, fun-loving young woman who got married and had children just because it was what women were expected to do. It was, in fact, her determined, fun-loving approach to life along with her gifted sense of style and business acumen that made her an icon in the dance business. Sometimes irreverent, often outspoken, Taffy has been called a straight shooter by longtime friend and colleague, tap legend Buster Cooper. “She has never been afraid to tell the truth. With her superior business capabilities and her passion for excellence, she could be called the female Stanley Marcus,” Buster said.

Although she was never much of a dancer, Taffy’s love of dance as an art form was apparent. “She gave her heart and soul to dance and dancers, often going out of her way to be there for support,” Buster said.

A breast cancer survivor (a mastectomy in the 1950s), Taffy focuses on what she does have. The only change in her life, according to Taffy, is that she now has a “fake boob.” Never losing her sense of humor or zeal for living, years ago at a party, after Taffy had had a little too much to drink, in response to a bet she pulled out her “fake boob” to see if it would float.

This year she has been battling sight loss due to Macular Degeneration but has undergone groundbreaking procedures, which have restored some of her eyesight. When asked to speak to various organizations about the procedures, Taffy says she doesn’t have time to talk about these things because she is too busy living.

Passionate about the Cleveland Indians and politics, especially women’s rights, Taffy says she was born too early and should have been a child of the 1960s. The secret of success? Taffy, said, “I never did it for the money. I just had fun. When it stopped being fun, I stopped.” In 1989, Taffy decided she was no longer having fun, and she sold Taffy’s to Capezio. Taffy says that today, her business style would “lay an egg…no one wants an image. Everything is discount. I couldn’t afford to run my business today.”

Taffy has never been afraid to take risks, to go a little beyond. Her advice, whether in business or in personal relationships, “Reach for the moon. If you fall, it’s into the stars.”

While the industry considers her successful, Taffy says she truly never thinks of herself as successful. Asked how she feels about having dedicated her life to the dance field, Taffy said, “I feel that the dance field dedicated its life to me, and what a terrific time I’ve had.”

With Rita Ford as her designer, in the late 1950s, Taffy’s Costumes was born. Never caring about the money, Taffy focused on style and quality. She always wanted to be on the cutting edge in everything she did. For example, while manufacturers used photographs in the costume catalogues, they did not in the dancewear catalogues. In 1976, Taffy was the first to use photographs rather than sketches in the dancewear books.

“She was very close to dance,” Susan said. She used nice-looking dancers to model the costumes. She had dancers on the set to ensure the techniques were accurate with the bodies positioned just right, and she had a professional dancer-turned-photographer do the photography. She welcomed and encouraged creativity among her staff. For example, by the 1970s, she was using smoke and other special effects to add professionalism and pizzazz to the catalogue photos. Taffy expected and got excellence. Besides the outstanding selection of costumes, the catalogues themselves were “the best out there” and quickly set the industry standard.

Her retail stores grew to 14 (Cleveland; Dallas; Marietta, GA; Boston; Parma, OH; Fort Worth; San Jose; Salt Lake City; Memphis; New York; and two stores in Seattle.). Taffy never had an office but preferred to be out there working with everyone else. She was hands-on and “elbow-to-elbow” with her employees, taking an active part in the day-to-day business.

Danny Lather, a former manager of the Buckhead [Atlanta] store said, “ She was a workaholic. The warehouse and stores were her life, and we [employees] were all her children. She knew everything that went in or out of the stores.

“She is proud of the fact that she opened every piece of mail that came in,” Susan said, “so she always knew what was going on.”

“I think Taffy was the first to put the costumes on computer,” Danny said, “but before computerization, Taffy took every costume order home and often sat up through the night working on the spreadsheets before sending them to the factory.”

Taffy truly cared about her “people.” Danny recalled the time he got a call one Sunday morning that the Buckhead store burned down. He was frantic when he called Taffy in Cleveland. Taffy told him, “Don’t worry. It can all be replaced”…as long as no one was hurt.

“Taffy,” Danny said, “kept our heads on straight and was supportive. If any of us needed anything, she was there in a heartbeat, and that was the way she treated all of us.”

Taffy’s mail order and national business took off when she began attending dance conventions. “The people who had been in the business like Leo’s, Kalmo Textiles, Capezio were all going to conventions,” Taffy said.

When someone asked why Taffy, with such a tiny business was going to the shows, she said she thought she might meet some teachers. She was right. When the Cleveland teachers visited Taffy’s table and told her they were enjoying the show but were weary and hungry, Taffy got on the phone with room service and had coffee and Danish delivered to the hospitality room.

“Those days were so much fun. I was the only woman in the business, which always surprised me since the teachers were all women…and I traveled with the men,” she said. Because organizations like Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America didn’t allow time for the teachers to visit the exhibitors in 1959, UDMA was created, and Taffy, because she was the only woman, was the secretary.

“I had so much fun…it was a virgin field. TV had just come in, and dance exploded….it was an exciting time. The industry was growing. It was a whole new world—new friends— the camaraderie,” Taffy said.

But Taffy always seemed to be having fun. During those early years in Cleveland, Taffy’s home was “a revolving door” of celebrities. “It seemed as if there was always a party at our house,” Susan said. Harvey, at the time, had an equity theater company and produced shows bringing a parade of celebrities to Cleveland (some of whom had been black-listed during the McCarthy hearings). Among the guests coming to party at Taffy’s were Dick Gregory, Shelley Berman, Howard DeSilva, Alan Alda as well as celebrities from other local venues. When the ballet was in Cleveland, the performers also were entertained at Taffy’s with what has been called “unassuming generosity.”

“Nureyev and Balanchine were there,” Susan said, “and often with three or four parties in a row, I learned early how to straighten up quickly and put out the candy and cigarettes for the next party.”

Taffy, according to colleagues and friends, despite her success, never changed from the determined, fun-loving young woman who got married and had children just because it was what women were expected to do. It was, in fact, her determined, fun-loving approach to life along with her gifted sense of style and business acumen that made her an icon in the dance business. Sometimes irreverent, often outspoken, Taffy has been called a straight shooter by longtime friend and colleague, tap legend Buster Cooper. “She has never been afraid to tell the truth. With her superior business capabilities and her passion for excellence, she could be called the female Stanley Marcus,” Buster said.

Although she was never much of a dancer, Taffy’s love of dance as an art form was apparent. “She gave her heart and soul to dance and dancers, often going out of her way to be there for support,” Buster said.

A breast cancer survivor (a mastectomy in the 1950s), Taffy focuses on what she does have. The only change in her life, according to Taffy, is that she now has a “fake boob.” Never losing her sense of humor or zeal for living, years ago at a party, after Taffy had had a little too much to drink, in response to a bet she pulled out her “fake boob” to see if it would float.

This year she has been battling sight loss due to Macular Degeneration but has undergone groundbreaking procedures, which have restored some of her eyesight. When asked to speak to various organizations about the procedures, Taffy says she doesn’t have time to talk about these things because she is too busy living.

Passionate about the Cleveland Indians and politics, especially women’s rights, Taffy says she was born too early and should have been a child of the 1960s. The secret of success? Taffy, said, “I never did it for the money. I just had fun. When it stopped being fun, I stopped.” In 1989, Taffy decided she was no longer having fun, and she sold Taffy’s to Capezio. Taffy says that today, her business style would “lay an egg…no one wants an image. Everything is discount. I couldn’t afford to run my business today.”

Taffy has never been afraid to take risks, to go a little beyond. Her advice, whether in business or in personal relationships, “Reach for the moon. If you fall, it’s into the stars.”

While the industry considers her successful, Taffy says she truly never thinks of herself as successful. Asked how she feels about having dedicated her life to the dance field, Taffy said, “I feel that the dance field dedicated its life to me, and what a terrific time I’ve had.”

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