By Grant Segall
Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The uninhibited Harriett “Taffy” Epstein created a nationwide chain of dance supply stores, hosted top performers at her apartment in Shaker Square and was booted from a convent hostel for returning at 3 a.m. with peals of laughter.
Epstein died June 10 at University Hospitals at age 92. Her similarly uninhibited children reported her cause of death as “the Indians-Tigers series June 6-9”— a stretch when her beloved Indians seemed to die.
Art Stone, a dance costume maker in Smithtown, N.Y., said, “She was a tremendous leader in our industry. She was the first one to do catalogs in color and other things. The first time I met her, I didn’t know who she was, but I said, ‘Omigod, this has to be the president of Saks Fifth Ave. or something.’ Dressed magnificently, in the highest of fashion, she carried herself in a commanding, fabulous way.”
Belinda Prinz, a long-time friend of Epstein’s and district communications director for Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, said, “Taffy was a great listener, and her joy of life was contagious. You couldn’t be around her without learning something about yourself and being challenged to imagine greater possibilities.”
Epstein usually avoided her name and went by plain “Taffy”. She built a chain of 14 “Taffy’s” stores across the country. She sold tights, tu-tu’s, tap shoes, tiaras and records to dancers. She sold white boots to majorettes and marching musicians. She sold pasties and G-strings to strippers.
“I had no idea what the hell I was doing,” Epstein said a few years ago to Goldrushdance2.com, a dance industry website.“ “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…I never did it for the money. I just had fun. When it stopped being fun, I stopped.”
Columnist Winsor French extolled Epstein in the Cleveland Press as “the Marilyn Monroe of Shaker Heights,” even though she lived just across the border in Cleveland.
According to her children, Epstein often hosted stars such as Rudolph Nureyev, George Balanchine and Alan Alda. Her son, Steven, said he would bring home a date to find his mother and Dorothy Fuldheim, who lived across the hallway, wearing negligees and sipping Scotch.
She was raised Harriett Gombossy in Cleveland Heights and went to Heights High School. She became a passionate Indians fan and joined a group of like-minded women called the Base-Belles.
A born saleswoman, she peddled hose by mail while young. She also took dance lessons.
At Miami University of Ohio, a stray field hockey ball injured her mouth, causing an infection and leading her to drop out. Back home, she worked for an uncle’s Majestic Specialties clothes and became a certified public accountant.
She married Harvey Epstein and followed him to Air Force bases around the country during World War II. She happened to cut her hair short the same day that Taffy Tucker of the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates” did likewise. A nickname arose and stuck.
The Epsteins raised a family in the Cleveland half of the Ludlow neighborhood and later in Shaker Square. She worked full-time meanwhile for an accounting firm downtown.
Harvey worked in the shoe business and happened to hear that dance shoes were sold just in department stores. He thought a new career for Taffy might make it easier for her to raise the children.
In 1954, he rented a store at the Arcade for her. Then he persuaded French to say in print, “Some people get mink for Christmas, but if Taffy Epstein will go down to 138 the Old Arcade, she will find her Christmas present.”
She plunged into the gift with zeal. It was “Cleveland Dance Footwear” at first, but everyone called it “Taffy’s place,” so she made it officially “Taffy’s.”
Back then, most dancers got costumes one at a time from parents or seamstresses. Epstein sent colored postcards to dance teachers around the country offering ready-made costumes instead.
She got 100 orders at first, and the business quickly grew along with dance, popularized by TV and the fitness movement. She sold with style. She hired dancers to try out costumes and pose in them for catalogue photos with smoke and other special effects.
She had many setbacks, including a strike and a flood at the factories she used. Once a bat flapped its way out of a shipment sent to a horrified teacher.
But nothing fazed Epstein. She opened stores in Parma, Seattle, Salt Lake City and elsewhere. She opened one on Broadway in Manhattan and another across from her inspiration, Neiman-Marcus, in Dallas.
In 1959, she helped found a trade group, United Dance Merchants of America and became its secretary. The divorced woman traveled widely for work and pleasure, which once made her too late and loud for a convent hostel outside Florence, Italy.
Even at her chain’s peak, Epstein opened all the mail herself. Yet she had no office or even desk.
“She walked around all day and, without micromanaging, knew everything that everyone was doing,” said long-time employee Judith Diehl, now house manager of the Cleveland Orchestra. “But she trusted us…. She always applauded our accomplishments.”
In 1990, Epstein sold the business to Capezio. She promptly founded Dinner is Served, a delivery service that worked with 11 restaurants in eastern suburbs.
She struggled in later years with her heart, eyes and ears, but remained active. In 2011, the nonagenarian launched Yes… I Can (!) Dance, a program for people with Parkinson’s disease affiliated with a nonprofit called Shaking With Laughter.
Susan Epstein, one of the entrepreneur’s two children, worked for Taffy’s and has stayed in the field, co-directing shows for the Dance Merchants.
Harriett Gombossy “Taffy” Epstein
Survivors: Children, Steven of Ageo, Japan and Susan of Manhattan, N.Y., and two grandchildren.
Contributions: Shaking With Laughter, 2683 W. St James Pkwy 44106, shakingwithlaughter.org/donations-tickets.