Zoe Morsette’s studio is where the magic happens.
The prop goddess, who creates ice that won’t melt and feathery, oversized chicken costumes for “30 Rock” stars, houses the enchantment of the theatrical world inside her 21st Street space, where she creates props and costumes for Broadway productions and television shows.
On a damp, grey afternoon, Morsette sat at her work station, shaping plastic straight-razors crafted from melted hair combs with a handheld tool for “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the prequel to “Peter Pan.”
“They keep snapping,” she sighed, examining the instrument which had been redesigned after several of the shows’ actors repeatedly broke her original prototypes.
Overhead, a purple alien limb bobbed in the fan-fueled breeze, displayed like a prize-winning taxidermy piece. She had made it, cost-free, for a science fiction production at The Secret Theatre. She was happy to help a local artistic organization.
“It was always magical for me when the house lights went down,” she said, reminiscing on a lifetime spent in show business.
A center-stage fixture during her youth, Morsette left her hometown of Cape Cod, Massachusetts to attend Skidmore College, where she studied dance and theatre. She moved to New York City immediately after graduation in 1973. While aggravated tendonitis in her foot prohibited her from dancing professionally, she remained active in the industry, working at the Colonnades Theatre — the downtown venue where big names like Jeff Goldblum and Rhea Perlman got their start. Morsette assisted in the costume department, learning to swatch fabric and assemble patterns. The company couldn’t afford to pay her, so instead of monetary compensation, they gave her free classes.
While working at the Colonnades, Morsette met her former husband, Cordell Morsette. The couple ventured west to North Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Cordell’s hometown, where Morsette taught dance classes for a short time.
“It didn’t work out,” she said briefly.
When her marriage unraveled, Morsette returned to New York City. A friend, who worked in the costume department at Radio City Music Hall as a milliner for the Rockettes, offered her a job. Morsette fashioned headdresses and specialty outfits for the dance company — a job she loved.
She produced custom window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue, Macys and Bloomingdales, including a topiary Jack Russell terrier for a Coach display that she grew particularly fond of.
In the mid-80s, Morsette began designing for Broadway shows. For “Les Miserables,” she crafted 40 dummies to litter the stage during a battle scene, playing dead soldiers. She granted each fake soldier a name, most after workers in the costume shop. For “Shrek the Musical,” Morsette made the show’s character Donkey. He now hangs from the ceiling in a corner of her studio.
Morsette’s most well-known piece — an advertisement for the New York Care’s coat drive, depicting a shivering Statue of Liberty huddled in the snow — lines the walls of countless subway cars and billboards.
In 2008, Morsette began designing props and costumes for “Saturday Night Live.” Her first assignment — a barrel costume for Will Forte to don during an episode of “Weekend Update” about the stock market crash – fell into her lap when a member of the show’s crew needed a barrel and knew Morsette had crafted one previously. She made it in less than 24 hours.
Through “Saturday Night Live,” Morsette received assignments for “30 Rock,” the show that gained momentum from former SNL stars, including Tina Fey and Jason Sudeikis.
“To see your stuff on stage and on screen is very rewarding,” Morsette said.
For the past 11 years, Morsette has designed one-of-a-kind teddy bears for an auction hosted by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Her bears, dressed in costumes from various musicals including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Camelot” have raised $43,000 to help actors, crew members and productions in need.
“Everyone’s working towards a great product,” Morsette said of the show business community. “We’re all shooting towards the same goal.”