- Andrew Olsen
The Hands that Built Barney
If you are like me and grew up in the 1990’s or early 2000’s chances are that Barney was a very prevalent part of your childhood. From the millions of VHS tapes, toys, dolls and other licensed merchandise to the TV series, featured film, live shows and theme park attractions, Barney took the world by storm and was an instant celebrity among children.
Among the hundreds involved in the production of Barney, Irene Corey and Suzanne Lockridge were arguably the most crucial to the purple dinosaur’s existence. These two women quite literally built him from the ground up. From coming up with concept sketches, to gluing his head, stitching his seams, and giving the character life.
The Foam Ladies In 1983 world renowned theatrical costume designer Irene Corey approached her niece Suzanne Lockridge, who had recently graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The University of Texas at Austin about starting a costume design company. The duo each put up $1000 and formed what would become Irene Corey Design Associates.
Irene, who had over 30 years of design experience working in the theatrical field and having produced over 50 productions, including the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway production, The Book of Job, already had a name for herself in the costume and makeup design industry. She pioneered costume design and makeup techniques for animal characters on stage, which paved the way for iconic Broadway musicals such as Cats, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. She left her theater days behind in order to open a new chapter in her career.
Irene personally mentored Suzanne in the art of costume design and fabrication. The duo specialized in full body, foam walk-around costumes and were quickly given the nickname of the foam ladies--being attributed to their larger-than-life creations.
Over the years, Irene and Suzanne designed hundreds of costumes, including the Chick-Fil-A cow, the Firefox Fox, costumes for HP and Hershey’s, along with dozens of other corporate mascots, theme park characters and most notably, Barney the Dinosaur.
Barney the Dinosaur
In mid-1988 Sheryl Leach of The Lyons Group, a children’s book publishing company and creator of the Barney character got in touch with Irene via their mutual connection, The Richard’s Group, a Dallas-based national advertising firm. Sheryl pitched the character idea to Irene and Suzanne. At the time Sheryl was looking to design a dinosaur character for what was planned to be a three-episode VHS series called Barney and the Backyard Gang.
The aunt-niece team quickly went to work in designing and fabricating a dark purple tyrannosaurus rex costume for the production. If you think the original Barney costume looks completely different from how you remember him, you would not be alone. The costume fabrication techniques changed drastically over the years. The first two variations of the costume were made entirely of raw foam rubber, that had been spray painted purple and green for color.
The first three videos in the series proved to be a success and a year later, in 1989 the costume design team was commissioned to build another Barney costume with a few alterations. While still painted foam, the second edition of the costume was a much lighter purple; small changes to the head and body shape were also made with this version.
With the growing popularity of the show in the Dallas area, Irene and Suzanne were brought in again to produce more costumes for production. With the popularity of the show, the creators wanted to bring another dinosaur into the mix--Baby Bop, a three-year-old green and purple triceratops. Suzanne explained to me that Baby Bop was initially pitched to them in a “comic strip” like format in which the creators had already sketched out the little green dinosaur. The duo was only given a week to produce the new character, which was to be introduced in a live stage show hosted at the Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas.
The PBS Show The small Dallas based production hit their home run when PBS picked the show up. With the nationwide popularity of the show and at the rate the series was being produced, costumes wore out exceptionally fast. With a sweaty body in the dinosaur suit up to 40 hours a week, the foam interior broke down fairly quickly and the fleece exterior fabric balled up to the point where the costumes began looking less than presentable for television appearance.
Irene and Suzanne became as busy as ever with constructing new dinosaur costumes for the show. I asked Suzanne approximately how many dino costumes she estimates building over the years. Taking into account Baby Bop and another dinosaur that was later introduced, BJ, she estimates making over a hundred Barney, Baby Bop and BJ costumes for the show.
What happened to the hundred plus iconic costumes you may ask? Well, most of them were chopped up and put in the studio dumpster. While the collector inside of me cringes at the thought of priceless television artifacts tossed away, doing this was probably the best way to protect the character.
From the show’s inception, the creators were constantly dealing with counterfeit, unlicensed Barney costumes appearing at children’s birthday parties and malls across the country. With no control over how these unlicensed costumes looked and the behaviors of the actors inside, the production company went on a year’s long legal hunt to shut down unlicensed Barney appearances. Auctioning off used production suits would only have expanded the problem. (Though I am holding out hope that someone snagged and preserved a foot or arm over the years.)
The Later Years After Irene’s retirement in 1995, Suzanne carried the torch and continued designing costumes for clients around the globe. Due to the popularity of Irene Corey Design Associates, Suzanne brought in other skilled artists and costume designers to assist in continuing the work.
Suzanne built the costumes for Barney and Friends up until production ended in 2009. She and Irene were the sole producers of the three main dinos for the entirety of the show’s run.
Due to the number of costumes being produced for various purposes, The Lyons Group outsourced to other costume shops over the years to have Barney costumes made for international productions, tours and the Barney attraction at Universal Studios Orlando. Because Irene and Suzanne were the original designers of the characters, other shops were required to pay a royalty fee to Irene Corey Design Associates.
But as per contracted, Irene and Suzanne were the only ones allowed to make the three main dinosaur costumes for the PBS series and Barney movie.
Unfortunately, we lost Irene Corey in 2010. She left behind a legacy that changed the theatrical makeup and costume design worlds. Her works live on and can still be seen today. Irene’s theatrical makeup and costume design techniques, patterns and costumes are documented and archived in the Irene Corey Collection, located at the Arizona State University Library, where they can be viewed by supervision of the library curator. She is the recipient of many awards including the Medallion from The Children’s Theater Foundation of America and the USITT award, among others.
After production on Barney and Friends ended in 2009 Suzanne kept the shop running for an additional six years, remaining busier than ever with client requests until she ultimately decided to retire in 2015. Though she closed Irene Corey Design Associates, she also left a legacy that has impacted the lives of millions of children around the globe.
I enjoyed being able to speak with Suzanne over Zoom and see her eyes light up as she reminisced on her Barney days. I shared how her work designing and constructing Barney led me to my own career decisions. Her influence will not be soon forgotten, and her works will live on for years to come. For Barney was not mass produced in an overseas factory, nor was he made in a Hollywood backlot workshop. His ability to jump off the screen and into our hearts was the result of a lifetime of craftsmanship amassed by two women who put their blood sweat and tears into their work. To me, Irene and Suzanne were not just two costume designers. They were the hands that built Barney.