Schenz Theatrical Supply in Camp Washington sticks out from the surrounding urban/industrial landscape like a sore thumb. The building’s once-bright purple ombré paint job has faded over time to a pinkish lavender hue. Add a shiny black gorilla — immortalized in the nearby “Campy Washington” ArtWorks mural — emerging above the entrance like King Kong, and it’s impossible not to notice.
Inside, customers only see a fraction of Schenz’s full supply: wigs on mannequin heads, theatrical makeup, your standard holiday accessories and several racks of costumes for rent. It’s close quarters and musty for sure, but that adds to the old-school charm. And besides, much more is happening behind the scenes.
It’s a March afternoon, and a Bockfest attendee stops by to pick up costumes and decorations for the night’s parade. Dozens of Easter bunny costume heads line the perimeter of the shop, ready to be rented for the upcoming holiday — all but a trio of bunnies that will appear at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll this coming Monday. Those are off limits.
Schenz Theatrical Supply has been producing costumes, plush mascots and theater wardrobes for nearly 40 years, but the most fascinating character by far is the man behind it all: Jonn Schenz.
Schenz has provided the White House with bunny costumes since 1981, and stories about this legacy pop up every year around this time, as if that’s his only thing. It’s not.
“I’ve kind of done just a little bit of everything, from cowboy to ballet dancer,” Schenz says, bursting into infectious laughter.
In fact, it’s fitting that Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” recently retired — Schenz could easily step in.
Schenz was born in Columbus, Ohio some number of years ago — he insists that he is, in fact, 39 years old, though the math doesn’t quite add up. Growing up he moved around, living in Kansas City, Mo. and in New Mexico, where he spent a summer as a ranch hand.
Schenz returned to Columbus and looked to follow in his doctor father’s footsteps, studying pre-med at Ohio State University, but that didn’t work out. He moved to attend the University of Cincinnati, where he briefly studied business. It never suited him.
While at UC, his English professor, Herman Newman — husband of Cincinnati philanthropist Ruth Lyons, just one of many notable figures Schenz would cross paths with over the years — encouraged him to explore the arts.
Schenz recalls Newman telling him, “When are you gonna realize it’s not that you don’t have what it takes for college; college doesn’t have what it takes for you? Get the hell out of here, and one of these days you’ll hire my graduates.”
“And I did, and I did,” Schenz says, letting out another hearty laugh that only comes from a combination of genuine joy and cigarettes.
He finally found his place in musical theater at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, which is now UC’s CCM. That summer he received a scholarship to Canada’s National Ballet School, where he was classically trained in dance.
Schenz’s performance experience ranges from the big top to the Big Apple. In 1963, he joined the traveling carnival group Olson Shows, dancing in burlesque shows at state fairs across the U.S. Schenz would do what he calls “partnering a stripper” — he’d perform choreography with a dancer, but get off stage before she’d start shimmying and shedding clothes.
And while the environment was full of strippers, freak shows, carnival games and rides, it was sometimes dangerous business. At one stop, Schenz says a biker gang threatened to cut down their tent, potentially crushing anyone left inside. The show also arrived in Birmingham, Ala. right after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.
“Everybody on that lot was scared to death, ’cause we didn’t know what the hell was gonna happen,” he says.
Overall, though, the show was a positive experience for Schenz, who truly enjoys meeting new people.
“I went there coming from a doctor’s family, not having any concept of what carny people were like,” he says. “I kind of went there with all kinds of trepidations. Came out with all the respect in the world for the people.”
Schenz finds everyday folks just as interesting and important as the high-profile people he’s encountered over the decades. That’s saying something when you’ve met every president since Ronald Reagan, brushed shoulders with Cincinnati’s elite and performed with Ginger Rogers. Yes, Schenz spent a stint in New York dancing in productions with the likes of Rogers, Donald O’Connor and Betty White.
A number of factors contributed to Schenz returning to Cincinnati. He felt he was lacking a home base, having spent years scattered across North America; he also came down with hepatitis. Schenz realized he would never make it as a star dancer — he got his start far too late, since he had just begun studying dance in college.
“I would never go without work, but I would never be the top guy,” he says. And since those who can’t dance (on the level Schenz wanted, at least) teach, that’s what he did — across Cincinnati and with dance studios in Maysville and Falmouth, Ky. A friend suggested he get into the dance supply business, so he opened a shop at the corner of Gilbert and McMillan streets in Walnut Hills.
Schenz found it hard to compete with Loshin’s, a large dancewear company that existed in Cincinnati from 1946-2012. The shop was struggling, so after fielding calls for Halloween costumes, he bought a collection from a community theater to rent out. Costumes were officially added, and the shop became Schenz Theatrical Supply in 1967.
“I wanted my name up in lights,” he says, reflecting on his days as a performer. “Yeah, I had to pay for the sign, but I got my name up!”
Schenz found his niche matching customers with the perfect getup.
“When you walked into the shop, I knew exactly what costume you were gonna walk out in,” he says. “There was no question. You may have wanted to come in and be an angel, but I was gonna send you out as a hooker — I didn’t give a damn!
“I knew what I had that was gonna fit you and make you look good.”
Stephen Rausch, Schenz’s partner of 46 years, joined the company as a designer a couple years after Schenz opened shop in Walnut Hills.
While creating designs for Schenz, Rausch also went on to become head costume designer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice, Fla., where he built and designed clown costumes. One of his mentors was head of wardrobe for the New York City Opera, J. Edgar Joseph. Schenz gushes over Rausch’s talent, calling him a genius and pointing out that he majored in an unrelated field, Spanish, in college. Rausch taught himself how to sew and make patterns, going on to design for ballets, theater shows and operas. More recently his specialty has become intricate fiber-sculpture art dolls, another self-taught craft.
The duo soon relocated downtown, moving to three different spaces on Fourth Street in the 1970s and 1980s. Over that time, Schenz expanded its stock and services. They bought Tu Tu Theatrical’s stock, which included items from the old George Beck Costume Co., with some costumes dating back to 1852.
“Stop and think about that,” Schenz says. “(The collection has) been through the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Great Depression. We are the third caretakers. We do not have the right to lose it.” While the 19th-century apparel is obviously no longer in use, Schenz stresses the importance of the long heritage.
Schenz Theatrical added a new element to the business in 1975, when they started hand-making mascot costumes — think amusement park characters or, OK, furries — for schools, businesses and even Hollywood. MGM’s Pink Panther was one of the first. They continued to produce the character until around 2013, when manufacturing was outsourced overseas. At one time they were the sole supplier of Tom and Jerry characters, and they were even flown out to New York to celebrate the cartoon’s 50th birthday. Frisch’s Big Boy, Charlie the Tuna, Slush Puppie and a purple dinosaur that predates Barney all came from Schenz, plus other characters for Procter & Gamble, the Texas State Aquarium, the Cincinnati Pops and Hardee’s, to name a few. Companies from across the country and world have hired Schenz to make their mascots — at one point they were the top manufacturer in the country — and this reputation led to Schenz creating the Easter bunny costumes for the annual White House Easter celebrations. (See sidebar below.)
What’s particularly interesting is how Schenz handles the high-profile job. At a time when discussion of presidents is contentious to say the least, Schenz refuses to make it political. “Once I’m on the ground (at the White House), whoever’s in that office is my president,” he says.
Schenz’s tenure as Washington’s bunny man is impressive, but it’s just one day out of the year — and he does it pro bono. The rest of his time is spent getting ahead of each holiday, costuming theater productions, giving back to arts organizations and attending lots of parties.
A few years after Schenz landed the bunny gig, the shop moved to its current location in Camp Washington. The demand for holiday costumes outside of Halloween — Santa suits, Mardi Gras masks and, yes, Easter bunnies — grew.
High school, university and community theaters from all corners of the country have rented costumes for shows like Pippin, Romeo and Juliet and The Sound of Music. They’re still made by hand in the shop.
With a passion for and history with dance, music and theater, it’s no surprise that nearly every major local arts organization has worked with Schenz at some point over the years. Between commissioned work, board membership, volunteering, costume donations and event sponsorship, Schenz and Rausch have made an impact on the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Symphony and Pops orchestras, Cincinnati Ballet and the Cincinnati Art Museum, along with LGBTQ organizations and other nonprofits.
With all the stories Schenz has — “Once you get me started on the B.S.ing, by God, you can’t stop me,” he warns playfully — it’s no surprise this man about town was quite a hit on the party circuit. Before there was Instagram to tell us what the rich and fabulous were up to each weekend, people had newspaper society pages that detailed the latest glitzy gala or benefit.
Schenz was a staple in those pages. But when asked about his presence in the Cincinnati social scene, he does not go into the guests and gossip. He talks about his very special relationship with local arts philanthropist Patricia Corbett.
Schenz escorted Corbett to shows and events for 15 years after her husband’s death in 1988. “The city is blessed to have had this woman,” he says. “I am blessed to have been her escort. I am blessed to have had her friendship.” Corbett passed away in 2008.
Schenz appreciates the arts and values craftsmanship — two cornerstones of his life’s work that society seems to take for granted today.
“High schools don’t have a drama department anymore, which is a sin in my book,” he says. “They keep the football but they let the arts go to hell.” He expresses his dismay over how frequently English teachers with no drama background are left to carry a production, calling to mind a time when a rookie high school play director complained about Schenz’s Oliver! orphan costumes being “too drab.” That type of inexperience can be frustrating, especially for designers like Rausch, who has recently stepped back from the business.
“Like many geniuses, once they accomplish (something), there’s not that much challenge left. And they move onto something else,” Schenz says of his partner. “He didn’t move on from me and I ain’t moving on from him because we’ve been together now 46 years and, honey, if you think either one of us have the patience to break in another one…” He trails off, shaking his head in laughter. Schenz doesn’t talk much about the significance of being a gay business owner or the challenges that may have presented.
“I’m one of the lucky gay people,” he says, explaining that his family always accepted him, even his grandparents. “Having a family accept it and being in theater, I never really had to hide. And I never did. I am what I am and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.”
Today, Schenz Theatrical Supply is in a state of flux. After experiencing the ups and downs of business, the Camp Washington building was sold. Two years ago the landlord cut Schenz’s space from 20,000-square-feet to 7,500. “It’s really killed us,” Schenz says.
He says if you lined up all his clothing racks, they would stretch across more than two-and-a-half city blocks. Much of that stock is packed away in storage, and the shop is just now reopening its sewing room after the cutback shut it down.
“We’ve got a national reputation, and closing our sewing room for a little over two years has really kicked us in the teeth,” he says. He also had to remove the dance supply products that gave the shop its start because there simply isn’t enough space. But fiery Schenz is not giving up anytime soon — and forget about retirement.
“Now mind you I’m only 39 years old, but this is my 49th year in business,” he jokes, although between all of his experiences, it wouldn’t be surprising if he turned out to be some magical ageless time traveler. “Quite frankly, I hope I scare the hell out of my staff by dying at work.”
Thankfully that should take a while — Schenz mentions five family members who lived past 100. Just be careful when mentioning age to him.
“Nobody in our family could say anything about age until you got into your 90s,” he says. “ ’Cause there would be someone coming up, ‘You young whipper-snapper, you don’t know what you’re talking about!’ ”
Regardless of his age, Schenz definitely knows what he’s talking about, not only in terms of quality workmanship and the importance of art, but also life in general. He’s enjoyed some of the most unique experiences by surrounding himself with all kinds of people, and he gives back to the arts that have made such a profound impact on him. Schenz is a rare bird who takes pride in his craft without taking himself too seriously.
“May you have as much fun getting to my age as I have,” he advises, “and may you raise as much hell, too.”
A Bunny Tale: How a rabbit suit from Cincinnati ends up in the White House
On Monday, March 28, more than 35,000 people will descend on the White House South Lawn for the 138th-annual White House Easter Egg Roll — kids, parents, eggs, wooden spoons, secret service agents, the Obamas, whoever else won tickets through the public lottery and Cincinnati’s own Jonn Schenz, who, dressed in a dark suit with a coif of bright red hair, will be at the nation’s capitol managing Mama, Papa and Junior — three humans dressed in giant plush Easter Bunny costumes of his own design.
Schenz has been supplying the bunny outfits for the White House’s annual Easter festivities for 36 years, starting under the reign of President Ronald Reagan. And after three decades, they’re only on the second set of costumes, each lovingly and adeptly hand-built in his Camp Washington Schenz Theatrical Supply shop.
“We got the bunny gig by doing all these characters for different places, and we got a call on a Monday morning that the costumer in D.C. needed a bunny to put a six-foot-two secret service man (into) to accompany Ronald Reagan,” Schenz says. “They had to have it in their hand by Friday.”
Back in the ’80s, if you put a mascot head on before the chemicals in the mold were dry, “you’d be as high as a kite, baby,” Schenz says, laughing. But even with the short deadline, the bunny was completed and on the aforementioned secret service agent by the Easter Egg Roll.
The next year, Schenz decided to donate a costume to the White House, and when the White House called and invited him to see his donation in action, Schenz jumped at the chance.
“I took my nephew and we went up and we went out on the lawn and the bunny had a great big green stain on his knees where he knelt down in the grass to talk to the kids,” he says, “and the drawstrings were hanging down the back.”
That was unacceptable, so Schenz marched into the visitors office and asked who was in charge of the bunny. When the answer was no one, he told them he would be. “I said, ‘I will be here next year’ — because I saw the line of people to have their picture taken with the bunny — and I said, ‘I will be here next year with two more bunnies, and I will be in charge,’ ” Schenz says.
He’s been there every year since.
This year, Schenz will arrive at the White House on Saturday; Mama, Papa and Junior made their ways through the mail. He’ll dress the volunteers and stand by while the bunnies start their television appearances at 4 a.m. Monday morning. Schenz has helped get everyone from cabinet members, colonels, executives and “FOBs; Friends of Bill (Clinton)” into the costumes, including former Attorney General Edwin Meese’s wife, Ursula, who loved being a bunny so much she earned the White House nickname “The Meester Bunny.”
When the official Easter celebration starts, all three costumed bunnies will hop out onto the lawn to meet and greet the kids and have their picture taken. “All of our bunnies are told to stand with their back to the White House, so when mama takes the picture, she has not only your picture but the White House in the back,” Schenz says.
Rotating bunny volunteers are out on the lawn for about an hour and a half. “That’s about all you can take in this thing,” Schenz says. In fact, when the Washington Post asked Schenz if it’s warm in the suit, he said, “No sir. That suit is not warm; that suit is hotter than hell.”
At the change of this administration, Schenz and his team will craft a new generation of bunnies, to maintain continuity throughout a president’s Easter photos, as well as to retire the old suits and rent them out to the public. “Bout time they paid for themselves,” Schenz says.
SCHENZ THEATRICAL SUPPLY is located at 2959 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington. More info: 513-542-6100 or schenz.com.