Calmar native works on ‘West Side Story’ remake

By Robert Bremner-

Calmar native Brian Hemesath is making waves in the film industry as the First Assistant Costume Designer on the reimagining of Broadway musical “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg. 

Calmar native Brian Hemesath is making waves in the film industry as the First Assistant Costume Designer on the reimagining of Broadway musical “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg. The film premiered on the silver screen Dec. 10. Hemesath says West Side Story has the biggest project budget of anything he’s ever worked on, having a budget of $3 million. “I worked on the second and third John Wick films, which were a costume design budget of $250,000,” Hemesath noted.
He said the process of selecting designs specific for a classic story like West Side Story went back to the original. “It was based on looking at the 1953 original story on Broadway, trying to tell the story and be as historically accurate as possible.” He stated the process of casting dancers (including 30 sharks and 30 jets) began in Feb. 2019. They had one month to rehearse, filmed for one week and production wrapped in May 2019. “Spielberg does that really well,” Hemesath commented, “having an efficient schedule.”
Hemesath reported that working with Rita Moreno in the new 2021 adaptation of West Side Story was very special to him. 
Hemesath says being from the Midwest has given him a positive influence. “Growing up in the Midwest taught me how to have a good work ethic, and to be aware of the world around you.”  Brian’s brother, Matthew Hemesath, has also succeeded as a costume designer for the TV industry in New York.  
Hemesath recalled his South Winneshiek High School art teacher, John Vance, instructing him at an early age to see the world and the beauty within that would usually go unnoticed. Hemesath also credited educator Pat Downs as his inspiration for theatre. “Pat convinced me I could perform on a stage when I thought I couldn’t.” 
His theatre and art experiences continued while attending St. Ambrose University in Davenport where he worked in the costume department. He then earned his master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in 1997 and later moved to New York City.
From small-town Calmar to the Big Apple, Hemesath has developed worldly 
connections in the design community. His involvement with “West Side Story” stemmed from a long-time friendship with Head Costumer Designer Paul Tazewell, who has worked on familiar Broadway musicals like “The Wiz Live!” and “Hamilton.” Hemesath still comes home to Calmar at least twice a year.  
Hemesath boasts an impressive repertoire, as well. The four-time Emmy Award winning designer has created pieces for “The Today Show,” “Saturday Night Live” for 14 years, and over 100 episodes of “Sesame Street,” where he is head creator of costumes for the human cast.
In 2015, Hemesath received the TDF/Irene Sharif Young Master award, presented to him by the Telly Monster character from “Sesame Street.” He was also included in the 50th anniversary special of “Sesame Street,” honoring the life and legacy of Caroll Spinney, the original voice of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Working in television, he talks about meeting other stars that have meant a lot to him personally, “My favorite host I worked with at SNL was Betty White. She was the beginning of television.” With his work on Sesame Street, he mentions other stars including Al Gore, President Obama and Keanu Reeves. Hemesath says he feels privileged to get to work with such inspiring individuals, “Everyone that comes to SNL and Sesame Street is excited just to be there.” 
In 2019, from his alma mater he was awarded the prestigious SAU alumni Award. His works were included in many St. Ambrose University productions and Hemesath often returned to help with productions after he graduated. 
During a 2019 Q&A and Costume Design Master Class at SAU Theatre Department, Hemesath recalled his “Sesame Street” work as his favorite. “It’s literally the happiest place to work-the happiest place on earth,” he said. “Everyone genuinely cares about the people there. We get to make TV for kids made up of characters and lessons that will stay with them for their entire lives.”
Hemesath reminded guests at the Q&A that his success proves you don’t need to attend an Ivy League school to succeed. No matter where you come from, dreams can be accomplished through hard work and commitment. 

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