The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

A family portrait at Coney Island: "We did quite a lot of work there," says production designer Bill Groom, whose team made sure that Nathan's Famous signs reflected an era when a soft drink cost a nickel. The crew also rolled back time by using banners to cover modern construction.

Christopher Saunders and K.C. Bailey
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Midge (Rachel Brosnahan), in her happy place, the spotlight.

Christopher Saunders and K.C. Bailey
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Backstage at The Wolford burlesque house, where Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) is emcee, pails catch rain falling through the leaky roof.

Christopher Saunders and K.C. Bailey
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Set decorator Ellen Christiansen personalized each stripper's vanity with tools of the trade like pasties, cold cream and a rattail comb.

Christopher Saunders and K.C. Bailey
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The Harlem beauty parlor set, seen on screen for only about ten seconds, features mustard-colored chairs beneath the dryers and period photos of hairdos on the walls.

Christopher Saunders and K.C. Bailey
Fill 1
Fill 1
April 07, 2022

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Swings Into the '60s

The production design team of the Prime Video series strives to surprise while keeping the comedy true to the times. For Midge and family, that means new stories on new sets that capture the look and feel of 1960s New York City.

Jacqueline Cutler

Being marvelous doesn't just happen.

To look as period-perfect as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel takes tremendous work. That labor is made all the more difficult because the show — which, at its debut, was set in the late 1950s and now enters the '60s — strives for accuracy while filtering life through memory's kind haze.

Season four, now streaming on Prime Video, showcases the return of Midge's apartment with some updates, a messy Village Voice newsroom and a shabby theater — all built in Brooklyn's massive Steiner Studios, where PT boats were once assembled for the U.S. Navy.

"Covid had a lot of influence on the choices we made," says Bill Groom, the series production designer since the pilot. "When we started [on season four], we didn't know whether we were going to be allowed to park trucks on the street in certain neighborhoods. And that's one reason we built this big theater on stage."

That theater is The Wolford, a burlesque house where Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) takes center stage. She stays clothed, though. As emcee, Midge — a New York City housewife-turned–standup comic — does what she does best, riffing on her life.

By design, The Wolford looks as if it could use a good airing out. As set decorator Ellen Christiansen notes, it can't have Midge's signature sparkle. While it feels like a place where dreams go to die, don't count Midge out. She has always surprised — and perhaps never more so than under a spotlight.

The Wolford is the show's most extensive new set, requiring additional crews for its construction. But the production also recreated the Queens, New York, home of Midge's ex-in-laws, hiring a company specializing in spiral staircases to replicate the one in the house where they had originally shot.

Episode one finds Midge's exhusband Joel (Michael Zegen) in Queens, celebrating the birthday of son Ethan (twins Nunzio and Matteo Pascale). The family heads from there to Brooklyn, where the design team revived Coney Island, once the country's brightest amusement park. It would fade within a decade, but in 1960 it was still magical, the scent of Nathan's Famous franks and fries wafting almost as high as the Wonder Wheel.

"Lesley Robson-Foster, our visual effects supervisor, did a great job on the Wonder Wheel," Groom says of the famed Ferris wheel that looms 150 feet above the park. "The cabs were all built on stage against green screen, and then she shot the backgrounds at the [real] Wonder Wheel and put those into the frame. So it wasn't complicated to shoot, and nobody was ever in any danger. We even added wooden floors in the cabs, which you never see in the show, I don't think. We go the extra mile to do the details that we need to do."

As they did with the expansive Queens house where, in season three, Midge's parents, Abe and Rose (Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle), barged in on Joel's folks, Moishe and Shirley (Kevin Pollak, Caroline Aaron). All endure domestic misery there until Midge moves her parents back to their natural habitat — a rambling West End Avenue apartment. (Midge bought her place back when she thought she'd be raking in cash from an international comedy tour.)

Now her parents live with her. Abe has quit his tenured position at Columbia and is happier, albeit broke, writing for The Village Voice.

The Voice newsroom might look chaotic — but to any reporter who changed typewriter ribbons and weighed the odds of eating that last slice of ossified pizza left on a desk, this set is perfection. For inspiration, Groom and Christiansen studied photos of the smoky, old Voice office.

Then Christiansen's staff stuffed each drawer with labeled files, cramming them so full they couldn't close. Stacks of newspapers and sheets of copy clutter a round table. Kennedy-Johnson stickers are slapped on a tape dispenser and a steel desk.

Even a main set used since the pilot — for The Gaslight, the Greenwich Village club where Midge got her start and met her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) — has evolved over the years, adding layers of posters and a men's room.

When researching for the series, Groom visited the site where the real Gaslight stood from 1958 to 1971. He took a feeling of cramped intimacy from that and other Village clubs. But sets, like life, can't stay static.

"Everything changes with time...," Christiansen muses.

The real challenge, Groom explains, is to be historically accurate without falling into a period design trap.

"I try to be very careful not to do something too cute," he says. "We're not only looking for the fact of the time but also the truth to the story."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #2, 2022, under the title, "The Ride of Their Lives"

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