When Marty Howard learned that he was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base after being drafted in 1970, the New Jersey native was sure he would die in the desert heat. But once he landed in Las Vegas, Howard knew he was home.
After completing his service and spending a brief stint back East, Howard returned to the Valley and started American Singing Telegrams in 1978. An entertainer at heart, he attended wedding receptions, 40th birthday parties and medical conventions, and delivered singing telegrams. To separate himself from the pack, Howard dressed in a variety of costumes, including a gorilla suit, Elvis, the Grim Reaper and one of his most popular requests, a cross-dressing Playboy Bunny. As Howard’s collection of costumes continued to grow, he began to rent them out, and in the early ’80s he opened American Costumes.
The store itself, tucked into a small shopping center on West Sahara Avenue, wears a kind of mask, with a beat-up sign out front and forbidding metal bars on the windows. Howard says the bars are there not so much to deter thieves, but window shoppers. On the weekends, the front door is locked, to be opened only after Howard or his partner, Tina Peeples, check to make sure you’re buying, not browsing. They say they don’t like too many people in the store; it limits the attention they can give to the customers who mean business.
Howard and Peeples have been a couple for 20 years, and once you make it inside the store, you sense that American Costumes is a true family business, a labor of love. The walls are lined with pictures of past costumes donned by Howard, Peeples and smiling customers. All of the costumes are movie-production quality or actual vintage clothing; there are no pre-packaged costumes here. “We take the time to take care of our customers,” Howard says. “Big and tall, tiny and small, we fit them all.”
The pair also supply costumes to film and television productions, murder mystery plays and themed weddings, including one crazy Canadian couple who wanted to get married in a helicopter in gorilla suits. Howard had to class it up a bit, so he made the groom wear a top hat, while the bride wore a white gorilla suit with a veil. America may soon hear more crazy stories, as the couple is in talks to do a reality show based on the costume store.
“It’s a happy business,” Howard says. “We have a ball with everyone who comes in here. It’s a big stage filled with costumes, and we entertain through them.”