When big production shows with thousands of rhinestones and feathers dominated the Las Vegas Strip, Williams Costume Co. was a hub for those in the entertainment industry. Performers, costume designers, makeup artists, dancers and singers would converge on the brick building on 3rd Street at Colorado Avenue. The apartment on the third floor of the building with a rooftop patio was the home of founder Nancy Baker (formerly Williams). People found jobs, pursued dreams, created dazzling costumes and even got married on the rooftop.
On April 4, after more than 60 years in business, Williams Costume Co. closed its doors. Baker passed away on January 10 at age 86. Immediate family members, in their 60s and 70s, are attempting to sell it in hopes that the shop will reopen and the staff will be rehired. Whatever inventory was not sold is being stored in a climate-controlled environment.
Many come to Las Vegas to follow a dream, and Baker was no different. She was 18 years old in 1948 when she arrived to dance at the El Rancho for two weeks. She ended up making Vegas her home. Baker performed with Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr. and Latin legend Carmen Miranda, sharing a dressing room with her. She was an El Rancho Dice Girl and became one of its ambassadors. Later, in homage, a mural of the Dice Girls, including Baker, was painted on an exterior wall of Williams Costume Co.
Glenda Scott, the store manager since 1999, said Baker loved to dance and design costumes. Baker operated a dance school and the costume shop in the 1950s. When she married Newton Williams, he told her to focus on one business and she chose the costume shop. She would tell Scott that she knew she couldn’t dance forever, but she loved to sew, design and create costumes.
Williams Costume Co. was the first costume shop to open in the state of Nevada and remained the only one for many years. Costumes were rented for shows on the Strip and it was the go-to place for events and Halloween parties. Along with apparel, there were beads and rhinestones along with brocade, fabric, feathers, headdresses, wigs, makeup, shoes and stockings.
“Everyone always counted on Nancy and this store for their needs,” Scott says.
Baker had an impact on many people throughout the years, including fourth-generation Nevadan Heather Hermann. An artist with a gallery and small dance studio in Boulder City, Hermann is also a dancer and teacher. She began performing as a child, and Williams Costume Co. supplied her wardrobe.
“Williams Costume was my second home. I was there almost daily in the 1990s,” Hermann explains. “Nancy trained and worked with all of my mentors. My teachers [who worked with Baker] were the principles in the big shows, including Siegfried and Roy, Lido de Paris and Folies Bergère.”
Hermann cherishes her memories of the desert tortoises walking around the store. Scott said Baker’s husband found a tortoise while walking in the desert in 1955. He brought him home and named him Oscar. A female tortoise, Betty Boop, was added 30 years later. A family friend is now caring for the tortoises.
“For me and countless others, Nancy’s smile and never-ending joy of wanting to help people look and perform their best was … hard to come by,” Hermann says. “She always had such a wonderful sense of humor and wit. Her passing is a great loss to our city. She is an iconic figure that must be remembered for her countless years of dedication.”