If Success Goes to Their Craniums, There's Room: Franne and Eugene Lee Designed the Coneheads

updated 02/11/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1980 01:00AM

In show business, the costume and set designers humbly and traditionally settle for a credit somewhere in the fine print. Not Eugene and Franne Lee. Their names are only a notch or two below director Harold Prince's on the playbill of the Broadway smash hit Sweeney Todd. And on TV the couple receive equivalent billing for their regular work on Saturday Night Live. That Eugene, 40, the set designer, and his wife, 38, in charge of costumes, have attained such prominence is a testimony to their skill—and in small part, their gall. "A director lets us do anything we want," shrugs Franne, "or he doesn't hire us."

Tempestuous and taciturn, Eugene bridles at directors who seek to control him, or impose a budget. "It costs what it costs," he sniffs. Prince, for one, has come to believe that whatever the price (close to $500,000 in the case of Sweeney), "it's worth it." Eugene and Franne (pronounced "Frannie") have won his-and-her Tonys twice—for Sweeney and in 1974 for Candide. This season they did the costumes and sets for Gilda Radner's stage debut.

The Lees' contribution to Saturday Night Live includes the show's imaginative sets, the Killer Bee costumes (elephants and cockroaches were discarded early on) and, from a Dan Aykroyd concept, the embodiment of the Coneheads. Even Roseanne Roseannadanna's frizz sprang from Franne's drawing board. "Television isn't as demanding as theater," she says. "You don't have to worry about someone's feet since you rarely see the actor from the waist down."

The advantage of the stage is the absence of close-ups, for Franne's penchant is for old clothes. For instance, she turned a 1930s nightgown into a Victorian day dress for the ingenue in Sweeney. "That garment has its own history," she explains, "and it shows onstage. Sweeney Todd looks better now than at the opening because the costumes are more worn and look more real."

If Franne is satisfied, her husband cringes when he is congratulated on Sweeney's massive three-level set, which he built out of scrap found in an old New England foundry. Lee considers his simulation of a grimy 1890s English factory and its surroundings "terribly flawed." Sighs Franne: "Eugene's a pessimist. You just put up with his complaining. I don't even hear it anymore."

Born in Beloit, Wis., the younger of twin sons of an engineer, Eugene loved the theater even as a child: His parents were amateur actors. Then, realizing his stutter would keep him in the wings, his fascination turned to set design. While brother Thomas was working toward a degree in library sciences (and his current job in a Michigan high school), Eugene dropped in and out of Wisconsin, Carnegie Tech, Yale and the Art Institute of Chicago. He never got a degree and now mutters, "Anyone can learn about set design in 10 minutes' reading and five years' traveling around Europe."

In 1967 Lee finally found his niche, designing sets at the Trinity Square Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I. Two years later, while putting in a season at Philadelphia's Theater of the Living Arts, he encountered Bronx-born Franne, who had kissed her teacher husband and two preschool kids goodbye in 1968 and roared off on her motorcycle in search of a big-time showbiz career. The daughter of a tool-and-die maker, she had majored in costume design at the University of Wisconsin. A year after she met Eugene, the couple married. They spent the next season in Paris under Peter Brook, and then returned to try Broadway. If the 1972 production Dude is at all memorable, it is for the eight tons of dirt Eugene dumped on center stage.

The Lees were so low on funds when they were nominated for their Candide Tonys they couldn't afford the $50 tickets to the awards ceremonies (Tony producer Alexander Cohen treated). Now they spend their ample income on old cars, their Victorian home in Providence and son William, 6. They rent a restored loft in Manhattan and keep a 50-foot ketch, the Stormsvala, in St. Martin.

With all that, it's hard to argue with Franne, who says, "The way to become famous is to have a strong point of view that is different from everyone else's."

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