Lola Beaver, 96; Capitol Hill Shop Owner, Costume Connoisseur

By Louie Estrada
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

Lola Beaver, 96, the sassy, sharp-tongued owner of a popular costume shop on Capitol Hill, died Nov. 28 at her home above the store that she ran for more than three decades until her retirement in 2004. She had been under hospice care at her home after suffering injuries in a fall.

A former dancer and choreographer, Ms. Beaver designed many, if not all, of the hundreds of elaborate costumes on the long rows of racks at the Costume Shop, which she first opened on K Street in Washington in the 1960s. After the 1968 riots, she relocated the shop to an old dry cleaners on the first floor of a corner house at Eighth and A streets NE.

A significant portion of her business came from local theater companies who rented period costumes for stage productions. But given her proximity to the federal government's institutions of power, politicians and government officials also numbered among her many regular customers.

Whether it was finding an outfit to wear to a masquerade ball, Mardi Gras celebration or Halloween party, Ms. Beaver was always ready to suggest a costume to match the person with the occasion, said Teri Knox, her former assistant.

"She was tough," Knox said of Ms. Beaver. "Cut-to-the-bone honest."

"It wasn't uncommon for her to say, 'Here, try on this one; don't pick that one. You're too fat for that one.' "

This isn't to say she didn't have a sweet side, Knox said. Ms. Beaver adored the neighborhood children and cared deeply about the welfare of animals, especially stray dogs and cats. Until recently, Ms. Beaver, with her short, thick mane of white hair, could be seen walking her mixed-breed dog, Smokey, along the streets of Capitol Hill.

Her rebellious streak and penchant for directness, while disarming for some, helped earn her admiration and loyalty from customers and a group of her closest friends, whom she affectionately called "my angels."

One of those angels was Donna L. Brazile, chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute. Brazile lived across the street from Ms. Beaver. They shared drinks at Ms. Beaver's late afternoon tea parties, discussing politics and current events over shots of bourbon.

"Her mind was sharp to the end," Brazile said. "That's the way she was, full of spunk and fire."

Ms. Beaver, who enjoyed a good story, had many of her own to share, some tragic.

Born Luola Murchison Hurkamp in Fredericksburg, she was 4 when her mother committed suicide. She was sent to Washington and graduated from National Cathedral School in 1929. After spending the summer in Europe, she went to New York to study art. The country's economic crisis compelled her to find work where she could, and for a time she was a dime-a-dance girl.

She married Andy Beaver, a struggling actor turned Marine, and the couple eventually divorced. Their twin sons died in infancy.

During World War II, Ms. Beaver opened a dance school in Washington and organized shows for the USO in the Caribbean and the Arctic. Her dance work eventually led her to focus on costumes.

There were exciting moments over the years. In the 1960s, she received a request from the White House to create a bow tie to match President Lyndon B. Johnson's new navy blue tuxedo.

Ms. Beaver also got a kick out of one Halloween, at the height of Watergate, when she provided Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh (D) with a burglar costume and his wife with a bug costume.

Brazile said Ms. Beaver compiled her life experiences in a draft of an unpublished memoir, which ends optimistically with the line, "I can still laugh."

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