The Man Behind the Mask
Skip Smith has been makeup man for presidents and celebrities. But monsters and ghouls are his passion, which he shares in Twin Beach Players’ production of Frankenstein
“This is all you get,” Skip Smith tells me, drawing the gauze-covered prosthetic from the Walmart bag. Dark and empty sockets stare at me for the second before Smith re-seals the bag. To see the mask Smith had created for Twin Beach Players’ Frankenstein (now playing in North Beach), I had to brave the little shop of horrors of his St. Leonard home.
Monsters are Smith’s favorite subjects to work with, above even Audrey Hepburn and U.S. presidents.
Four journals of autographs of the people he’s worked on and with are part of his professional portfolio. So are framed photographs of the famous. From Twin Beach Players to CNN to the White House, he’s made up thousands of faces in four decades of living his boyhood dream.
All Smith’s childhood friends knew he was going to be a professional makeup artist. He’d told them so. So, his biology degree from St. Mary’s College surprised them, as did the seven years he worked as a fisheries biologist at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.
All that time, Smith’s real life was in Washington Community Theater, with his hands in makeup.
“Washington was my avocation and the lab was my vocation,” Smith said.
In 1971, friend Itsi Atkins introduced him to Blood Manor. St. Mary’s County’s blood-curdling haunted house — equipped with real chain saws — was the first such attraction south of Washington. In an old, vacant convent, Smith’s monsters and special effects terrified most of Southern Maryland.
In 1973, makeup artist Vincent J.R. Kehoe became Smith’s mentor, helping his protégé earn Professional Makeup Artist Certification from the Research Council of Makeup Artists.
Smith’s big break came in 1977, by way of Washington’s New Playwrights Theatre, where he worked for playbill credits.
A film producer in the audience was so disturbed by the wounds Smith made for a Civil War drama that he sought him out backstage.
“Where have you been?” the producer demanded, and hired him on the spot. Doors started opening.
Meanwhile, Atkins, a film and video producer, landed Smith a spot in a movie about concentration camps. Smith was the tattoo and tooth guy and also in charge of 120 extras. “I’d just go right down the line and blow soot on their hands and faces,” Smith said.
After years of making ordinary people look bad, Smith made his name making famous people look good.
One assignment stretched to 25 years as senior makeup artist at CNN and Larry King’s personal makeup man.
With CNN, Smith worked his magic on presidents from Nixon to Obama, prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Ted Kennedy.
“I always had to make up Kennedy over his huge water-dog, Splash,” Smith said.
Other challenges include knowing when to joke, when to be serious and when to play psychiatrist.
“What’s said in the makeup room stays in the makeup room,” Smith says.
His most memorable celebrity faces are Bob Hope, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Audrey Hepburn.
“I thought I would just die when Hepburn walked into the room,” Smith says.
The Reveal: Smith’s House of Horrors
Smith retired to his old love, mayhem. In his basement workshop, most everything looks like it’s just died.
Every room and closet is designated for a theme or prop. One bin holds body parts, another heads. A back closet is dedicated to wigs, hair and costumes.
More costumes hang from huge racks. Zombies, caged skeletons with bulging eyeballs and 18th-century coffins fill the largest room. Tucked away in the corner is a makeup mirror and chair with Linda Blair’s infamous Exorcist face hanging alongside it. Her yellow eyes follow your every move.
A Tupperware bin labeled Death Colors sits on the floor. Scattered signs read Warning, Please Do Not Feed the Zombies and No Parking, Funeral.
“I don’t do religion or gore, like really gross-out-make-you-sick-stuff. Just dead things,” Smith says, as he keeps his promise to show me Frankenstein’s creature, crafted for Twin Beach Players.
Out of its bag and unwound from its gauze, it’s worse than scary: the face that emerged from Smith’s empathic imagination is sorrowful.
You’ll see for yourself when actor Tom Wise wears that prosthetic mask for Twin Beach Players’ three-weekend-run, at Bayside Boys and Girls Club in North Beach.
Smith and his trainee Wendy Cranford will also create a frostbitten Dr. Frankenstein, played by Kirk Kugel.
“Twin Beach Players is lucky to have a makeup artist of this caliber who’s still glad to help out local theaters,” says the Players’ Frankenstein director Sid Curl. “Working in the Beaches, out of the goodness of his heart, we feel very fortunate to have Smith on our team.”
Every Halloween, Smith terrifies his St. Leonard neighborhood. Hundreds of kids visit his house of horrors on Avenue B.
In a space that measures 25 by 50 feet, Smith’s carport and side yard, the effects must be potent. The fog machine is standard for scary effects. So are the drawers that move by themselves and live and fake people lurking behind closed doors. It’s up to the audience to decipher what’s real and what’s imagination.
Coffins jutting in your way force you to walk in certain directions. A descending tunnel at the entrance with no end in sight — in complete darkness — guarantees goose bump thrills and hair-on-end chills.
You don’t get candy in Smith’s carport haunt. But a friendly witch delivers the goods for younger visitors.
For that night, Smith plays his favorite character from Beetlejuice, who has more costumes than any of Smith’s other monsters. Michael Keaton, who played the demon in the 1988 movie, is not Smith’s favorite character.I've attached a flyer that includes a description, as well as sizes and prices.
“He was like, let’s just get this over with,” said Smith, who suffered a bruised ego that day.
Smith also totes his ghouls and coffins to local restaurants and bars.
“It’s hilarious to watch people gawking at us, driving down the road with all the horror props crammed inside the trailer,” says Smith of the caravan friends provide for his traveling horror show.
Haunts include The Tavern in St. Leonard (Friday, Oct. 26), the Ruddy Duck in Solomons (Oct. 26 thru Nov. 2) and Anthony’s Bar and Grill in Dunkirk (Saturday, Nov. 3).
“It’s not the full Monty or an active haunt,” Smith said. “More of a creative decorating.”