Franne Lee, ‘SNL’ Costumer Behind Coneheads, Dead at 81
Franne Lee, the costume designer who helped craft the look of many of Saturday Night Live’s most popular early characters, has died at the age of 81. Deadline notes that her death followed a “brief illness.” Lee’s passing was announced by her daughter, Stacy Sandler.
Born and raised in New York, Lee became a successful costume and set designer on Broadway in the ‘70s. She took home Tony Awards for her work on the original production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, as well as Candide. Her work on the latter stage play caught the attention of Lorne Michaels, who was in the process of assembling his team for a new sketch comedy series set to launch in 1975, Saturday Night Live.
How Did Franne Lee End up Working on 'Saturday Night Live'?
Michaels recruited Lee and her set designer husband Eugene to come aboard his show.
“When the Lees met Lorne at the Plaza, they told him they were suspicious of TV – neither had ever set foot inside a television studio – and that they didn’t want to spend much time away from their home in Providence, Rhode Island,” noted the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. “Lorne sat on the bed and made it all seem very casual, telling them Saturday Night would be the Off-Broadway of television.”
After coming on board, Lee quickly realized she'd been lied to - something she laughed about later. Saturday Night Live proved very demanding, and she was forced to create new costumes on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, Lee proved up to the challenge.
Which 'SNL' Costumes Did Franne Lee Design?
Lee created many of the most iconic costumes of SNL’s early years. Arguably the most famous was her look for the Coneheads, including the alien family’s oblong heads, as well as their otherworldly capes. Roseanne Roseannadanna, Lisa Loopner and Todd DiLaMuca (aka the Nerds), and Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers outfits were all created by Lee. She was also behind the infamous killer bee costumes which served as a running gag in SNL’s first season.
One of the biggest challenges Lee faced during her SNL tenure was creating costumes that could be quickly removed or put on. Cast members regularly had to do quick changes backstage, and they couldn’t waste precious seconds fumbling with buttons or clasps. Velcro became one of Lee’s most important tools.
“One problem with the quick changes was that at times some of the men didn’t wear underwear,” explained the book Saturday Night, adding that many of the male cast members often ended up “stumbling around behind the wardrobe racks trying to preserve a modicum of modesty. Franne Lee finally posted a notice insisting that all cast members must wear underwear on Saturday nights. She kept an extra box of Jockey shorts around in case somebody forgot.”
Lee left Saturday Night Live after five years and earned two Emmy nominations. She continued working on various television, stage and film projects throughout her life.