Giving Broadway its sole
By Mark Kennedy
May 3, 2015 at 4 a.m.
NEW YORK — Broadway likes to say it has plenty of soul, but only one man has its sole.
Gino Bifulco, who runs the Time Square-area custom shoe company T.O. Dey, makes the footwear for 80 percent of Broadway's musicals.
"No one does it the way we do it," he said. "That's not to pat ourselves on the back. It's just a fact. We go to the extreme."
He and his staff of 14 make each shoe or boot by hand after measuring each performer's foot, whether it's a decorated diva or a member of the ensemble. Sets and costumes may be nice, but dancers will tell you the proper footwear makes the magic happen.
"If they have to think about the next move they're going to do because the shoe isn't working, it's a problem," he said. "If they have to worry about the zipper opening or a heel falling off, it's a problem."
His shop and factory on 46th Street has churned out custom-made footwear for Broadway shows since making red-and-white tap shoes for the "The Tap Dance Kid" in 1983. "From there, we just kept going," he said.
His clients have included "Chicago," "The Lion King," "Matilda," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Wicked," "Rent" and 100 different boots, some with toes curled up, for "Aladdin."
One of the most challenging jobs was a show about footwear — "Kinky Boots," for which T.O. Dey made 150 pairs of boots — some costing as much as $2,000 — for the show's 20 performers.
"Kinky Boots" costume designer Gregg Barnes needed them to be beautiful — some were 32 inches tall in red and black leather with accents — but sturdy enough for grown men to dance in eight times a week.
This spring, the factory, noisy with the whir of sewing machines and the smell of leather and polish, made footwear for "Finding Neverland," "Doctor Zhivago" and 95 boots for the Tony-nominated "Something Rotten!" Bifulco's staff also made the shoes for the Broadway-bound "First Wives Club" and the tour of "Matilda."
For all of his work behind-the-scenes, Bifulco and T.O. Dey are being honored May 1 with the Irene Sharaff Artisan Award by the Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit that provides access to live theater.
The staff of T.O. Dey cut leather but not corners. Their heels are usually attached with a brace in addition to being screwed in for extra security. Their footwear is reinforced in ways that off-the-shelf shoes are not. Heels are balanced to the sole in a way you can't get at Payless ShoeSource.
Bifulco is a third-generation shoemaker whose father bought T.O. Dey in the early 1970s, at first making custom orthopedic shoes, then turning to custom fitted shoes.
Bifulco stitches some of that old knowledge into each pair of footwear for the stage hoofers. "We try to incorporate the orthopedic end of it with the theatrical end of it," he said.
These days, 60 percent of his business is spent on Broadway shows and 40 percent are for individual customers, including Keith Urban, Lady Gaga and Mariah Carey.
"Most people will say, 'Not only are they beautiful to look at but they're extraordinarily comfortable,'" said Stephen Cabral, director of the Theatre Development Fund's costume collection. Cabral recently got tickets in the second row to see "Something Rotten!" and was impressed by the beautiful boots. "I'm a fan," he said.
Customers arrive at T.O. Dey to have detailed measurements taken of their feet, then wooden molds are sculpted, the shoe is built, sewn, treated and decorated. It takes weeks to fill an order.