“Las Vegas Will Never Go Dark,” by Betty Madden

27 Aug

Betty P Madden

For 35 years Betty Madden has worked as a costume designer in the Motion Picture Industry and has been a member of the Costume Designers Guild. She is now an organizer for the Guild and has lived in Pasadena since 1979. 

I grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm near Chippewa Falls. My father had married my mother one month before he shipped out to fight in World War II; my mother was pregnant. She saw me as a burden because she had been left alone to raise me for two years. When my father returned 22 months later, I was there, an almost two-year-old, with no connection to him. We never did bond. He was a changed man; the war experience had devastated him. “Madness,” he called it.

My mother used to beat me with a stick until one day I took it away from her. She never touched me out of caring, never encouraged me. I thought of her as a sibling; I had to carry my own weight—and even be the caregiver for my siblings, whom I loved. My brother, on the other hand, was treated with respect and caring. He was never expected to do any household chores.

I was convinced that I was unlovable; if I kept trying, though, I might win their acceptance.

At eight, I negotiated my first contract—with my mom. I’d earn ½ cents each time I washed the dished. But after the first month, she paid me only ½ of what I had earned. She claimed that I hadn’t washed that many dishes. That was my first lesson in negotiations. From then on I marked on a paper each time I washed dishes and made her acknowledge the marks.

So when my brother was of age to be drafted, my father opposed it with every fiber of his being. He had already investigated Canada as an option for his son, but then he suffered a massive heart attack, which left my brother in charge of the family, which now included a four-year-old sister.

I was a throw-away kid, the oldest but a non-entity in my family. The day I graduated from high school, my mom told me, You think you’re going to college? How do you think we could ever pay for that? You’re going to work. It turns out she had already found me a job as a nurse’s aide in Rochester, Minnesota at Saint Mary’s Hospital, an affiliate of the Mayo Clinic.

I left home and started the new job. I got no support whatsoever: emotional, financial, material. I remember constant fear of homelessness. It was a full-time job to keep a roof over my head. There were no credit cards in the mid-60s.

It occurred to me that I had been replaced by  my sister, that I’d been sent away and that she was the “real daughter.” In spite of everything I would make visits home from time to time to see my relatives and friends and siblings. But there was a ten-year period where I didn’t visit because after each visit it would take me six months to get back to a sense of myself.

In 1967 I got pregnant. Birth control was only allowed for married women and abortions were illegal. A single woman with a child was considered “mentally ill” while the male was considered to have no responsibility. My friends drifted away; I was alone and isolated. The last six months of pregnancy, I felt completely abandoned.

I gave birth but knew I couldn’t be the mother I would want for my baby. There were well-educated couples out there so I gave him up. It almost killed me. That was the point at which I bottomed out. After signing the release papers, I told myself, You have to stop being a victim. You have to be who you want to be. From that moment on, I became an activist, attending anti-war protests on the state capitol steps in Madison.

I got a job in a restaurant as a waitress, quickly moving up to manager. My experience as a child had come in handy here. My father had owned a “country tavern” in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; in those days a country tavern served as a community center. Family events were held there. Produce and other food was sold. Because of my experience working there as a child, I’d learned to handle people early on, to read them and respond to them. This helped me later to have a good quality of life.

My activism always consisted of trying to shift people’s mindsets towards more inclusion. I’d have lots of conversations with my co-workers. I called myself a soap-box politician. When someone was negative about the “system,” I’d tell them, “You’re the system.”

In 1969 I moved to Las Vegas to take a job as a hostess at a gourmet restaurant complex at the International Hilton There the culinary contract was up. The hotels weren’t negotiating in good faith. A strike was threatened. Las Vegas will never go dark, said the hotel owners. But we held a strike action for 24 hours. The city did go dark! We ended up with a good contract. Never since has Las Vegas gone dark. After this experience I felt empowered, as an individual and even more as part of a larger organization. I saw the power of the people when they have a common purpose. As the saying goes, When you swim alone, it’s all upstream, but when you’re with a school of fish, you get somewhere.

Betty Madden.Hilton.LasVegas

I began doing private couture work with Las Vegas executives’ wives. It started when I designed some waitress uniforms. Someone probably saw my work and spread the word. As a little girl I had designed costumes for my dolls and me, and people from the community tell me that even when I was three, I was busy designing clothes, using resources such as ribbons, paper, scraps of other things from the family gatherings and parties at the tavern. I was raised by a loving community and was in the public eye at an early age. I’d also cut out dresses from catalogs and paste them on paper, then design around them. When I was eight, I began sewing.

Costume Designers Guild.logo

Upon leaving Las Vegas I became a costume designer in the motion picture industry and a member of the Costume Designer’s Guild. I’ve done that for 35 years now, currently working as a Guild organizer.

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