Backstage Legacy Abel Zeballos

The theatrical makeup, hair, and costume designer’s five-decade career has left its mark on Orange County.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

The Cal State Fullerton professor emeritus from Corona del Mar is beloved by former students for his warmth and humor. As a backstage wizard, Zeballos has helped actors portray Knott’s Scary Farm monsters, Charlie Chaplin, South Coast Repertory’s first Ebenezer Scrooge, and scores more. Now he has tales of his own to tell. 

Getting his start in theater

I came to this country as a foreign student from Bolivia. I came to study electrical engineering, first at Orange Coast College and then Cal State Fullerton. At Orange Coast College, I started taking some theater classes. Then when I got to Fullerton, I started taking more. So I did about a year more engineering. I was in my third year. Then I realized, that’s not my world. My world has to be theater. 

Learning tricks of the trade from the masters

I had great teachers. One of them passed away recently, Dwight Richard Odle. He was a designer at South Coast Repertory and the Laguna Playhouse. I would call the important makeup artists in the industry like (seven-time Oscar winner) Rick Baker, the Burman brothers (“Star Trek”), John Chambers (“Planet of the Apes,” “Star Trek”). Sometimes they would say, “Come over and I’ll show you.” I swear all these people really helped me. Any problem I had, I’d call them, and they were so open and available.

Creating thrills and chills at Knott’s Scary Farm for two decades

In 1973, Knott’s Berry Farm started to do the Halloween Haunt. I was working there as a technician, and they figured, we need makeup, and we have this guy here, so let him do it. That’s how it started. Then it got bigger and bigger and bigger. Suddenly, we had 60 makeup artists, and we were doing hundreds of makeups in three hours.

Designing award-winning costumes for Molière’s satirical “Tartuffe” at Santa Ana’s Alternative Repertory Theatre in 1993

We got together with the director one night, and she had the idea: “These people are all trying to hide something; what if we did it all in underwear?” Then for Tartuffe, I thought, what if under the underwear, he has a studded leather codpiece and a tattoo—a cross on his butt cheek. The actor was totally into it. The first night, Tartuffe pulled down his shorts and the audience laughed for 10 minutes. That year, it won best costume design from the Los Angeles Times.

Working on “Chaplin,” a musical written by and starring Anthony Newley, at The Music Center (in L.A.) in 1983

Tony Newley wrote quite a few musicals, like “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” In “Chaplin,” he appears as himself telling a story, and then he goes around behind the set, still talking, and he appears as the old Chaplin, and then he has to appear as the young Chaplin, and then for a few seconds as the Little Tramp. The changes had to be done in seconds. Once, Tony said to me, “Oh, Abel, I’m too old for this.” I said, “Tony, you wrote it.”

The process of getting to opening night

You have to love this business, otherwise it’s very hard, because you give up so many things. I missed so many birthdays, weddings. But I also love the process to get to that opening night. Even if it’s a bad production or things didn’t turn out the way I expected, it was still OK because you always learn something. And the next time, you don’t make the same mistakes.