WHITEFISH — Sharlot Battin speaks the whole time she’s building a delicate leather boot, her hands pulling fabric and hammering in little nails as if of their own accord while she continues her conversation.
These boots are headed to Malaysia for the Broadway touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” Battin said. The musical is one of Broadway’s most popular, with a 30-year run and ticket sales into 2020.
And 30 years ago, when those first actors took the stage in “Phantom” on Broadway, they too were wearing Battin’s boots. A Whitefish native, Battin left Montana more than 40 years ago to pursue her dream of building Broadway productions, and became one of the boot mavens of theater costuming.
“It was a total fluke,” Battin said, sitting at her worktable in Whitefish. “It just sort of happened to me.”
Battin, 72, moved back to Whitefish full-time last year, and her business of Broadway boots hasn’t slowed down.
Her journey to the bright lights and big city started in 1963, when Battin and her mother took a trip to New York City.
“My mother and I went to New York in 1963 and I saw my first Broadway play, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Not the acting, but being part of it,” Battin said.
After college, a friend from a theater group in San Francisco reached out in need of help at the Brooks-Van Horn Costume Company in New York. Battin went to work in accessories and crafts, and one of her projects included making crude shoes for a Shakespeare production.
Battin didn’t know how to make shoes, and sought out a mentor in the West Village. She quit her job at the costume company to make shoes and boots full-time, trying to find lessons anywhere she could. But it was still a man’s world, she said.
“I chatted up every old fart in New York and I got blown off in every accent you can imagine,” Battin said. “I figured out how to make shoes. I’m almost totally self-taught.”
She shared loft space with a high-end leather furniture maker, and continued to make shoes and boots until her work was noticed by none other than top-of-the-line shoe designer Beth Levine.
“That woman was so fabulous and she helped me so much,” Battin said.
Battin would go to Levine’s warehouses, full of goodies such as “acres of silk thread,” “dyed lizard skins I still have,” and molds around which to build shoes and boots.
Battin incorporated her business in New York in 1976, never advertised, and stayed busy. Her studio walls in Whitefish are lined with posters from the shows she’s booted; one of her favorites was working with Richard Burton for the “Camelot” revival, or with Vanessa Redgrave.
Her work also appeared in dozens of shows, including “The Lion King,” “Miss Saigon,” “Les Miserables,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” and early productions of “Hamilton,” which Battin said was the last big project she worked on before leaving New York. Outside of Broadway, she made shoes for the Houston Opera, theatre productions at Harvard University, and of course the Metropolitan Opera.
“The Met Opera is the great love of my life,” Battin said. “I’ve been working for them since I started my business.”
Discussing the previous 45 years of her life, Battin speaks of major Broadway stars the way a doting aunt discusses her talented nieces and nephews. She kept connections to Montana by spending the summers here, avoiding the heat and humidity of New York City. She would have to go back for the school year, to teach boot- and shoe-making classes at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology.
After her mother died four years ago, Battin knew she wanted to get back to Whitefish. She works in the studio her mother built off the back of the garage so many summers ago, and when asked if she plans to retire from the bright lights of Broadway, Battin laughed.
“Hell no — as long as the work is coming in, I’m going to work,” she said. “They don’t care if you’re on the moon as long as you’ve got Fed Ex.”