Dim the house lights, close the curtains, and shut the stage door: The Contessa has left the production. After a brief illness, the Island’s beloved Antonio “Tony” Garcia, A.K.A. The Contessa peacefully passed away on Friday, August 16, two days short of his 81st birthday.
Garcia, a much loved and iconic character was as much a recognizable part of Galveston as the Statue at 25th and Broadway or the giant crab above Gaido’s Restaurant. Everyone knew and loved the little man that could work wonders with his creative talents and his uncanny ability to really make a “silk purse from a sow’s ear.”
In the mid-1980s, when George Mitchell decided to re-boot the Galveston Mardi Gras, he reached out to island theatrical guru and costumer, Danny Morgan, owner of Morgan Costume Studio on Broadway. With Morgan came the brilliant “seamstress”, make-up artist, costumer, and aesthetician: the quiet, little Tony Garcia.
Garcia, who had already made a name for himself in Galveston’s social and theatrical circles, came on board with full steam and a “nothing is impossible” attitude. Well-known due to his salon and costume designs, Garcia used his talents to bring his “Garcia flair” to any project, production, or coif in which he was involved.
With his gentle and demure self, Garcia brought a steady and soothing sweetness to his endeavors. At his salon, Tony’s, the Born on the Island (BOI) perfectionist was “doing” hair for everyone from the elite to the not so well-heeled. Everyone loved Garcia and he loved them. With his long lashes batting and his coquettish smile, he would say, “Oh honey, I learned a long time ago to just nod, listen, throw in a few “un-huh’s” and make them all feel like princesses.” That he did, and more.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the Galveston theater scene took hold; Garcia, along with Danny Morgan was right there behind the scenes with every show. From costume design, sewing and fitting, to make-up and hair, Garcia was the man. He was well read and educated, and there was little within the realms of period clothing, style, and etiquette that he did not know.
An avid reader, Garcia’s bookshelves were filled with historical works, biographies, design elements, and theatre and costume books. His music collection ran the gamut from highbrow classical to jazz, blues, some country, and volumes of show tunes. Garcia loved show business and joked, “I think I was born with greasepaint and pancake in my veins.”
“Tony and I started school together, Goliad Elementary. He was such fun and sweet guy. We acted together and did things all through school. I remember him so well, in second grade, dancing the Mexican Hat Dance on stage. He was just great, always involved and loved the Grand and we loved him. He will be missed,” said Maureen M. Patton, executive director of the Grand 1894 Opera House.
The Grand Opera House was not his only theatrical love. He worked tirelessly for Kim Mytelka, director of the Island ETC theater.
“Tony was always there, so sweet and so ready to do whatever was needed to ensure a great show,” Mytelka said of Garcia’s passing, “Life without Tony in Galveston will be much less colorful, less flamboyant, and less fun. I will miss my kind, sweet friend immensely.”
Over the years, Garcia became famous for his elaborate and original costumes. Some folks, upon hearing of his death, stated: “Oh my God, there goes Mr. Mardi Gras.”
Garcia and his brilliant costumes were a staple of Mardi Gras. He was a member of the famed Krewe of Aquarius and they counted on him each year to design and create the ornate capes and costumes that adorned the Royal Court. As soon as one Mardi Gras season would end, Garcia would begin prepping, shopping, designing and readying for the next. The little, quiet man from Galveston was in high demand on the Island and would sit up all night in his beautifully appointed house/studio, sewing, listing to loud classical music and sipping aged Scotch while the rattle of his machine sang out with each press from his foot.
No matter what event or gathering, Garcia was there — a figure that everyone knew and loved. From drag shows and fundraisers to memorials and private parties, the always dapper and appropriately costumed character made his presence known. With eye problems, Garcia always wore his trademark dark shades over his glasses, inside and out.
Once I said to him, “Tony, you sit there all alone and look like an old fashioned undertaker or vampire in those dark oval shades.” He would smile, offer that almost childish smile and in a Bela Lugosi voice say, “Where do you think Ann Rice found her image for Lestat?”
Keeping his personal life very private and not one prone to get involved in local gossip or tête-à-tête (although he certainly had his opinions!) the character that Garcia presented in public was all showmanship, a sort of smoke and mirrors as opposed the quiet, non-interfering person behind the image. He’d have a few beers, some slots, maybe a conversation with a friend or two, and then quietly slip from the bar or gathering back to his very private life. That was Tony Garcia. Not a man to brag or accept compliments easily, he frequently refused my interest in featuring him and his work in an article in the MONTROSE STAR.
“No, not me,” he would say. “There are so many more deserving people. You get Robert Mainer or Dana Finley, and then maybe me.”
The Galveston LGBTQ family has lost a lot of beloved characters, each well known and sorely missed. They were great contributors to the unique “hodge-podge” that makes up the Galveston community. Garcia’s passing will leave a huge hole and for a little man, some mighty big shoes to fill.
Go gently into the footlights, our theatrical friend, and may you never fade out.