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The man who feathers Big Bird

American Plume & Fancy Feather has evolved over nine decades in business, from feathered hats to showgirls.

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Birds of play Birds of play Birds of play
American Plume & Fancy Feather has been feathering the stars - including Big Bird - for more than 80 years.

CLARKS SUMMIT, PA. (FORTUNE Small Business) -- I am 60 years old, but my company is even older. My great-uncle started it in 1921, when women wore feathers in their hats. But when bare heads came back into style, the company needed to evolve from a feather-dyeing firm to more of a full-service provider.

My wife, Elizabeth, and I make about $3 million in revenues a year selecting, dyeing, and assembling feathers, which are used in everything from 16th-century costumes for films to expensive perfume boxes.

When we receive a new shipment of feathers, the first thing we do is pick through each box to find the best-looking quills. Then we clean and color the feathers before gluing them together to make boas, fans, and plumes. Our toughest customer is Big Bird. His tremendous costume uses feathers from the rear end of a turkey, which are rarely clean. Sesame Street rejects nine out of ten feathers.

We order materials from suppliers around the world. We buy turkey feathers from the U.S., ostrich plumes from South Africa, and peacock fluff from India. The plumes end up in equally far-off places: adorning Russian ballroom dancers, reenactors of Aztec ceremonies in Mexico and Peru, and Cher, who once wore a massive turkey-feather headdress created by Bob Mackie to the Academy Awards.

Our forte is show business. One Vegas number might feature 40 showgirls, together wearing $80,000 in feathers. Those get a lot of wear and tear, so we refurbish them every few years. We've been on Broadway for 25 years, outfitting shows such as Wicked.

Last winter's Broadway strike didn't last long enough to hurt us. A bigger challenge is competing with the lower-priced feathers coming in from China. It has impacted revenues - five years ago we were a $6-million-a-year company - but we'll bounce back. I come from a long line of feather people. -As told to Mina Kimes

Anthony Trento is the owner of American Plume & Fancy Feather in Clarks Summit, Pa. To top of page

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