Franne Lee, Saturday Night Live Costume Designer Who Created Coneheads Look, Dead at 81

Lee also worked on Sweeney Todd and Candide.

Franne Lee, a prolific costume designer and set designer known for her work on Broadway and on Saturday Night Live, has passed away at the age of 81. The news was confirmed via Lee's daughter, Stacy Sandler, who revealed that she passed away on August 27th in Atlantis, Florida, following a brief illness. Lee is associated with a number of Saturday Night Live's most distinct costumed characters, having created the designs for the Coneheads, the Blues Brothers, Rosanne Rosannadanna, the Nerds, and the Killer Bees.

Lee was born Frances Elaine Newman on December 30, 1941 in The Bronx neighborhood of New York City. While majoring in art at the University of Wisconsin, she developed a penchant for costume design. She became known as one of the biggest costume designers of the 1970s, earning two Tony awards for costume and set design in 1974 for her work on Candide, the latter of which she shared with her partner, Eugene Lee. She then won an additional Tony for her work on the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and credits herself with helping convince Hal Prince to produce the production.

"I was with Hal when Stephen came in from London and had copies of the play Sweeney Todd is based on, called The String of Pearls," Lee told South Florida Theater Magazine in a 2021 interview. "It was a play he'd read or seen when he was in England. He handed the scripts out and said, 'I want to write the music, lyrics and the book to this musical.' Everybody took a copy and later I was on a plane with Hal, going out to Chicago to do Girl of the Golden West. I asked him what he thought of that play. He said, 'I'm not doing a musical about people eating people!' I told him I thought it would make a wonderful musical or even an opera. He said, 'I don't know. I don't think Steve can do it all.' I said, 'Well, why don't you call Hugh Wheeler to write the book and let them do it together? It would be a wonderful piece.' When we got off the plane I said, 'Call Stephen!' It wouldn't have happened if I didn't push it. I was like that back then. I was very bossy!"

Lee's award-winning work on Candide was then noticed by Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, and led to her tenure on the first five years of the series. She was nominated for Emmys for her work on the show in 1977 and 1978. Her subsequent costuming work included Gilda Live, Dead Ringer, Emo Philips Live, The Local Stigmatic, and Sam the Man.

"Coming from an Off-Broadway situation where they don't have much money, I always think of what I can beg, borrow or steal," Lee would later explain. "It's a challenge to work within budgetary limitations and I think these limitations actually help make me more creative."

"I have to know who the actors are and get detailed descriptions of their roles," Lee added. "I ask questions about their full identities, from the leads down to the minor parts. I think when costuming a play that it's really important to create a world of characters that can live in the same room together. I also think it's important to keep the audience from working too hard to learn who each character is. I like to help them more easily identify each character through their clothes."

Our thoughts are with Lee's family, friends, and fans at this time.