At one time, there were seven costume shops on Walnut. All, save Morelli's, had moved or gone under. Now, he's calling it quits, too.
``Forty-three years in business,'' he said, sadly shaking his head.
Morelli, a spirited 70-year-old in blue jeans, has dressed everyone from megastars to Mummers, furnishing costumes for Broadway shows and traveling troupes and opera companies coast to coast.
``I used to make frock suits for Pavarotti - 60 chest, 60 waist,'' he said.
Disney was a customer, too. ``When they opened in Paris, you know, Euro Disney, I made all the duster coats for the men and the big hats for the women.''
At its peak, his shop employed 17 people: designers, cutters, drapers, tailors and seamstresses. One by one, they died or retired, taking their irreplaceable blend of technical skill and period-costume knowledge with them.
``It's a dying art,'' Morelli said.
He took on more of the work himself, but knew that couldn't last, and so decided to close the last of Philadelphia's costume shops.
Sam Fleming was in a panic over the news.
She is the associate costume designer for the four Phantom of the Opera productions in the United States - on Broadway, in San Francisco and two touring companies.
``Ben has been our godsend,'' she said. ``He does wonderful, wonderful, exquisite work.'' He has made about 50 costumes for Fleming, including some Phantom suits, which cost about $2,500 apiece.
``Ben was trained in that wonderful, Old World, European style,'' she said, and finding a replacement will be difficult.
Morelli got his start in the basement of a home in West Philadelphia.
After his World War II service ended, he and his new bride, Tina, went there to live with her mother. Morelli designed windows and displays at Lit Bros. department store during the day and studied hat-making and pattern design at night.
Eventually, he installed cutting tables and sewing machines in his mother-in-law's basement and went to work making Mummers costumes.
``I used to run home, eat dinner, run downstairs and work till 1 or 2 in the morning,'' he said.
In the late '50s, he and his brother-in-law, Robert Oranzi, who was married to Tina's twin sister, moved their costume operation to Ninth and Chestnut above a drugstore. Morelli bought the Beaux-Arts treasure at 1118 Walnut St. in the late 1970s.
``I'm sad to see Ben go,'' said Richard Williamson of Pierre's Costumes, which once sat across the street from Morelli's shop and now is in Pennsauken. ``He's been a very friendly competitor . . . a gentleman.''
Morelli is keeping his turn-of-the-century building, which his son, jewelry designer Paul Morelli, will refurbish and use for his business.
He has a few more orders to fill, so the sewing machines won't go silent just yet, but two floors' worth of costumes made in Philadelphia have been sold to companies in Maryland and Texas.
There are some treasures Morelli won't part with. He slides a big carton out from under a table in his third-floor work room and gently unfolds a slender black gown, its bodice adorned with hand-embroidered flowers and hand-crocheted fringe.
``Look at the workmanship on this,'' he said. ``I could donate it to a museum; they would die for it.''
The dress wasn't made in his shop, but is part of the collection of period pieces this student of fashion has amassed.
His mother was his inspiration.
``My mother was excellent in sewing,'' he said. She had 13 children, and dressed them in clothes made from flour sacks she'd bleached and dyed.
Morelli studied women's wear in school - the Philadelphia institutions where he learned are long gone - but found that his forte was menswear. He proudly shows off Prussian military jackets and impeccable cutaway coats like those Fred Astaire wore.
Richard Harris liked his work so much he commissioned Morelli to make a couple of Colonial-era suits, which the actor wore off stage.
``He was a dream,'' Morelli said of Harris. ``He used to come in the shop and belt out a song.''
Yul Brynner was another story. They met when the star was in town for The King & I, and Morelli was called in for an alteration. ``They called me up because he didn't like the way they made his hat in England. He was so nasty, I threw the hat on the table and walked out.''
Mostly, his contacts have been happy ones.
``I deal with beautiful people,'' he said. ``It gets in your blood when you work in the theater.''
Whether he was making a costume for a star or a family member, details counted.
For years, he designed clothes, hats and even shoes for Tina.
``No matter where she went, if I made her an outfit, the hat matched, because I was trained that way.''
When the Morellis celebrated their 50th anniversary, he made himself a white dinner jacket and a tuxedo to wear on the cruise in the style of the 1930s, one of the most elegant periods in fashion history.
``We'll miss him,'' said Frank Binswanger Jr., chairman of the Philadelphia-based Binswanger real-estate conglomerate who has a thing for costume parties and has hosted them in business settings all over the world. He often wears a deep-blue 19th-century admiral's uniform with gold lapels and heavy braids that Morelli made for him years ago.
Binswanger, 70, cherishes the costume. ``I'm going to be buried in it,'' he said.