by Greg Niemann
A variety show featuring seasoned performers all at least 50 years of age works well in a nostalgic town like Palm Springs.
Palm Springs is a place where vintage tunes from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s bleat out all day over the area’s most popular radio station. The sentimental music is a part of daily life, enough to cause some visitors to comment on the apparent “time warp.”
This is a place where celebrity bus tours drive past homes of movie stars who have passed away so long ago most people (that is all those under 50) say “Who was that?”
For a town whose population swells each winter with retirees from around the country (and Canada), and is only a two-hour bus ride from millions of others in Orange County and Los Angeles, nostalgia plays quite well.
The Palm Springs Follies is playing to sold-out houses in its 13th season. The first time I attended the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies at the historic Plaza Theatre on So. Palm Canyon Dr. I was 59 years old. Looking at the white-haired crowd I felt like one of the youngest people in the place. That’s something only Palm Springs can do for you.
The show’s producer, director and master of ceremonies Riff Markowitz, in his biting role as the latter, plays well the age of the patrons. During each show he works the crowd, singling out those over 90 and 100 for recognition. Move over, Branson.
Most are not disappointed in the show, in fact over 98 % vow to return. Age vanishes once the curtain opens. You know those long-legged lovelies on the stage are past their prime (The cast’s ages run from 54-88 years old), but it’s hard to believe. Flashing as much leg and torso as is prudent, they dance, sing, even do the splits for crying out loud, and appear in elaborate costumes and headdresses that can weigh 15 lbs or more.
One, 84-year-old trouper Beverly Allen is “The World’s Oldest Still Performing Showgirl” according to the Guinness Book of Records. Like most of the seasoned Follies showgirls, her credits are dazzling, going back to dancing with Eddie Duchin and Tommy Dorsey and entertaining troops for the USO in Europe during WWII.
Today the Follies is in its 13th season, constantly playing to sell-out crowds filling the restored theatre of 760 seats. Over 2,400 performances have delighted crowds since opening in 1990, and over 2? million people have seen the show.
The season runs from November through March, mostly Wednesday through Sunday, two daunting three-hour-plus shows most days (Except Sunday), about 115-120 days a year, for about 200 plus shows each season.
The timing of need and opportunity was perfect for such an enterprise as the Fabulous Follies. In 1989 the city wanted a tenant for the abandoned Plaza Theater. And former Hollywood producer Riff Markowitz was bored with his retirement to La Quinta. He had spent 30 years of his life producing, writing and directing award-winning television series and variety specials for a host of famous talents. He also co-created and produced the dramatic series “The Hitchhiker” for HBO and “Tales From The Darkside.”
Upon his first visit, he realized the theater’s charm and sense of history would be perfect for his dream. Markowitz recalls, “Well this was just the ultimate sandbox for someone whose dream had always been to perform upon an authentic vaudeville stage.”
But first he had to convince the city, which he finally did (3-2 vote). Then in addition to assuaging the concerns of neighboring businesses, he had to sink about $900,000 into renovating the old place.
The show opened with slow sales the first week. Then word of mouth took over and Markowitz has never looked back. The show’s 125 employees has commanded a large payroll but more important to the community are the approximately 170,000 attendees each year.
Over 40 % come to Palm Springs just for the show. While only about 20 % spend the night, over 75 % grab a bite to eat and 50 % buy something locally. So the concerns of the neighboring businesses have turned to raves. In fact, group organizers bus them in all season long.
Not only were the townspeople won over, but so was the media. The Washington Post said, “The regular standing ovations suggest that this is the right stuff in the right place at the right time.” The Today Show reported, “Great legs, great stamina, great sense of humor! Dazzling.” Doing them one better was ABC’s “Day One” with Diane Sawyer and Forrest Sawyer which gushed, “The sexiest, most stunning showgirls in the business.”
Everything about the show is first rate, and the costumes are no small matter. Markowitz acquired designer Paul McAvene whose movie credits include “King Kong” and “The Jungle Book” while for the stage his costumes for “Les Miserables” and “Cats” helped ensure their success.
Along with the popular song and dance numbers each show features various variety acts and a headliner. The most endearing variety acts are pure vaudeville.
Early on, one big name was hired for the entire season, but sometimes illness forced Markowitz to scramble to find replacements. Donald O’Conner, who sang but admitted he could no longer do his famous soft-shoe work, was the guest headliner for my first visit. O’Conner got ill shortly after that show and replacements filled the remainder of the season.
Today, Markowitz signs up four headliners to cover the entire season, each doing about 50 shows. My second visit my friends and I were impressed by Carol Lawrence who did a great job. Howard Keel, Frankie Laine, Anna Marie Alberghetti, The Four Aces, and Barbara McNair have also been headliners at the Fabulous Follies.
This season the theme is “Hooray for Hollywood” and features Bill Hayes from Apr. 13 to May 31, 2004. Perhaps you recall Hayes recorded “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” back in 1955.
Markowitz loves interacting with the audience. During the show he recognizes various groups. As each is introduced, that section applauds itself. If one group is way in the back, he might make a comment like, “Boy, I hope you didn’t pay your leader for the expensive seats.”
As a special treat after each show, the cast adjourns to the lobby to greet visitors departing the historic theatre. We got a photo of my friend posing with lovely dance manager Leila Burgess, who could pass for 20 years younger than her admitted 67 years. The active show business lifestyle obviously agrees with her.
The show is more of a catalyst for the Fountain of Youth for the cast than it is for the audience. Former Radio City Rockette and runway model Glenda Guilfoyle, 69, said succinctly what most know and feel, “The Follies keeps me young.”
Dorothy Kloss, 79, in her 8th Follies season, simply added, “I no longer think about getting old.”
It’s a show that makes you feel good about the inevitable aging process. In one fun afternoon, you’re transported back in time and honored, because whether it was your time or not, age became timeless. After all, you’re as young as you feel! b