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Dancers Find A Second Act At Palm Springs Follies
Originally published on Wed May 7, 2014 11:45 pm
The Palm Springs Follies is an old-fashioned musical revue designed for an audience who remembers when this sort of entertainment wasn't old fashioned. But it's not only for older people — it's by older people. The dancers range in age from 55 to 84.
The show, an institution in Palm Springs, is getting ready to wrap up its 23rd and final season in May.
All of the women and men on stage were professional dancers — and thanks to Follies co-founder Riff Markowitz, they still are. He got the idea for an old-fashioned musical revue when he saw a refurbished old theater in Palm Springs' struggling downtown. It reminded him of the places where he saw variety shows when he was a kid. He thought, why not do that again? He decided it should be "Follies with [performers] old enough to understand what they were doing, instead of young people acting as if they were old people — because we remember, because we were there."
So as in the old days, the Follies not only has dance numbers, there's also a juggling act and a headliner. Currently, that's 72-year-old Darlene Love of Twenty Feet From Stardom fame.
The Follies does a lot to cater to its audience. Almost all the performances are matinees. There's a special squad of ushers to check walkers and scooters. Some fans come back year after year. That's despite — or maybe because — older people will be mocked relentlessly by Markowitz, who is the Follies' emcee. He makes fun of "all the things that the audience feels and experiences and fears."
Because it's the Follies last season, the remaining shows are nearly sold out. That hasn't happened since the recession hit in 2008. Since then, fewer people have been able to afford tickets, which can cost as much as $95. The Follies survives on ticket sales. Ultimately, the financial hole was just too deep to keep going.
But for a few more weeks, the show must go on. Follies performances end, as all Follies shows do, with a traditional patriotic medley. They blow out all the stops for the finale: red, white and blue balloons, fireworks effects and a blinding amount of gold sequins. Then the entire cast — and a few members of the audience — join together in a chorus of Auld Lang Syne, that ode to old friends and times gone by.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Palm Springs Follies is an old-fashioned musical revue designed for an audience that remembers when this sort of entertainment wasn't old-fashioned. And the show is not only for older people, but by older people. The dancers range in age from 55 to 84, and include both men and women. The show is an institution in Palm Springs but this, its 23rd season, will be its last. NPR's Ina Jaffe took in the show.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the cast of the Follies' 23rd season. It's our last hurrah. Come on and dance to the music.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: The opening number of the Palm Springs Follies gives a whole new meaning to the term blue-haired old ladies. They're wearing skimpy, spangly bright-blue outfits, wigs to match.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Dance to the music, dance to the music.
JAFFE: When Sly Stone recorded this song in 1968, he probably never imagined that people would dance to the music in tap shoes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAP DANCING)
JAFFE: All of the women and men on stage were professional dancers, and thanks to the Follies, they still are, says 75-year-old Suzanne Vitale.
SUZANNE VITALE: We never thought this was going to happen. Are you kidding? At this age, nobody wants us. You know, a dancer's life is when they're 20, and maybe 30. Who wants somebody over 50? I mean, really, who wants us?
JAFFE: Riff Markowitz, that's who. He produced TV variety shows for years until he moved to Palm Springs and retired, still in his early 50s.
RIFF MARKOWITZ: And that lasted about two years, until I found that the meaning of life clearly was something to do on Tuesday.
JAFFE: He got the idea for an old-fashioned musical revue when he saw a refurbished old theater in Palm Springs' struggling downtown. It reminded him of the places where he saw variety shows when he was a kid. Why not do that again, he thought?
MARKOWITZ: And then it just led from there to it should be Follies with people who are old enough to actually understand what they're doing, instead of young people acting as if they were old people, because we remember, because we were there.
JAFFE: So, as in the old days, the Follies not only has dance numbers, there's also a juggling act and a headliner. Currently, that's 72-year-old Darlene Love of "Twenty Feet from Stardom" fame.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DARLENE LOVE: (Singing) When I was a little girl, I had a ragdoll. The only doll I've ever owned. Well, I loved you just the way I loved that ragdoll, but only now my love has grown.
JAFFE: The Follies does a lot to cater to its audience. Almost all the performances are matinees. There's a special squad of ushers to check walkers and scooters. Some fans come back year after year, like Bill and Jean Boyce, both in their late 80s. They say they enjoy seeing older performers. In fact, the older the better.
JEAN BOYCE: Well, you know, I think they've been older. I think they're getting younger.
BILL BOYCE: In the past, they've had those - several in their 70s and 80s.
JEAN BOYCE: There was one in the 80s. I don't know if she's still here. You know, like the mid-80s, the look of them right now.
BILL BOYCE: But it is a good show. It's just a shame that this is the last year, because this is a group of professionals, every one of them.
JAFFE: And one of their favorite performers is founder Riff Markowitz himself.
MARKOWITZ: My God. I just looked down at the front row. You people look awful.
JAFFE: But not Markowitz. He looks like an old-fashioned matinee idol with his white dinner jacket, mustache and brushed-back wavy hair. Oh, but he takes no prisoners during his long, rambling interaction with the audience.
MARKOWITZ: If you've been here before, put your hand up. Put your -have you - you have. Wait, sir. I recognize you. I recognize you, sir. God love you. You looked a lot better last time. I mean, you're not aging well at all. I just pray to God you make it through this show. That's all. I hate it when they die here, you know.
JAFFE: Markowitz, who's now 75 himself, says what else would he talk to this audience about?
MARKOWITZ: Rap music? You know, I'm talking about the things the audience feels and experience and fears. You know, the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we breathe, the way we cough - these are all things that we all live through at our age. And so, I mean, I just shy away from saying things like older when really what we all know is it's old.
JAFFE: Because it's the Follies last season, the remaining shows are nearly sold out. But that hasn't happened since the recession hit in 2008. Since then, fewer people have been able to afford tickets that can cost as much as $95. And the Follies survives on ticket sales. It's a for-profit corporation. Ultimately, the financial hole was just too deep to keep going.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JAFFE: But for now, the show must go on. And the Follies ends with is traditional patriotic medley.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MARINES' HYMN")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we are proud to wave the title of United States Marines.
MARKOWITZ: With great respect, the Follies asked these former members of the armed forces to come to attention, remain standing and take the salute: Jack Corry, lieutenant, United States Navy.
JAFFE: The house lights fade up, and all of the veterans in the audience rise from their seats - dozens of men and a few women, veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, America and the Follies salute you.
JAFFE: Maybe it's corny, but it's a real lump-in-the-throat kind of moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AULD LANG SYNE")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never gone to mind...
JAFFE: Like old soldiers, this Follies' tradition will fade away later this month. Meanwhile, the finale goes all-out with red, white and blue balloons, fireworks effects and a blinding amount of gold sequins. While the cast - and a few members of the audience - sing that song about old friends and times gone by.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, " AULD LANG SYNE")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...for auld lang syne.
JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: For more, including photos of the show and cast - sequins, blue hair and all - visit our website, npr.org. And we'd like to thank you for listening to us every morning on your public radio station. Of course, you can also follow us here on Twitter. We're @MorningEdition, @NPRInskeep and @NPRMontagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.