The Last Goodbye



The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies is dropping the curtain this spring after 23 years.

Photography courtesy The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies

 

In 1997, when The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies was 5 years old, guest star Howard Keel hit his mark too early and plunged down an open stage elevator shaft in front of an audience of about 800.

If you Google “fall down the elevator shaft,” you would find it doesn’t usually end well. But 78-year-old actor and singer — famous for his baritone roles in Show Boat and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers — climbed out and crooned, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Keel went on to live seven more happy years at his home at The Lakes in Palm Desert.

Never underestimate the power that comes with age.

If you’ve seen The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, it’s easy to believe in all kinds of possibilities. Starring professional performers 55 and older, The Follies describes itself as a “Broadway-caliber celebration of the music, dance, and comedy of Mid-Century America with a cast old enough to have lived it!”

On their stage, 70-somethings in nude tights and Vegas showgirl headdresses look no older than 40. They kick their legs high, belt out song after song, and deliver strenuous and complex dance routines with huge smiles. Each performance lasts an athletic three hours, in marathons of 10 shows per week. During the course of the show, cast members state their names and real ages, and the audience thunders with applause.

When 85-year-old performer Maryetta Evans broke her knee, they rolled her out in a wheelchair for the grand finale. As everyone danced and sang around her, she suddenly leaped up from the chair and landed on the stage doing the splits with a wide grin, as the audience joined in a collective gasp.

“Anything is possible in Folliesland,” says Follies founder Riff Markowitz.

Anything, that is, except the inevitability of time. Since its 1992 debut, more than 3 million people have seen the Follies — the longest-running “follies” show of all time — in downtown Palm Springs’ historic Plaza Theatre. The show has become an institution, a durable piece of the desert’s cultural fabric; its loyal fans were shocked when they received their Follies email newsletter and read Riff’s words:

“My partner Mary Jardin and I (much) more than reluctantly decided that the upcoming 23rd season of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies would be our last ...”

After decades of delivering sequined, age-defying, leg-splitting, star-spangled, show-tune, razzle-dazzle manna to the masses, The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies will lower its curtain for the last time on May 18, 2014. Fans rushed to buy tickets on the first day of online sales for the final season, with more than six times the number of reservations than the previous year, breaking all Follies records.

“One of the dozens of reporters who converged on my office said to me, ‘But The Follies is like the mountains or the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway — I thought you’d be here forever!’” Markowitz says. “I smiled, and then replied, ‘Yes, the Follies is a bit like the Tram, and, now that you mention it, it’s just that we’d much rather get off at the top than at the bottom.’”

“We are going to miss our wonderful audiences,” says Mary Jardin, Follies co-founder and director of marketing. “We hope to show them how deeply we care by putting everything we have into this last production. We’re going to go all out.”

The final season — The Last Hurrah! — opened Nov. 1 as a “Follies’ greatest hits” anthology, showcasing the best dance numbers and variety acts from the past 23 seasons. The show samples the Follies’ original format of 1930s and ’40s standards, up to the rock ‘n’ roll and disco eras of more recent years. Susan Anton returns as the guest headliner for holiday shows through Dec. 31. Next, Grammy-nominated Maureen McGovern (“The Morning After”) performs Jan. 7 through March 8, when Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love (“He’s a Rebel”) closes the show once and for all on May 18.

Jardin and Markowitz describe the Follies closing as a “bittersweet decision.” The show’s mostly senior audience remains as loyal as a church congregation, many traveling hours by tour bus to see the show multiple times. But even temples sometimes have to shut their doors.

“Follies was never a profitable venture,” Markowitz says. “It wasn’t designed to be, and we never expected it to be. But it was never our intention for it to lose money. The difficulty with not making some money is that you have no cash reserves.”

Markowitz, who has emceed every performance since The Follies opened, says that despite the nearly year-round, 14-hour workdays and lack of time to spend with his family, “I’m saddened by the demise of the show. It’s been my entire life for 23 years. It’s difficult to imagine life without it.”

Earlier this year, the city of Palm Springs and its hospitality industry bestowed the Tourism Partner of the Year award to The Follies, and Mayor Steve Pougnet praised the show’s founders: “In difficult times, The Follies continued to perform and boost our city’s tourism. What Riff and Mary did for Palm Springs is beyond compare.”

A previous Palm Springs mayor was less enthusiastic about The Follies before it launched. It took Markowitz eight months and three visits to the city council in 1991 before then-Mayor Sonny Bono finally allowed The Follies to take over the newly renovated but empty Plaza Theatre, where Garbo’s Camille world premiered in 1936, and where Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Amos ‘n Andy broadcast episodes of their national radio shows. Bono had already jettisoned wild spring-breakers and founded the Palm Springs International Film Festival to raise the quality of entertainment in the city.

Markowitz envisioned a professional revue honoring and celebrating Plaza Theatre’s vaudeville past. And who better to perform it than the singers and dancers from that era?

Showbiz runs thick through Markowitz’s blood: At age 15, he ran away from home to work as a circus clown for a full year, before segueing into a job as a radio disc jockey. Creating and hosting his own kids’ TV show at 23, he eventually moved to Hollywood to produce television shows and specials, working with Lauren Bacall, Raquel Welch, Vincent Price, George Burns, Abba, Tom Jones, and others. At the tender age of 50, Markowitz retired in Palm Springs.

“I failed at retirement,” he deadpans. “Tried to play golf, but I didn’t like the clothes. I spent about a year looking for the meaning of life, and decided it was simply something to do on Tuesdays.”

He studied Palm Springs’ market of retired seniors looking for something to do, and knew they’d warm up to a musical revue harking to old night club acts, burlesque, vaudeville, and vintage TV shows.

Markowitz and partner Jardin raised money from family and showbiz friends to open The Follies. Jardin, who had no experience in either marketing or theater, was charged with promoting the head-scratching show. “At the time, pundits said we were crazy,” she recalls.

Even worse, a backlash mounted on The Follies’ debut. Local media panned the production, neighborhood merchants complained about congestion caused by theatergoers, and one reporter even quipped, “Who wants to pay to see old ladies’ legs?”

The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies had every reason not to exist.

But the show went on. When the call for auditions first went out, more than 400 people came — and not only amateurs. Over the years, former Vegas showgirls, Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, performers from Paris’ Folies Bergère, and Broadway veterans have performed with The Follies. The turnover has been minimal — one or two a year and the longest-running cast member, Leila Burgess, has been with the cast for 22 seasons.

“They’re the survivors of a generation of singers and dancers,” Markowitz says. “The ones that are left are extraordinarily impervious to rust.”

The Follies succeeded against the odds. Media eventually fawned over the show, which went from local curiosity to national and international sensation. Celebrities flocked to its audience — legendary singers and dancers like Ginger Rogers, Carol Channing, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Russell, Shirley Bassey, Frankie Avalon, Clive Davis, Michael Feinstein, and Annette Funicello. California Gov. George Deukmejian came to see what all the fuss was about, as did President Gerald and Betty Ford. After one performance, Bob Hope arose from the audience to perform a soft-shoe tap dance on the stage.

The Follies resuscitated Plaza Theatre — the city’s high-caliber film festival plans to host future screenings there. Markowitz and Jardin also jump-started the rebirth of downtown Palm Springs, employing more than 110 people and helping to sustain numerous neighboring businesses for decades. The Follies has bolstered the local economy by about $15 million a year. Academy Award voters even nominated the 1997 documentary Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies for an Oscar.

But perhaps the show’s greatest contribution occurred in the personal realm.

After one performance, a journalist wrote in American Way magazine, “In many ways [the show is] as spiritually fulfilling as church. People leave different than when they come in.” Last season’s headliner, Lorna Luft, hollered in the middle of one song, “I think they should change the name of this show to The Inspiring Palm Springs Follies!”

Follies’ “Long-Legged Lovely” cast member Dorothy Dale Kloss, a cancer survivor, joined the troupe at 71 — two years beyond the time her doctors had given her to live. For 14 seasons, Kloss performed her own tap solo nine times a week, in addition to six cast ensemble numbers. Part of the cast until the age of 86, she landed in the Guinness World Records book as the world’s oldest still-performing showgirl.

She acknowledged that The Follies “really brought life back to me.”

In 1996, Markowitz told the Los Angeles Times, “We are an icon of a movement. There are millions of people of ‘an age.’ It’s in every town; it’s just not on the stage. We [older people] behave as we are expected to behave. But love still exists, and lust still exists — and desire and warmth and caring and the quest for knowledge. If that is not permitted, like a muscle that is not worked, it atrophies. Folks that are not using that part of them slowly become Aunt Ida. They become ‘Auntie’ somebody, instead of ‘Ida.’”

He adds, “It never was a gimmick for the cast or me. It was our life, our soul. It was an opportunity — every day — to do the things we all loved most, but thought we would never again be afforded the opportunity to do.”

Markowitz is keeping any plans for The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies brand under wraps for now. But a few years back, Variety reported industry interest in a feature film based on the show’s underdog story, likening it to Rocky.

Regardless, from now until May, Plaza Theatre remains abuzz with senior stars blasting through their day singing, dancing, joking, and smiling with the kind of life-force gusto only present among believers. Between acts, Markowitz peppers the show with sardonic sideline quips about the troupe’s ages and the proverbial kicking of the impending bucket. It’s then you realize you are witnessing the ageless performers defying death itself, dancing right up to its face, boldly flaunting their rebellious love of life.

It’s telling that Markowitz ends each of his Follies newsletters with the words, “Meanwhile ... just stay alive!”  

Fan Feedback:

‘THANK YOU FOR ALL THE FUN AND LAUGHTER’
Loyal fans cried out when they learned it’s the end of the chorus line for The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies.

TIME PASSES and alas, The Fabulous Palm Spring Follies will as well. Thinking of future generations who have yet to experience and now never will some of the best entertainment around these days. Thank you for all the fun and laughter.
— Carl Foster Miller
Yachats, Ore.

THE NEWS of The Follies closing has saddened us, but we are fortunate to have seen so many shows over the past score of years. We will miss Riff’s razor-sharp wit and his ability to read his audiences and tailor his “skewers” accordingly, along with the talented and dedicated in-house cast and guest performers. Riff, you’re a real showman. Thanks for the good times, and best to all in the future.
— Prudy and Mike Randolph (Longtime motor-homers,
or “trailer trash” to Riff)
Las Vegas

WHAT A GREAT loss to the Southwest. Thank you, Riff, for the many hours of corny humor; it was so welcome when compared to the rest of the entertainment world.
— Joyce and Sy Marks
Goodyear, Ariz.

MY WIFE TERRY and I have attended all 22 years. You have brought so many good times to our attention that it is hard for us to think of a year in the desert without The Follies. You will be missed but, never forgotten.
— Jules and Terry Diamond
Santa Maria

 

VIDEO: Riff Markowitz reflects on the Follies' incredible 23-year run.

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