The Show Must Go On
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 15, 1999
Its stars may be senior citizens, but The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies rivals any spectacular in Vegas or on Broadway.
Mine was not an unusual male response to a bevy of showgirls strutting their stuff before my very eyes. But when those showgirls are between the ages of fifty-five and eighty-six, the reaction is, well, rather remarkable.
That’s the appeal, allure, and sheer wonder of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a full-tilt spectacular that pays homage to vaudeville, variety shows, and the vanishing specter of live performance. Playing to packed houses at the historic Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs, California, it is no sentimental journey for the geriatric set, despite the preponderance of gray hair in the audience and a fifty-year-old mandatory minimum for the performers. It is a glitzy extravaganza rivaling contemporary stage productions in Vegas or on Broadway.
Observe the line of long-legged lovelies who kick, flip, and sashay to “Hooray for Hollywood” in lavishly plumed costumes inspired by Busby Berkeley, and the equally adept company of male dancers and singers. Marvel at the deft banjo-plinking and ribald antics of the Mercer Brothers, Jim and Bud, eighty-three and eighty-six respectively, and honest-to-goodness veterans of the vaudeville stage and of the motion picture classic Tin Pan Alley. Behold the gymnastic gyrations of the Rios Brothers, who somersault through the air with the greatest of ease. Savor tributes to celebrated composer Irving Berlin. Double over from the droll quips spilling from the lips of the debonair Riff Markowitz, whose sloe eyes, wavy hair, and full mustache are the embodiment of the matinee idol.
Part nostalgia trip, part history lesson, the two-and-a-half-hour spectacular is pure entertainment, no doubt about it. But injected throughout are subtle commentaries, throwaway lines, and blatant remarks in a running commentary addressing the far more universal theme of facing mortality. Which is exactly what Riff Markowitz was contemplating back in 1990.
An acclaimed television producer (HBO’s The Hitchhiker, Tales From the Darkside, and specials starring George Burns, Raquel Welch, and Dionne Warwick, among others), Markowitz retired to the Palm Springs area in 1988 with his then-wife Mary Jardin, the beneficiary of a handsome corporate buyout that meant Markowitz need never work again, even though he had just seen the dark side of fifty.
But retirement, he quickly determined, was the last thing he wanted to do. He wasn’t interested in chasing little white balls around any of the area’s eighty-plus golf courses. Markowitz preferred putting his cumulative skills to work, and he quickly discovered other stage and screen veterans who shared that same desire to be in the spotlight once again, no matter how old they were, no matter how youth-obsessed their chosen business had become. That’s when Markowitz and Jardin came up with the Fabulous Follies concept. (Though now divorced, the two are still partners in the venture.)
The idea coincided neatly with the goal of Palm Springs civic leaders to revitalize their decaying downtown, the centerpiece of which was the recently renovated Plaza Theatre, a stunning example of Spanish mission-style architecture where comedian Jack Benny once broadcast weekly radio programs heard coast to coast. Some city fathers, however, including then-mayor Sonny Bono, thought the idea wasn’t “classy or artistic enough.” But Markowitz was undeterred, and eight months and three visits to the city council later, he was granted his wish. The Fabulous Follies revue made its debut in 1991, with none other than Markowitz as the master of ceremonies in addition to his duties as the show’s producer and the theater’s director.
Initially, he local newspaper critic panned the production, and neighboring merchants complained about all the congestion the new show had created. But as the crowds grew, and visitor spending in nearby shops sharply increased, the griping ceased. Within a year, it was the toughest ticket in town – the 806-seat venue sold out for weeks in advance. Now in its ninth season, the Follies has evolved into quite the enterprise, with annual attendance exceeding 180,000, making a $15 million impact on the community. In 1997, a documentary about the show, called Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, while “Time of Your Life,” a feature segment about the Follies made by KOMO-TV in Seattle, won an Emmy Award.
But fame and fortune aren’t what inspire these sprightly seniors. “It’s for us,” says Markowitz. “But in order to succeed, you have to impress other people. This isn’t a career move for Miss Evans [an eighty-six-year-old showgirl who amazes audiences by jumping out of a wheelchair and doing the splits]. You can’t threaten her by saying, ‘You’ll never work in this town again.’ It just doesn’t have much impact.”
Says legendary hoofer Donald O’Connor, who headlined last year’s show, “When you see something like this, it gives you a shot in the arm. People leave here different than when they come in.”
He’s right. I could almost see the cartoon bubbles floating above the audience’s heads as they shook hands and exchanged words with the cast in the lobby after the show.
“Why hang it up?”
“Why quit doing something you love to do, just because you’re supposed to?”
And in many ways as spiritually fulfilling as church, I think to myself as I leave the theater. That deep thought is interrupted by an observation no less profound. It’s those legs again. That line of lovely legs. Really and truly, they’re such nice legs.