It is an old adage in theater circles that if you ever get the chance to attend the final performance of a long-running show, always take advantage of the opportunity. Because, after months or even years of “getting it right” every afternoon and evening, there’s often a little pent up emotion which is attached to the last show, and it often combines with a special energy from the audience to create a memorable day on the stage.
That’s exactly what happened Sunday the 18th, when the fabled Palm Springs Follies took their final bow(s). The Palace Theater in the heart of downtown, the Follies home for 23 seasons, never looked better. The pre-show crowd was positively electric, which isn’t easy when it’s 95 outside. Inside, the energy level stayed as hot as the outside temperatures throughout the afternoon.
As the program unfolded, the company of 20 performers, all over the age of 55 and some in their 80’s, shared a little about themselves. Director and Emcee Riff Markowitz was at his comic best. His sarcastic style has aggravated more than one local through the years, and probably offended a few tourists, but his Don Rickles’ type of delivery is true old school comedy and shows talent and passion for his craft. It is a passion he has displayed on the stage each time I’ve seen the show over the last two decades. Like him or hate him, he is funny. And he had the job for 23 years. There’s something to be said for longevity.
Longevity. The company of the Fabulous Follies certainly have/had that. You had to be 55 to even get an audition. Many of the performers were part of the team for many years, and most were longtime show business veterans. On this final day, they all seemed to stick their chest out a little more, to stand a little straighter. Their pride was apparent. Even though the show will not go on, they knew they were a part of something memorable.
The audience was filled with returning performers and guest stars from past seasons. Kay Ballard, Peter Marshall and the like. You’d know the names if you’d been around as long as they have. They knew the importance of being a part of this special day.
Mary Jardin, who along with Riff gave birth to this crazy idea back in 1991, looked stunning as she waved to the audience. Mary admits the job of running the follies wasn’t always about financial success, and it’s apparent that mounting an independent show and the pressure of selling tens of thousands of tickets every year has brought its share of challenging moments. “You have to wonder where some of these people who are so eager to write about us now, where were they when we needed them?”
Such is the lament of a theatrical producer. When you tell them you are closing forever, everyone comes. And while that creates a steady stream of “wow, we are selling a lot of tickets,” it’s intertwined with thoughts of “why did they wait until now?”
It strikes me that for 22 years, Riff, Mary and their gang were making deposits in a special sort of bank. It was one which allowed only deposits, no withdrawals. The bank was so special, they didn’t even know it existed. Until this year. Then all the people who enjoyed the Palm Springs Follies for so many years stood up and said so. Boy, did they. On May 18th, when Riff took the stage, he was met by a loud and sustained ovation. The same thing happened at the end of the show. The show that had to close was the show that suddenly no one wanted to end.
But end it did. All good things must come to an end, and such it is with the Follies. The show which singlehandedly returned downtown Palm Springs to its glory days has sold its final box of popcorn. The tens of thousands of people the Follies brought downtown seven months a year for nearly a quarter of a decade will have to find another reason to come. Whether they will or not, come that is, is open to speculation. It’s my opinion the Follies have been seriously underappreciated for years, and their absence will be truly felt next fall when the doors to the Palace Theater aren’t thrown open for eight shows a week. All those people had to eat and shop and slurp frozen yogurt after the show on a warm evening. They had to stay in hotels and ride the tram to the top of Mount San Jacinto. They spent a lot of money in town.
At the end of the show, after much applause and more than a few tears, Markowitz got to do what many performers do not. Some shows close suddenly, without warning. Such was not the case here. He got to say goodbye. After all those many years, after all the challenges of making the show go on, Mary and Riff left on their own terms, with their heads held high. They had become icons, which I’m fairly certain they hadn’t bargained for. For one day, heck for one season, people came. They said thank you. On that final day, they said it over and over.
At the end of the day, that is what I will remember. I hope Riff and Mary and the entire cast will remember the applause, the tears, the heartfelt joy everyone in the theater that day shared. And that they got to say goodbye, with the applause ringing in their ears and the tears on their faces. It doesn’t get any better. I hope it was enough.
Thank you Mary and Riff. Thanks for all those years. For hanging in there and giving us a great show. It wasn’t easy and I didn’t always take the time to say thank you. I just made my annual deposit and moved on. It was special and it will always be. May the Palm Springs Follies live on forever.