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Ex-Show Girls in Calif. Follies

April 12, 1999

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) _ On stage, 86-year-old Maryetta Evans has fallen and she can’t get up.

So two tuxedoed men gently lift her from a perfectly executed scissors-split and deposit her in a wheelchair, from which she resumes tap dancing.

Miss Evans doesn’t really need the chair. It’s just a prop in a hilarious dance number involving walkers, canes and crutches. She did need help, though, getting off the floor.

This is the Palm Springs Follies _ an aging chorus line of former show girls and male hoofers that is part shtick, part extravaganza and part minor miracle.

It has attracted a white-haired following not seen since Mitch Miller. Nearly every show sells out. Annual gross ticket sales top $10 million.

Emcee, director and producer Riff Markowitz, 60, covets the spotlight and sometimes laughs longer at his jokes than the audience. His stuff is decidedly politically incorrect. He tells ethnic jokes, bathroom jokes, old people jokes and talks a great deal about his prostate.

But it is the 11 ``Long-legged Lovelies″ who truly own the show, a geriatric Florenz Ziegfeld-meets-Busby Berkeley revue now in its eighth season, replete with feather dances, towering headdresses and bulging breasts.

The dancers must be at least 50. Most of the women are in their 60s and 70s, with shapely gams, statuesque posture _ and liver spots and wrinkles.

One is a former Rockette, several appeared on Broadway, another was a June Taylor dancer.

Most were retired or on their way there when they heard about auditions for the Follies in Palm Springs, the desert resort that’s been home to celebrities, former presidents and so many retirees it’s also called God’s Waiting Room.

Phyllis Sherwood, 64, auditioned two years ago at the insistence of a former classmate from New York’s High School of Performing Arts.

She had already done Broadway, and played Vegas for years with husband and bandleader Bobby Sherwood.

``This isn’t any different than when I was young. In the dressing rooms we were catty, we laughed all the time,″ said Leila Burgess, 62, Sherwood’s former classmate.

These women are bawdy, loud and grandmothers. While trying to grab a meal between shows, the air is decidedly blue.

Ms. Sherwood is recounting what ``Mr. M.″ _ the director Markowitz _ asked when they met.

``Can you walk like a show girl?″

``Honey,″ replied the well-endowed Ms. Sherwood, ``I can walk any way you want.″

They do 232 shows per year, most twice a day. Each performance is three hours, with some 20 costume changes, almost as many wigs, a dog show, a ventriloquist and guest stars including song-and-dance men Donald O’Connor and Howard Keel.

Markowitz, a former television producer, had just retired in Palm Springs when a group of city officials asked him to save downtown’s 800-seat Plaza Theatre, built in 1936.

Previous live shows hadn’t fared well, Markowitz said. But a chance to revisit the past _ via the music of Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer _ and the inspiration of seeing women their age pull their legs past their heads drew aging crowds willing to pay up to $65 for an orchestra seat.

They come in buses from Arizona, San Diego and points between, arriving in wheelchairs, pushing walkers and leaning on canes.

As for the show, the audience stands during the last scene, an extravaganza that runs a patriotic gamut from the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the Star Spangled Banner. It applauds wildly for Bob Moore and His Amazing Mongrels, all saved from the pound and trained to jump through hoops, walk tightropes, and bark at earsplitting levels.

It is an audience that knows every word of ``Paper Doll″ and sings along with 84-year-old Donald Mills, the last survivor of the Mills Brothers, who looks a bit unsteady and thankful for the help.

Later, backstage, 75-year-old Dorothy Kloss becomes serious amid the dancers’ ribald laughter.

After years away from the spotlight, ``we didn’t feel glamorous anymore,″ she said.

``But I think we’ve all dropped 15 years just being in the Follies. All of a sudden we started going shopping and doing something with our hair.″

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