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Fabulous Palm Springs Follies Is Still Kicking

For these performers ages 55 to 85, there’s no business like show business.

They have enviably taut bodies, fitness levels that surpass most 20-year-olds and the unmistakable elan that comes only with vast experience.

The 16 ladies and gents possessing those laudable characteristics are the cast of the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, an energetic troupe of California hoofers and singers who serve up potent three-hour matinee and evening performances as many as nine times a week.

Each of them is between the ages of 55 and 85; 13 are at least 65 years old.

“I’m afraid to slow down. I’m afraid what would happen if I did,” laughs follies singer and dancer Joni Naber, 72, a three-year veteran of the show who spent decades as a USO precision line dancer. She also has taught dance in her studio near Washington, D.C., and shared the stage with famous singers such as Eddie Fisher and Bobby Darin.

The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies holds the Guinness record for being the oldest professional chorus line in the world, and one of its performers, Dorothy Dale Kloss, holds the record—at age 85—for being the oldest “still-performing showgirl.”

“I just don’t understand the concept of retirement,” says Judy Bell, 71, who starred in stage productions at Disneyland; had her own comedy revue in Las Vegas and Reno, Nev., for many years; and was voted best Las Vegas female performer four times before joining the follies 15 years ago. “The day may come when I wake up and think, ‘Well, I’m done,’ but I can’t conceive of that yet. I knew when I was 6 or 7 that I was going to be this woman.”

All of the follies performers arrived at their current gig with decades-long resumés—Broadway, Vegas, national touring companies, movies or television. Two had been Radio City Music Hall Rockettes; one had performed with the Folies Bergere in Paris. Some had spent time in the spotlight with Carol Burnett, Frankie Avalon, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, Eddy Duchin, Bob Hope or Jackie Gleason.

And that’s just what follies producer, cofounder and master of ceremonies Riff Markowitz wanted for the splashy, lavish and authentic blast-from-the-past production. He came up with the idea in 1991, when he and partner Mary Jardin embarked on a painstaking renovation of the historic but down-at-the-heels Plaza Theatre. His vision was to produce shows that would celebrate the music and dance of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s—and what better way to reach that goal than by hiring people who had firsthand knowledge of those years?

Crazy notion, some might have said. But public response was positive. For 18 years, the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies has played to often full houses and are sometimes sold out well in advance.

It took only a couple of seasons for the public to understand that what was being presented on stage was not “old Aunt Ida who took a few dance lessons and is now ready for a recital,” Markowitz says, but finely tuned professionals who happened to be a little older than most.

Performers age 55-plus line up by the dozens for a shot at the follies. Auditions for the rare open slots—most members stay 10 years or more; five have been there for at least 14 years—often draw 100 performers who fly in from Europe, New York, Vegas and other points.

Choreography accommodations are made in deference to the cast’s age, but they’re few. “Some moves requiring inordinate strength couldn’t be utilized,” says Markowitz, and some of the kicks and jumps might not be quite as high as they once were.

But all of the performers work hard to maintain their fitness levels, strength and stage skills. They’re careful about diet, many do yoga or Pilates, most work out at the gym and all have personal routines for keeping their bodies and minds in the condition necessary to do what they do. For Bell that’s swimming—60 to 100 laps at least five mornings a week right after she’s finished her coffee.

And they rarely gain weight, Markowitz says, during the three-month hot-weather break when most travel, visit grandchildren and pursue such passions as golf. Although, he admits, a certain amount of the “body shift” that’s part and parcel of nearly every post-50 physique may materialize periodically.

The entertainers spent their earlier decades as “superhumans” in terms of skill, energy, flexibility and athleticism, says Markowitz, and now they’ve slowed down only enough to be regarded as “almost superhuman.” Injuries and sick days are no more common among them than among performers one-third their age, he says.

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

And they cling fiercely to the stage, never resting on yesterday’s reviews or performance. “The thing I love above just about everything else is when someone who’s been coming to the show every year for several years says to me, ‘You get better every year,’” says Bell.

Each August, at the end of the annual hiatus, the performers must rehearse eight hours a day for the new production unveiled in October. Every number, every costume, all the music is different from the season before. But this isn’t a source of dread.

“It’s great fun to start from scratch and learn all over again,” says Naber.

There’s probably no explaining how they all keep at it year after year. “We just do what we know and love,” says Naber. And “God and the follies willing, I’ll be doing it for a lot longer.”

Sharon L. Peters is a writer in Colorado Springs, Colo.