Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Legendary Kaye Ballard Conquers the Palm Springs Follies

Also see Richard's reviews of A Reckoning and A View from the Bridge

Beverly Allen
When anyone mentions Palm Springs, that hot spot for the Hollywood crowd in the '40s and '50s and home of retired cabaret and film legends (and, with a population that boasts 56% gay, where older same sex individuals go to retire), they should also think The Palm Springs Follies. The perennial favorite of the older crowd is now in its 14th year and it still sells out every night from November to May. Buses of senior folks from all over the western U.S. come to see those 55+ singers and dancers, all with great backgrounds in musical theatre and Las Vegas revues, in Ziegfeld style production numbers that would make Florenz very proud. (On the night we were at the theatre there were bus loads of senior citizens from Portland, La Jolla and other cities in both California and Arizona. It has been estimated that over 1 million persons have seen the "Follies" since its inception 14 years ago by the unbelievable Riff Markowitz who has the best comic timing in the business.)

Each year, Palm Springs Follies includes guest stars playing limited engagements in the second act of the three-act musical revue. The wonderful, legendary Kaye Ballard is currently headlining through April 24th. This 78-year-old artist (she was born just one month after me in Ohio) has done it all: Broadway and touring musicals, Hollywood films, television and cabaret. She has written a recent book called "How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 years" in which she gives the lowdown on some of the Hollywood people she has worked with. I first saw the amazing woman in Golden Apple on Broadway where she introduced the beautiful "Lazy Afternoon" (which became a staple of Mabel Mercer's repertoire). I met her when she played the Hungry I here in San Francisco years ago and then talked to her briefly after the failed musical Molly in New York. The PBS Great Performance of the kinescope of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella with Julie Andrews and Kaye playing one of the wicked sisters had just played on the Palm Springs PBS outlet the week we saw the show.

Kaye Ballard shows she still can belt out the songs in her 20 minute sequence in the second act. She comes out wearing an elegant, long, plain black dress with a black jacket and a white design singing a song she wrote with Rick Crom, "So Hard to Find an Opening Number." She is still transcendent when she sings "Stormy Weather" and "It Had to Be You." Her rendition of Dale Gonyea's "Name Dropping" is entertaining. She also tells some one-liner and shaggy dog jokes that are fun. She concludes her segment with "Sangue du Me Sangue" and the Portia Nelson's classic "As I Remember Him." During that period, she conquers the audience with her casual manner and winning performance.

Palm Springs Follies' theme this year is "Give 'Em What They Want" and the show is broken into various segments saluting burlesque, Ziegfeld productions, the famous Palm Springs night club of the '40s and '50s the Chi Chi Club, and a patriotic theme that ends the three hour show.

"Burlesque, the Golden Era" is a great opening, with the bumps and grinds those "kids" did on stage. The youngest is Richard Byron (national companies of Evita, Unsinkable Molly Brown and Pal Joey plus concerts with Chita Rivera and Ann-Margret), making his Follies debut at age 56. The oldest at 81 is Beverly Allen who was recently awarded the title of "World's Oldest Still Performing Showgirl." She still looks great and can do those bumps and grinds. The old burlesque skits are still there and they give the audience a chuckle.

The Ziegfeld number "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" is absolutely beautiful with the most elaborate costumes, of which the great master of show business would have approved. Dorothy Kloss, also age 81, is flawless on "The Continental" and 58-year-old Trina Parks (Thumper in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, the first African American Bond girl) still exudes sexual excitement in "Bahia." Sixty-nine year-old Natshcha Ahlborn (German born dancer featured in Folies Bergere, Casino de Paris and Lido in Paris) brings down the house with "The Lady in Red."

The joint gets jumping with "The Chi Chi," a salute to the famous nightclub. Film stars of the '40s and '50s would escape from the environs of Los Angeles to this famous club to relax from the prying eyes of the Hollywood press. All the big name stars played here. The set looks like the famous club, and it brought back memories of that glorious past. Randy Doney (on Broadway as a dancer for years in such hits as Camelot, My Fair Lady and played "Mercedes" in the original production of La Cage aux Folles plus dancer on Gary Moore show for 11 years), age 65, is great in the singing and dancing department. Eddie James (Las Vegas principal dancer at Flamingo, Dunes and Frontier Hotel, cabaret choreographer for Juliet Prowse and Sammy Davis, Jr.) still can do some mean dance steps at age 62. The rest of the male cast - Hank Brunjes (Broadway dancer in such hits as West Side Story, Mame, The Rothchilds, Chicago and the 1952 revival of Pal Joey), age 72; Larry Kern (film actor was an husband in the original Stepford Wives plus Los Angeles dancer who worked with Jane Powell, Yvonne DeCarlo), age 68; and Berton James Woods (Tommy with Bette Midler, many film roles and television specials as a singer and dancer), age 67 - are all first class.

Once again, the show's third act, the "Red White and Blue Finale" with great World War II songs and salutes to veterans of the great war, includes Riff asking all veterans of the wars to stand up so the audience can salute them. Eighty-one year-old Dorothy Kloss (Chicago dancer and played many U.S.O. shows) is still amazing in her tap routines. She is gorgeous and does not look near her age. Judy Bell (featured dancer and singer at the MGM hotel in Las Vegas and was voted "Best Las Vegas Female Performer four times), age 67, and Leila Burgess (television dancer on Colgate Comedy Hour and dancer at the Latin Quarter in New York for many years), age 69, are marvelous. As dancer/singer Richard Bryon says, "Age is of no importance, unless you're a cheese."

There are guest acts, also, that have been around the block many times. Sammy King and his Mexican accented parrot Francisco have the audiences rolling in the aisles. The parrot's patter borders on the naughty side, especially about his date with a "chicken." Sammy and friend have performed over 25,000 times including the very last Ed Sullivan. Leonard Menna, who has been plate-spinning for 45 years from MGM Grand Hotel to Radio City Music Hall, can still spin those 11 plates and give the audience some thrills as some of the plates come crashing down to the floor. However, all's well that ends well and he has all of the plates spinning along famously.

We can't forget the impresario and wonderful Master of Ceremonies, 59-year-old Riff Markowitz, who can still break up the audience with his impeccable timing. He mildly teases the old folks in the audience during the breaks, asking, "Do you know where you came from?" and "Do you know where you are?" He also keeps up with the latest news in his jokes.

Palm Spring Follies recaptures the glorious days of vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies and showgirls with still fabulous figures in costumes that are simply marvelous, designed by Connie Furr, Millicent Rene and Michael Rennie. This wonderful mix will keep the Follies going on forever.

The Palm Springs Follies closes for the season on May 22 and re-opens in November with a new guest star season. The company is dark on March 25 and 26th. Kaye Ballard appears through April 24. The Four Aces appear April 27 through May 22. Tickets prices are $39 to $89 and available at

Photo: Ned Redway

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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