RIFFIN’ ON THE OLD DAYS
The current ratings blockbusters that are Fox TV’s American Idol, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars (which returns to the airwaves March 19th), and their many imitators, have their roots in the popular variety shows of the 1960’s and ’70s. The old Hollywood Palace, Jackie Gleason, and Dean Martin shows are remembered for a certain style of entertainment that exhibited singers and dancers with great showmanship. And even those programs hearken back to Vaudeville. Some folks say this brand of entertainment doesn’t exist any more. How wrong they are.
A short drive to the desert to enjoy the long-running Fabulous Palm Springs Follies (strutting along in Palm Springs for 16 fabulous years now) was a trip back in time, and a reminder of television’s past. Actually, many in the Follies cast were part of the cream of the crop of variety shows. All of the performers are over age 55, with the average stunning showgirl in her 70’s. Among them, Jill Owens, 63, began her career as a June Taylor Dancer on The Jackie Gleason Show, and followed with a role on Blansky’s Beauties and appearances on Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.
Also no stranger to television, Glenda Guilfoyle, 73, danced with everyone from Fred Astaire to Jimmy Durante in many TV specials. Randy Doney, 67, was part of The Carol Burnett Show for 11 years, and more recently played a tap-dancing psychiatrist on Frasier. The credits for the chorus line and entertainers in the Follies reads as a chapter in showbiz history.
“There’s no expiration date on talent,” says emcee-producer Riff Markowtiz, who I knew years ago when he was producing a great many classic variety specials. His credits include TV shows such as HBO’s first original drama series The Hitchhiker; plus HBO’s first major variety special, a star-studded tribute to Neil Simon.
Riff is an old school impresario who knows what audiences want, young and old. When we attended a matinee, a goodly percentage of the attendees were kids. Yes, kids who were heard shouting, “You rock!”. Pre-teens (with their grandparents) to teenagers and young adults were all whooping and hollering throughout the three-hour performance. “We appeal to all ages,” insists Riff.