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THEATER : Who Said Burlesque Was Out? : The 'Fabulous Palm Springs Follies' is packing in members of the 'secret senior society.' Vaudeville shtick--and leg--is back.

February 04, 1996|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

PALM SPRINGS — In the glory days of burlesque, former stripper Joan Arline says, you had to have a gimmick. That's why she became the Sexquire Girl.

"I wore all white fur--I was just dripping with white fox, with this long platinum hair and these two gorgeous white Russian wolfhounds," says Arline, 64, now one of the stars of the "Fabulous Palm Springs Follies," a revue of 1930s and '40s burlesque and vaudeville that recently opened its fifth season at Palm Springs' historic Plaza Theatre and continues to play to sellout crowds.

In a traditional burlesque strip show, Arline explains, there were several different segments--a "parade" number, a "blues" segment, a "shake" segment and a "floor" performance.

"I usually did floor work, but never on a floor, always on a fur-covered chaise longue," says Arline, who still boasts big platinum hair, endless legs and the 37-24-37 figure she had at 20. "On the floor at the foot of it would be a pink fur rug with the two Russian wolfhounds, and I always had a blue spotlight focused right on them. And the dogs were females--to avoid dirty talk, you know. They were named Anna and Alicia, after [the great ballerinas] Pavlova and Markova. It was great."

Arline and other performers in the show say life is still great at the "Follies." The show, created and produced by former television producer-director-writer Riff Markowitz, 57, has a cast of performers all 50 and older--the oldest cast member is 82, and the oldest of the dancing Long-Legged Lovelies is 79.

The program includes a song-and-dance ensemble plus headline acts, among them Bob Moore's Amazing Mongrels, Kay Starr (singer of the '50s hit "Wheel of Fortune"), striptease artist Tempest Storm and 71-year-old Bill Dana (famous for his Jose Jimenez routine on "The Ed Sullivan Show," which today is enough to send the politically correct into cardiac arrest).

The oldest ensemble members are the Mercer Brothers--Bud, 82, and Jim, 79--veteran vaudevillians who breathe new life into old jokes and also cheerfully violate current PC guidelines with a lengthy stuttering routine. Also in the cast is Dan Westfall, 50, the custodian of the original Cheetah, now 64, the chimp who starred in many Tarzan movies and "Bedtime for Bonzo" (Cheetah does not appear in the show).

After the show, tuxedoed master of ceremonies Markowitz and the entire cast come out into the lobby to shake hands and talk with the audience, mostly senior citizens, many of whom arrive on tour buses.

Pat Godfrey, at 79 the oldest dancer, is a retired Air Force colonel who can still fit into her military uniform--and does so in the show's flag-waving finale. "People love that--you have people who shake your hand like it's never been shaken before," says Godfrey, an aerobics instructor who first danced professionally at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. "We've shared the same era.

"Nostalgia can be happy and sad. . . . Most of them have lived through World War II; some may have lost a husband or a son or sometimes a wife. I almost cry every time we sing 'Glory, Glory.' When I went into the service, there was a thing called patriotism--we got a little of that for Desert Storm, but not like it was in the '40s."

The Mercers, like many other cast members, came out of semi-retirement to be part of the show. After beginning their career as dancers ("We started in beer joints with nickels and dimes on the floor," Bud says), the brothers made their way into the motion picture business, dancing in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Holiday Inn" and "Babes on Broadway." Their conversation is peppered with references to Busby Berkeley, Gable and Cagney, Mickey and Judy.

"See, what killed us all in show biz was the rock music," Jim Mercer says. "Once it hit, all the old places went rock, and the older people had no place to go--so they buried themselves. Now, they are coming out again."

Headliner Storm, 68, a flame-haired Georgia native who has never retired from stripping, takes it all off--or anyway a whole lot of it--in the "Follies." She says her act embarrasses neither her nor her audience--women, she says, see her not as a threat but as an inspiration.

"Age never bothered me--sometimes I'm a little girl out there," she says. "[Burlesque] leaves something to the imagination," she adds in a soft, demure drawl. "Burlesque is fun--it has sex, it's entertainment, but not what they have now. . . . They go out and they just take everything off, and they do all sorts of nasty things onstage. It's very raunchy. I will not resort to that.

"I did a photo shoot for two magazines in New York [last] February--they are kind of risque magazines, but my part was quite classy. I got so many letters from fans who had seen me long ago; they thought it was great to see someone in the magazines who is not all pumped up with silicone and [is] all natural.

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