"It was like from a musical," Riff says in his office, a windowless warren in the two-building complex that now houses both the theater and production facilities. "I stood there and looked at this old theater. I just had a sense that what I wanted to do was perform, like retirees dream. This was an opportunity. I'd always wanted to be a performer in vaudeville, as a kid. Life didn't take me there." His long-sleeved white shirt is open at the neck. He wears white chino trousers. This passes as summer casual dress for a man who is rarely seen publicly without a white or black tuxedo jacket.
"Apart from me being able to play in the sandbox, I was immediately aware there were ghosts in the town and in the theater," he continues. "Jack Benny had been on that stage. Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra. They were in my head as I stood there in the dark."
He signed a lease with the city, which had purchased the theater, and went back to look at his prize possession. There was a single naked, dangling light bulb. Markowitz flipped the switch and saw there were no wings for performers waiting to get on the tiny stage, no fly space for hanging backdrops or set pieces, no dressing rooms. "I was the proud owner," he says wryly, "of this 1926 Buick that I was now going to drive across the country in. I sat calmly and said, 'What have I done?' "
He went out and hustled backers to renovate the theater, for half a million dollars the first year, and almost as much since in improvements. He put together his risky concept of a vaudeville review, supposed to be defunct. Among the first he solicited was Ralph Young, who started out as a big band vocalist with Les Brown and had a successful two-man singing act with Tony Sandler. Young was semi-retired, living a mile from the theater. He declined to invest.
Markowitz invited Young to join the show as its headliner for the first year, opening on Jan. 29, 1992. "I wanted to see if I had anything left on the ball at 75 after teaming with Tony Sandler for 25 years. It was like getting a shot in the arm, ego-wise." Markowitz determined that all the performers, including the chorus women and men, would be vaudeville-era vintage--even the ushers, who average 67 in age.
The first week, half the seats were empty. "Who wants to pay to see old ladies' legs?" mocked the entertainment writer of the local newspaper, the Desert Sun.
But then the show caught on through word of mouth. Today, 13 years later, the Palm Springs Follies has played to 2.5 million patrons in a theater with 809 seats. The season runs from early November until the end of May, with a total of 230 performances. Ticket prices have risen from $18 to the current $39-to-$85 range. And the top ticket for New Year's Eve was $120. Virtually every show is sold out. Motor coaches bring in some 1,200 busloads annually from Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino and Phoenix. More than 20,000 hotel rooms are filled. The lease with the city recently was extended 15 years, through 2018, at $148,800 the first year.
It's big business. The Follies started with a staff of six workers and three computers. In season, it now employs 165 people full time, and boasts 51 computers and a payroll of $2.7 million. Markowitz lives regally in a big house on a promontory overlooking South Palm Canyon Drive. Individual condominiums or a housing stipend are provided for the cast of up to 25 performers. He pays them what he calls "Las Vegas wages."
From the beginning, he had a partner in the venture--his wife, Mary Jardin, a comely lady 15 years his junior who had started as a flight attendant and became an airline marketing manager. They were divorced a year into the Follies run--they share custody of Doodle, the silky terrier--but she remains co-founder and co-boss of the Palm Springs Follies. "I can work with him," she says, "even if I couldn't live with him." Jardin handles the business end, sales and marketing, and Markowitz writes, directs and produces the show, though they consult frequently in each other's spheres. There's no doubt, however, whose imprint is on the final stage product, down to the very last detail.
The impresario is highly visible as a master of ceremonies, delivering jokes and one-liners and arch observations that border on political incorrectness. "This is a senior secret society," he says, referring to the Follies patrons. "Within these walls, there is no au courant. When we were kids, the great acts on the stage took on ethnic tone. I am simply using a sensibility which is in me and fortunately also in the audience."
There are frequent references in his monologues to his sage mother, who prodded his retirement to Palm Springs by telling him, "It's important to know when to quit." Her son now works 75 hours a week during the season, and 60 hours a week off-season. Edith Markowitz is 92 and still lives in Toronto. She has seen the Follies once.