By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Three years ago, San Carlos resident Bonnie Demming was at a hair salon appointment when two women, Louise Smith and Tobie Scheibel, told her she had to be in the San Diego Follies.
The then 80-year-old was skeptical at first but after a bit of soul searching and looking back on her life as a dancer — in high school she performed in Balboa Park, as a teacher she taught her students folk dances, and in Mrs. San Diego and Mrs. California contests performing Hawaiian dances — Demming decided to audition.
“I went and tried out and sure enough the first thing they said is, ‘Oh, you are going to be in it and you are going to be a showgirl,” she said, adding that she only agreed to be a showgirl after seeing the feathered costumes.
“In the show, all the girls come up on stage in their costumes and they say who they are and their age, so I get up there and I say, ‘I’m Bonnie Demming and I’m 83 and everybody claps.”
Demming wants more people her age — if they have some talent, a desire to be on stage and commitment to rehearsing — to also experience the thrill of performing.
Now in its 10th year, Christian Community Theater’s San Diego Follies is looking for more 55-and-older seniors to be part of the show, which will be held June 22–25 at the Helix Performing Arts Center in La Mesa.
Auditions for interested vocal performers will be held on March 3, 6 to 8:30 p.m. and March 4, 10 a.m. to noon at the Fletcher Hills Presbyterian Church, 455 Church Way in El Cajon. On March 5, tap dance and acting auditions will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. and ballroom and swing dancing auditions from 5 to 6 p.m. at Liberty Station, 2650 Truxtun Road in San Diego.
“We’d love for people if they’ve ever sang before or been in a choir, or even in high school if they’ve been a performer, we’d love to have them come and audition — even if they don’t think they still got the chops, it would still be fun,” San Diego Follies founder Paul Russell said.
Russell was first inspired to start the San Diego Follies after witnessing the success of the Anderson University Senior Follies show during a trip to North Carolina 12 years ago.
“I thought, ‘We need to do this in San Diego,’” he said. “The first year, we had 8,000 people come see the show. It really surprised us, the interest in doing it.”
Russell describes the Follies as a great tradition that gives seniors an outlet for their talents.
“Some of our people have been professional performers their whole life but now that they’re retired, or they are grandparents and want to have more time to travel or whatever, they don’t perform as much,” he said. “This gives them an opportunity to still do that.”
Lucie Romanava of San Carlos is one such talented senior. She was a folk dancer in Russia and when she retired from that took up ballroom dancing and even competed in the Czech Republic and Italy. The San Diego Follies give Romanava a chance to continue dancing and performing, which is more difficult for seniors in Europe due to stigmas about age, she said.
“[Seniors] don’t have this kind of entertainment, this kind of ballroom dancing, even in Rome,” she said. “People in America know how to enjoy life.”
For Carol Whitener of Del Cerro, the Follies inspired her to bring her singing out of the shower and onto the stage.
“You push yourself to do something new because it really makes a difference how you feel about yourself,” she said.
In her first year in the Follies, Whitener was a background performer and the following year she was more upfront and even appeared in some comedy skits, she said. Now she takes vocal lessons and performs at cabarets like the one held at Hennessy’s in La Jolla.
“Now I get up in front of people and do things I never thought I would be doing and I think it has a lot to do with getting involved with the Follies,” she said.
Although the San Diego Follies is a production of Christian Community Theater, Russell said that the show is open to all religious denominations.
“One of our soloists who has done it in the past, she’s a Jewish rabbi and she’s amazing,” he said, adding that the show attracts people from all walks of life and listed off a past judge, an aircraft carrier captain, ex-Vegas showgirls and the first woman firefighter in San Diego as former or current performers in the show. “It’s pretty cool that we have such a variety of people.”
In addition to the variety of people, this year’s San Diego Follies will present a variety of the best acts of the last nine years, including tap and jazz dance routines, comedy skits and chorus numbers of Beatles and Beach Boys medleys, Russell said.
“We’ve done some 300 numbers over the past 10 years,” Russell said. “We went back with a committee and went over that list of 300 and we’re trying to pull the very best of those numbers and reproduce them live on stage.”
While there are always performers who return to the San Diego Follies every year, Russell said there are the seniors who can’t for various reasons, which is why he wants to get the word out about the benefits of becoming part of the cast.
“These people have become a community within themselves and they do activities, travel together, go to other shows together and it’s a great way to spend your energies as a senior,” he said. “So we hope a lot of people come and audition and be part of it.”
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.