by Joyce Marcel
September 23, 2010
THE LAST ROSE FEST
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Last Sunday, my mother's Florida condominium complex, Lauderdale West, threw a party in her honor.
It wasn't because she's an original resident of Lauderdale West, who actually watched her beloved home being built in 1974. And it wasn't because she's finally leaving, and moving to an independent living facility down the road.
No, the party was to thank my mother for writing, directing, choreographing and starring in musical theater entertainments there for close to 40 years. And it was unprecedented; it's the first time this condo, with over 1,000 individual homes, has ever honored one of its own.
The party was a gamble. No one was sure people would come. Mom is now 93 and moving slowly; she hasn't been on the stage for two years. She was sure she was forgotten.
Still, she looked stunning in a slinky orange blouse and black iridescent pants as we drove to the clubhouse auditorium.
I was nervous, but I relaxed when I saw the full parking lot and people, dressed to the teeth for a Sunday afternoon, pouring out of the cars.
In the lobby I met up with photographer Elle Schorr, who came down from Boca Raton for the occasion. She and I were Girl Scouts together in Far Rockaway, N.Y., about a hundred years ago; Mom was our scout leader.
When we walked into the theater I burst into tears. I've been going to these shows and writing about them for the last 20 years, and suddenly I realized that this was my last Rose Kagan production, too.
Mother was already in the thick of things. Someone had given her a wrist corsage of orange roses, and she was moving gracefully through the crowd, accepting accolades from her fans and greeting her friends and fellow performers.
In the end, over 150 people showed up to honor Mom. One of her dancers, Kathy Pavlik, called her "The first lady of dance."
"She could do the whole show by herself and do it better than all of us combined," Kathy said - and the audience appeared to agree, because they applauded.
Molly Susser, who was Mom's stage manager as well as one of her performers, said, "She trained actors and dancers, wrote unique shows and had the insight to see whole shows while others saw only parts. She took lip-synch to a higher level. She gave us all much pleasure."
Then they showed the highlight reel. There she was, doing Liza, doing Gwen Verdon, doing Judith Jamison in Alvin Ailey's "Revelations,"
"I don't know anyone else in Florida who would have tried that," Elle whispered.
And doing... Esther Williams? Yes. One of the early tapes shows Mom and two men doing a water ballet in the clubhouse pool.
There was the famous scene when the guys put on tutus and did "Swan Lake." There were the raisins, too, dancing to "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." Still got a laugh. There were Mom and her dancers doing the jitterbug. Square dancing. The Rockettes. Writhing through hot and sexy Bob Fosse numbers.
"She's Lucille Ball," Elle whispered. "She's willing to be silly. She's willing to try absolutely anything."
Then some of her performers spoke. Rita Wiener said, "Rose, you made my 18 years in Lauderdale West the most wonderful years of my life." Beth Greenberg said, "I can't imagine living here without the Theater Group. Without you, Rose, this would never have happened, and we thank you so much."
Jessica Catalfimo said that Mom was the reason she moved to Lauderdale West.
"Rose retire?" she said. "Don't be surprised if you see in the bulletin, 'Dancers Wanted, must be 90 or better.' Rose retire? Never!"
Red Gershon had been Mom's dancing partner for 35 years; now he must rely on a walker to get around. But still charming, he gave her a bouquet of red roses and a Whitman's Sampler.
The highlight, though, came when Molly, speaking on behalf of the condo's board of directors, announced that from now on, the women's dressing room would be called "The Rose Kagan Filler Dressing Room For Ladies." She showed Mom the metal plaque they would be attaching to the wall.
During the coffee and cake part of the event - the cakes were decorated with pictures of Mom in various costumes - I, too, worked the room. After all, I've known these people, in and out of costume, for more than 20 years. I know their life stories. I know who hates who. I know where the bodies are buried. I've seen them in their underwear, not to mention drag. I've come to love them all.
Mom closes on the house on Friday and moves on Monday. It's a very bittersweet time. Yet she moves knowing that 150 people came to thank her for being, for almost 40 years, the definition of entertainment in their lives.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.