by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 23, 2005
TWO RED SHOES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Glitter. Thick stage makeup. Eighty-year-old dancers with great legs. Women (and some men) in fancy gowns. Big egos and small talents lip-synching to popular songs. Usually, when the Lauderdale West Theater Group of Plantation, Fla., puts on a show, that's what it's all about.
This time, my enduring memory will be of red high-heeled dancing shoes - worn, scuffed and cracked - on a gurney being wheeled into the emergency room.
Two weeks ago I flew down for another of my mother's famous, Broadway-style condo shows. Since she retired at 87 last year, this was first show in decades she didn't write, direct, choreograph and dance in. But she kept her hand in, writing the prototype script and choreographing the dance numbers. And because she's the biggest star in Lauderdale West, she had the biggest number - a solo in the second act, lip-synching and dancing to Liza Minelli singing "New York New York."
Giving up the reins wasn't easy for Mom, but she's had a rough year. The sad death of her second husband in August took its toll. They say that grief seeks out the lungs, and in December she had pneumonia. But by February she was back at work, training her dancers, teaching exercise classes and rehearsing for the show.
I flew down in time for the last dress rehearsal, which was the usual melange of bar mitzvah dresses, Jewish/Italian bling (long before there was "ghetto bling," there was Jewish and Italian bling), and upstaging. "Look at me! Look at me!" they all cried.
Although I didn't know it, Mom wasn't feeling well. She barely made it through her number, and she fainted on the floor of the kitchen when we got home. I hydrated her and fed her toast, and she seemed to recover. She was determined to go on.
On opening night, she began to dress at home. She put on her flesh-colored tights, her red dancing shoes and her stage makeup. Then she began to tremble. "I'm not going to make it," she said, clutching at my hand. "Take me to the emergency room."
For the first time in 29 years, my mother missed a show. In the space of an hour, we had gone from musical comedy to epic tragedy. She sat in the emergency ward all night, wearing her dancing shoes and stage makeup and looking like an 87-year-old hooker. But the hospital sent her home.
Saturday night, with my heart in my mouth, I again helped her to prepare. This time we made it the theater. It was a full house - maybe 500 people. Fifteen walkers were lined up against the wall. Five motorized wheelchairs were parked in a corner.
The spotlight hit the glitter ball, the theater came alive with sparkles, the music started and I burst into tears. I not only know the cast and the crew of these shows, but by now I know half of the audience, as well. Watching them age has been a special circle of hell. The performers didn't always lip-synch, for example. They used to sing, but as they got older, they couldn't remember the lyrics. Still, nothing stops them from going on stage. It makes them feel young again, and alive.
The show had a Las Vegas theme. It opened with the whole cast lip-synching to "Happy Days are Here Again." Then Bob did his Liberace impersonation in a black cape with gold sequins. Fran stopped the show singing "God Bless America" - don't ask what the song has to do with Las Vegas; I can only tell you that the new director's wife is a Bush supporter. Sylvia did a fantastic rendition of Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend."
Then it was time for Liza. The audience started chanting Mom's name and applauding as soon as she stepped on stage. She was herself again, young and sparkly and full of personality. Her eyes were shinning. Her delicate wrists, dancing inside the beat, illuminated the music. She went slow during the first part, but after the bridge I could see her thinking, "The hell with it."
And she started doing Liza kicks - maybe not as high as before, but Liza kicks just the same. The audience stood up and cheered. I was crying and screaming, "Bravo." A woman slapped me on the back and said, "You can't keep a trouper down." It was a magic moment that repeated itself at the Sunday matinee.
We returned to the emergency room on Monday morning. Mom was old, cold, pale and trembling. I told the ER nurse that her patient was a star who had been on-stage the day before, but looking at Mom, she couldn't understand how. I thought about it as we sat in the ER all day, waiting for a diagnosis and a hospital bed. Just before they diagnosed Mom with pneumonia again and sent her upstairs, I found the nurse.
"It was will power," I said. "It was iron will power, and the need to be loved by her audience one more time."
It seems to me that old age is like a thief, stalking its victims, coming up behind them when they least expect it, whacking them. Whack, you're old. Whack, your back is bent. Whack, you walk slow. Whack, you have to lean on a cane or a walker. Whack, you're in a wheelchair now.
Whack, you're on a gurney in the emergency room in your red dancing shoes. Whack.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.