The year was 1947. Headlines announced the establishment of the Cominform and the formation of the CIA that marked the non-declaration of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
In suburban Glendale, meanwhile, a different kind of stage was being set by ex-G.I.s, former wartime defense workers and the odd Hollywood contract player, who were settling into their postwar, gray-flannel existence of civilian conformity by starting families, buying homes and … putting on women's dresses.
As legend has it, the historic act of sexually transgressive irony was intended to spice up the annual Father's Night held by the Verdugo Woodlands Elementary School PTA. The wives and kids all liked what they saw, and the following year the show returned fully flowered into a musical-burlesque revue of comic song, dance and bling-bling girly dads.
The Fathers' Follies was born. Sixty-six years later, the Follies have become the longest-running if unlikeliest continuous drag act in Los Angeles and probably in America. To get to the bottom of Glendale's best-kept-secret subculture, LA Weekly attended this past weekend's incarnation of the only-in-L.A., yearly PTA fundraiser.
What was immediately apparent is that the Verdugo Woodlands Fathers' Follies is not your typical fathers' amateur drag show. It is a surprisingly vast and polished stage spectacle, lavishly mounted on a Cameron Mackintosh scale and boasting the kind of production values that would put the Nederlanders to shame.
The program lists an astonishing 83-strong cast of actors, singers, dancers and “chorines,” and includes credits for directors, designers, technicians, support crew and the entire Glendale High Jazz Band (under director Amy Rangel), raising the entire company count to twice that number.
This year's show (directed by Nina and Raul Lopez), featured an all-new book titled Boys vs Girls by dad-turned-librettist — and former Silver Lake scene-pioneer-turned-dad — Michael Long, ex-frontman of '90s post-grunge alt rockers Drill Team. The lighthearted fantasy follows the misadventures of Verdugo Woodlands preteens Jagger (Michael Naishtut), Lennon (co-director Raul Lopez), Hazel (Dan Smith) and Collette (Eric Axene) as their playground feud magically transports them to the fairy-populated Pixieland, though in cross-dressed garb.
Much as Dorothy must journey to the Emerald City in order to get back to Kansas, the two warring factions must similarly make a trek through surreal landscapes populated by characters drawn from contemporary children's television (including anime-series faves Pokemon and Naruto and the Cartoon Network's Adventure Time) to get back to Verdugo Woodlands, but only by first setting aside their superficial gender differences and cooperating as a team.
And while the narrative hews to the kid-engaging, tooth-aching register of a saccharine Nickelodeon cartoon, Long lards his script with enough adult-sophisticated double entendre to hold the parents' attention as well.
But make no mistake — the audience hasn't come down from the Verdugo Woodlands to the Glendale High School Auditorium merely for uplifting and soul-stirring moral lessons; they have paid to see dads dressed as moms. Period. And to that end, the Follies did not disappoint.
The heart of any follies-style show is the musical part of it. We're talking 16 blistering production numbers featuring brawny and bearded men in wigs, makeup and balloon-stuffed flouncy dresses and pantyhose, kick-stepping, lip-synching and, yes, even actually singing their way through a selection of recent and more vintage pop and rock hits selected by Long to satisfy both sides of the bubblegum divide.
Tot-friendly tunes like Taylor Swift's “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “Trouble” and Carly Rae Jepsen's “Good Time” had the auditorium's four-feet-and-under set literally bouncing out of their seats. More nostalgic selections such as a vintage Beastie Boys medley (arranged by musical theater veteran David O and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's Glen Marhevka) or Elvis Costello's “Peace, Love and Understanding,” which played over the thrilling finale number, might well have had the parents misty-eyed over their own vanished youth.
Choreographer Annie Bettelli conjured some of the evening's most thrilling coups de theatre in dance numbers that included a rousing (and surprisingly accomplished) breakdance set to Flo-Rida's “Wild Ones,” and a marvelously lampooned version of the Can-Can set to Jacques Offenbach's iconic “Infernal Gallop.”
Theatrically, the evening was a success by anyone's standard. But the real story of the Follies only emerged after the show when the Weekly caught up with Boys vs Girls writer (and cast member) Michael Long.
Long says he very reluctantly first got involved with the show four years ago, shortly after his now-fifth-grader son Xander first started attending Verdugo Woodlands (his daughter Gavi attends third grade there). “I didn't want to do it,” he remembers. “I was in the entertainment business, and I was like, 'There's no way I'm getting onstage and singing or doing anything where anyone's going to see me doing anything but being cool.' Right? It's not going to happen. But I kinda got tricked into doing it.”
The actual lure was reportedly rehearsal margaritas. Whatever it was, after the first year, he was hooked and after the third he was inspired to step up and offer himself to producer Josh Berg as the show's writer.
Though Long came to love the camaraderie of doing the shows, he felt the sophisticated content of recent years (read: too many jokes with punch lines employing the word “Kardashian”) was straying somewhat from the Follies' primary mission — entertaining the kids. “So this year I really wanted to write something [drawn from] the kids' culture,” he says, “like the shows that they know, the characters that they know, the songs and dances that are just completely pop and just really a pop experience. And I really wanted them to have that interactivity with the actors and singers and dancers onstage, where they were dancing, they were singing, they knew the lines, and they knew the TV show intros.”
It turned out to be a monumental undertaking. Long says he began working on the script in July or August of last year and has probably logged “thousands of hours” on the project. Much of it spent in close research into what his own kids were immersing themselves. “I mean I had to watch hundreds of kids shows and videos,” he recalls, “which wasn't so bad. [The Japanese anime hit] Naruto is my favorite — it's just one of my favorite shows of all time. … There's like some really deep emotional things. It's about being a friend. It's about believing in your friends even when they've totally left you and are against you.”
Long says that much of the show's Broadway-grade musical production values can be explained by the school's proximity to Hollywood. “There's a lot of [Hollywood professionals] in the show,” he points out. “Like there's probably about five or six dads that have been signed to record deals, and a lot of the guys work in the film industry still.”
The ostensible rationale for the Follies is as a fundraising tool to benefit Verdugo Woodlands Elementary School, which is part of the Glendale Unified School District. And while the show does generate an annual check to the school for badly needed supplies (Long says it's in the neighborhood of $10,000), much of the box office revenues are plowed into the next year's production budget.
Much more important, Long maintains, has been the Follies' role in bringing the community together around the school. “We have like 150 dads that are involved with this thing,” he says. “It's a huge thing. And so to have all these dads and moms come down and put this thing together — and even kids helped us — and then to see it come off. It's such a special thing for our community.”
It's a point well-taken. At a time when the nation's under-performing public schools are under assault from privatization and other forces, Verdugo Woodlands shines as a categorical success. The school boasts an Academic Performance Index among the highest in the state with a similar showing in its students' math, English and science scores. The school also boasts levels of parent involvement and commitment high above the California average.
“My kids know every family and every dad for miles,” Long adds. “I mean how many schools do you know where all the dads know each other? We drink together, we're friends, we're confidantes. It's just a great, super-special community.”