The Frantic Follies, Whitehorse's legendary Vaudeville show, bursts with talent
This story originally ran in the Summer 2013 (V7I2) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
While enjoying a steamy Maui evening, on vacation from the Yukon winter, I found myself chatting with other travellers after a day in the sun. When I mentioned Whitehorse, a fellow from Seattle perked up his ears.
“I’ve been there--in 1996, I think. Saw the greatest show,” he said. “Not only saw it … I was in it!” He described the Frantic Follies, Whitehorse’s legendary vaudeville show, and his moment in the spotlight when he was called onstage to play “Pookie” during a part of the performance requiring audience participation.
"DIVERSITY IS OUR MAGIC INGREDIENT. WE HIRE BASED ON MULTIPLE SKILLS."
“That’s what I remember best about our trip,” he said. “It was a terrific show, with terrific talent.”
Neither Grant Simpson nor Lyall Murdoch, co-owners and producers of the Follies, is surprised to hear this story. In its 44th season, the show delivers a fast-paced, entertaining evening of song, dance, magic, juggling, poetry, and comedy, all with a goldrush flavour--like something Klondike prospectors might have seen in a Dawson City saloon back in 1898.
Sparkling dresses, feathered hats, and cancan skirts for the women; crisp white shirts, sharp black vests, and bow ties for the men. The whole thing is deliciously colourful and crazy, but somehow it works. Simpson and Murdoch estimate more than one million people have seen the Follies during its four-decade plus run. It has made its mark as a premiere attraction for summer tourists and a building block in the growth of the Yukon’s arts community.
The Frantic Follies started as the dream of Jim Murdoch, who founded it with his brother, Lyall, in 1970. Jim was famous for his clever antics and wild temper. He instilled a sense of pride in being a vaudevillian. When he died in a boating accident, in 1980, the cast decided they wouldn’t take the day off-that the show must go on.
“Even today, every element of the Follies must pass the ‘What would Jim think?’ test,” says Lyall. “It’s still his show.”
Simpson joined the Follies in 1980 and spent the summer playing piano for the Dawson City version of the show, where audience members would throw gold nuggets and cash onstage to show appreciation. He remembers barely speaking a word onstage, too petrified to do more than tickle the ivories. But as he returned summer after summer, Simpson says the Follies brought him out of his shell.
“Lyall would say, ‘You’ve seen it lots of times. Just go try it.’ Eventually I was emceeing the show, singing, dancing, and playing all kinds of instruments,” Simpson explains, adding that the philosophy hasn’t changed much. “Diversity is our magic ingredient. We hire based on multiple skills. If someone is a dancer, it helps if they can play the cello or flute, and if they can’t, we teach them. They may not know how to play the banjo when they arrive, but they all will when they leave.”
Gillian Campbell can attest to that. She worked the Follies in Dawson during the early years of the show. “I was leading lady and also did fun skits. You name it, I did it. I even played the piano … and I don’t play, I don’t even read music. But they show you how.”
Campbell sang professionally before the Follies and went on to a successful career performing in Canada, the United States, and Asia. She remembers the show as a wonderful time for her and her sons, who came along every season.
“It was like one big happy family. Family is the magic word,” she says. “When I was with the Follies, we all took care of each other, and they still do.”
The Follies is a family business in every sense of the word. As performers work with each other day in and day out, in cramped backstage quarters, they develop a kinship. In addition, many of those involved are literally family members: Jim and Lyall Murdoch, of course, plus many brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, wives, and husbands have played roles on and offstage.
Debbie Winston, once married to Jim and now a Dawson resident, remembers helping create props for the show and designing costumes. “It was so much fun indulging my inner magpie, seeing my ideas manifest,” she says.
The beauty of the Follies’ turn-of-the-century costumes is one of the first things Marie Gogo mentions. “Oh, the gorgeous gowns, the large luscious hats, extravagant jewellery, and long, luxurious feather boas I was thrilled to wear,” the former Follies leading lady says. “It wasn’t difficult to feel grand and elegant in such amazing costumes. I arrived in the Yukon a shy singer and dancer, and left with years of extremely enjoyable stage experience and a whole lot more confidence.”
While artists like Campbell and Gogo eventually left the Yukon, others came to star in the Follies and became permanent residents, helping develop the Yukon’s artistic community. Dale Cooper arrived in 1982 to dance in the show. Over 30 years later, the Yukon is still her home. Beyond the Follies, Cooper performed in many other local productions and taught dance in Whitehorse. She describes an evolution within the show.
“Children grow into the show, and a second generation of Follies performers is created. My oldest daughter ran the front of house and played trumpet in the show. My youngest daughter danced and shared with me the role of leading lady,” Cooper explains. “Both producers, Lyall and Grant, are fathers, and their children are involved in the show, too.”
There is now a ready supply of talented local performers, many emerging from Yukon school-based arts programs and dance schools, and often taught by Follies alumni. As a result, the show no longer needs to import its cast.
Two of these local up-and-comers are Alita Powell and Conrad Funk-Robitaille, who bring a youthful exuberance to the stage. Although still a high-school student, Powell is an experienced performer.
“It’s the best job in the world,” Powell says of the Follies. “It’s a group of extremely talented, witty, and amazingly kind and caring people who all bring their own touch to the show. You basically get to play onstage for two hours and bring some joy to a new group of faces every night. Who doesn’t want that?”
Funk-Robitaille started out selling programs at the door and claims he was “one of the shyest people they have hired.” He is now the office manager, performs onstage, and plans to pursue a degree in theatre. Funk-Robitaille echoes Powell’s sentiments about what makes the Follies work so well.
“This show means so much to Whitehorse. It offers opportunities to young people and keeps the art of vaudeville alive,” he says. “For the tourists, after a long day on the road, wouldn’t you want to kick up your feet and laugh? The Follies can sometimes mean the difference between a bad trip and a great trip to the Yukon.” No doubt “Pookie” from Seattle would agree. Y
For more about the Frantic Follies, visit franticfollies.com or call 867-668-2042.