In celebration of Women’s History Month, we take a closer look at the grande dames of Esther’s Follies.
“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—but she did it backward and in high heels.” Ann Richards spoke these prophetic words about women, and they couldn’t be any truer than in the world of women in comedy. Esther’s comediennes, when performing on stage, have to run the gamut of femmes fatale, Texas good ol’ gals, domestic goddesses and celebrities, and all in the space of an hour and a half, with costume changes to boot.
In the 38 years since we started the Follies, the roles have changed for our actresses, as the world of politics and culture have garnered more female icons. This year, our actresses have enjoyed spoofing Wendy Davis, Hilary Clinton, Barbara Bush, Lady Gaga, and of course, the perennial Patsy Cline, shucking the mysterious contents of her prom dress.
But the hearts of the women we parody are still the same as they were back in 1977 when we started. The strong, clear voices of women in power make the best comedy subject—women who aren’t afraid to walk out to the edge of an idea, grab it, and make it their own. One of our earliest grande dames of the Follies, Margaret Wiley, created “Chi Chi LaBamba,” a big-breasted Latina who prowled through the audience looking for her “Hunk of the Night,” and danced with her chosen guy to tumultuous applause. Sometimes, the men would get too friendly, and Margaret would come offstage, crying. She was a wild woman onstage, but shy and self-conscious underneath it all. Being outrageous on the stage gave her the power to create characters like “Martha Stewart’s Maxi-Pad World of Crafts,” and a dip into her own past as Ukrainian mama Rula who spit into her fingers, believed in trolls and built giant costumes that looked like dildos. Early Follies star Terry Galloway could gender shift with aplomb, playing “Jake Ratchett, Short Detective” as a gumshoe solving the Dirty Sixth crimes. Today, Esther’s actress Nathalie Holmes plays Michelle Obama snatching a cigarette out of her husband’s mouth while sending the GOP scuttling with “Get out of my White House!” Women don’t have to be afraid to say what they feel these days. Our female audiences roar their approval when we sing the Equal Pay Song. Cindy Wood brings the house down when she does the classic “Sam I Am” with partner Shaun Branigan, changing from demure wallflower to a party girl who knows what she wants. Looking back at all the ladies of the Follies and all their characters, I see much change and more freedom, but the same creative spark. We’re dancing forward now, still in high heels!
Top image: Left to right: Ellana Kelter as Wendy Davis; Ted Meredith and Shannon Sedwick as Bill and Hillary Clinton; Cindy Wood in costume. Photos courtesy Esther’s Follies
Originally published March 15th, 2015 in The Austinite Magazine.
Shannon Sedwick is the award-winning co-founder and producer of Esther’s Follies, Austin’s longest-running political comedy revue. She serves as the board chair for the Pecan Street association and the Sixth Street Merchants Group.