Taking Stock of the Esther's Follies Families
You can't really talk about the Austin of the last 20 years without talking about Esther's Follies. This homegrown comedy troupe is part of the city's history. It sprang to life on East Sixth back when that thoroughfare was still mostly ramshackle storefronts, and it was one of the entities that sparked the development of that street into the frighteningly active entertainment strip it is today.
Perhaps more significantly, the Follies are part of the city's character. Austin has a renegade streak running deep in its soul, an insistence on going its own way, swimming against the current, and the Follies personify that streak. They began as a boisterous mob of diversely talented individuals who wanted to have fun on a stage and began throwing together a patchwork of vaudeville comedy and torch songs and quirky ballets and literary parodies -- and threw together an entirely
new show every week! Such an enterprise would seem doomed to collapse under the weight of its competing creative voices, while it lived to draw, at best, a handful of patient friends. Yet the Follies survived -- and thrived. People came to watch, and they've kept coming for 20 years now, at least in part because they see something of Austin in the Follies' tweaking of the nose of the status quo and in its enthusiastic humor and spectacular costumes. They touch this city's love of revelry, the same spirit that drives Eeyore's Birthday Party and Carnaval, and they relish that spirit in this city. As longtime Follies member Joel McKean says, "People usually name it right up there with Barton Springs as one of the things they love about Austin. It's a cultural asset." Esther's is Austin, Austin Esther's.
Of course, you can't really talk about Esther's Follies without talking about the people in the Follies. Once you get past the intimacy of the space and the stage against the window through which the audience can view the human parade of Sixth Street, virtually everything else about the Follies -- and assuredly the thing that has kept Esther's a thriving concern through four changes of location, for two
Quite a few people have been part of the Follies family during its 20 years: 78 at least, and that's a conservative estimate. No doubt there have been more, but the informal nature of the Follies, especially in the early years when people were coming and going almost weekly, makes a complete accounting of all the participants somewhat difficult. As for determining precisely who was in when and for how long, you'd be hard pressed to get the facts even after a painstaking review of all the photographs and programs through the years. Divining the genealogy of Esther's is a task that would drive a Mormon to Jolt.
Still, reconstructing the Follies' history is worth the bother, if only to reinforce how far this one creative enterprise has come since its founding. It has spanned the terms of seven mayors, six governors, five presidents (all of whom it has poked in the eye with sharp sticks). It has survived one local economic bust and two booms. Its members, past and present, have had a hand in almost all of Austin's other comedy groups of the last two decades and copped a decade's worth of "Funniest Person in Austin" titles. Its stage has been host to not only dozens of talented performers but to several of the city's most noteworthy musicians and politicos. All told, the Follies have played to a total of -- and this too is a conservative figure -- one million people. That's one helluva Pool party.
And it's a party unlike any other, as you quickly discover whenever you talk to anyone who's been on the inside in Esther's, especially the alums (almost no one is truly an Esther's ex; too many who left expecting never to return have). They talk about the uniqueness of the Follies' creative opportunities. As Colom Keating (1987-92) puts it, "I'd play 12 to 14 different characters a night. How often are you going to get to play 12 to 14 people a night in your life?" They talk about the time allowed to polish some pieces of comedy. When Mandy Steckelberg (1988-91) began developing her signature Bowhead character, she was still a high school student just getting her feet wet in theatre, but the Follies allowed her "six or seven months to develop [the character] into something that really works." They talk about the unrelenting pace which required lightning changes under less
than ideal circumstances. For Keating, it was changing clothes in a walk-in fridge at the Pool's second incarnation. For Steckelberg, it was "people having to go onstage half-naked." For De Lewellen, whose Esther's experiences date back to the first year, it was changing in a small shack behind the Pool that felt "like it could cave in at any second," then racing to the stage up a narrow space between buildings with "no cover, so it could be pouring, sleeting," anything. They talk about the singular relationship between the performers and the audience. Even at 20 years, Follies composer and resident pianist Lyova Rosanoff says, "Being in front of 300 people and just the feeling of the people being so close and all of them laughing and feeling that I had a part in making them laugh continues to be a heady experience. Those are the moments I cherish."
That is the experience shared by the performers who have partied at Esther's Pool. It forces those who test the waters to work and work hard. "You practice at the top level of your craft," says Ingo Neuhaus (1987-92), and the result is "a special snap and skill" that can be seen in few performers of any kind. "It's the best training in the world," enthuses Michael Caldwell (1985-87), "and fun!" Of course, the push, push, push, to be funny, to keep up the pace, to be constantly and consistently inventive, five times a week, 52 weeks a year, takes its toll. That in part explains the turnover through the years. But however exhausting the Follies may be, however much they may burn out those on whom their success rests, the Follies still provide a rush for their participants that they may never equal. Mandy Steckelberg admits, "Esther's kind of spoiled me." And Ernie Sharpe, who wrote for and performed with the Follies in 1977 and '78, says, "I don't know what it's like now but in the early Follies, nobody made much money. Nobody made any money. You worked like a dog and all you got in return was a great time. I've never again had such a great time."