The Folderol Follies
The rumblings of the crowd quiet as the spotlight shines on the clarinet, starting low and mellow, gradually building to a shrill. The bass of the tuba rattles the seats from the front to the back of the venue as Ben cues my entrance. A couple taps on the cowbell, the woodblock, a few simple plucks on the ukulele—just enough to add color to the tango. After the crescendo, we settle on a gentle pulse. The stage is set, as our ladies take their positions.
The symbols crash! Stage lights go up, and out pops Firefly, our 3-foot 3-inch Midget of Mischief being chased across the stage by Adrian of Oracle Dance Troupe in boy shorts, a black corset, and garter belt. Firefly stole her scarf and is flaunting this capture to the crowd, and secure in her triumph she stops midstage to blow a fireball. The band rushes though Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse—a song best know as the “assembly line music” of Looney Tunes. It screams mayhem, and it is all part of our plan. We were the Folderol Follies, a modern extravaganza. Music. Dance. Burlesque. Acrobatics. Amazement.
Voix de ville means “voice of the city.” It was a popular form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where various seemingly unrelated acts would share a bill. There might be a juggler, then an accordionist, followed by a pair of Marx Brothers impersonators slapping each other across the face with frying pans. But now at the turn of the 21st century, our ringleader, Ukulele Loki, was bringing it back. We were breathing life back into a dead art form.
Firefly is a midget. Not a “short person” or “vertically challenged.” She is a midget. It is how she identified, and what she preferred to be called. Her dwarfism brought her wages—the added bonus of being a midget with the ability to breathe fire made her marketable in show business. She was one of many that graced our stage
There was The Amazing Alexandria and Adrian, the aerial dancers who dazzled by contorting and twisting like a pretzel while hanging from the ceiling by a tissue or a hoop; and of course the lovely Orchid May, our tantalizing burlesque dancer; and we mustn’t forget Little Miss Petunia, our song and dance, multi-talented beauty.
It was quite the cast of characters, and somehow I was thrown into the mix. I am a mild mannered man, with a respectable day job. Yet by night, I let my wild side rumble. However, my day job was not traditional and not unrelated; I was a music therapist. Meaning, I used music as a medium to address physical, emotional, social, and cognitive issues with individuals in various healthcare and educational settings. I was a troubadour on the disabilities scene, travelling from site to site, armed with drums, a guitar, a keyboard, and often a ukulele. A one-man-band on a mission to cure the sick and able the disabled. I couldn’t solve all of their problems, but I could make them more tolerable for a short while. This was my day job.
By night, I was a member of the Gadabout Orchestra, providing the comedic accents for Petunia’s “Popcorn and Peanuts” intermission routine; the seductive 50s swing for Orchid’s strip tease; the tense, dark, mysterious sounds as Firefly walked (then jumped!) on broken glass; and the energetic finale as all heads stared towards the ceiling at Alexandria’s positions; and we offered timepiece filler music from the 20s and 30s, and our amalgamated originals.
Our ensemble consisted of tuba, trombone, clarinet, drums, glockenspiel, pedal steal and electric guitar, cello, and the ukulele. Our instrumentation was often misleading, preparing people for a revisit of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but we were more like Tom Waits trying to harmonize like the Beatles. As one reviewer mentioned, “We reached backward, forward, and into deep pockets of pop weirdness. We were 1920s-music hall meets 1980s-shoegazer, with the dash and recklessness of indie rock.” I truly became a gadabout, constantly seeking the thrill and pleasure of performance.
Ukulele Loki’s real name was Aaron Johnson, a name he knew would never bring him serious respect in the circus, vaudeville, or freak show circuits. And besides, all showmen need a stage name. He wielded this tiny instrument, and he was not ashamed, as he used to say during the show. It was indeed a staple prop in his shtick, so it made perfect sense that he should wear it as his name.
Loki made this high-pitched, bright instrument tell the dark stories of loves past. “She loves with a vengeance, like serving a sentence, and settling the score…” he sang. This was no Hawaii-styled imposter strumming “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This was no Tiny Tim. This was a tortured songsmith using a simple instrument to tell the complex stories of life, love, loss, and humanity.
The Gadabout Orchestra was the first serious band in which I had played in quite some time. Before joining, I had become disenchanted by the music business, and wanted to be more than a performer. I wanted to use my music to reach people in powerful ways. I wanted a day job. I became a music therapist. I worked with those on the margins of society. Cerebral Palsy. Alzheimer’s. Schizophrenia. Autism. Depression.
To an outside observer, my day and night lives may have seemed incongruent and downright bizarre—a Jekyll and Hyde. But strangely, my life made sense. There was a connection between displaying the fantastical talents of the Folderol Follies and bringing music to the disabled. I connected with fascinating individuals with underappreciated yet marvelous talents. Fire breathing midgets. Profoundly disabled teenagers. They all had something to share, and music connected us.