They’ve been called Lovell’s ambassadors, the face of the Mustang Days celebration. And they’ve been kicking up their heels for 50 years.
The Dollies of the Follies have been celebrating their 50th year since a grand reunion picnic during Mustang Days a year ago.
It all began with Lovell’s version of Wyoming’s 75th anniversary celebration in 1965. In previous years Lovell Day consisted mainly of a parade and rodeo, with some other miscellaneous events thrown in, but in 1965, the Lovell Woman’s Club decided to produce a western melodrama in honor of Wyoming’s birthday.
“A few of the woman’s club members had gone to Cody and saw a melodrama there. It was such a neat thing that they thought the Lovell Woman’s Club should put one on,” recalled longtime club member Arlene Ross. “They wanted to add can-canners to the melodrama.”
The May 13, 1965, edition of the Lovell Chronicle ran a story about tryouts and casting for the western melodrama to be “produced and presented by the Lovell Woman’s Club as part of the gala 75th anniversary diamond jubilee celebration for Lovell” to be held at the Hyart Theatre on Friday, June 18.
Special events were being held across the state to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Wyoming statehood, and Lovell’s events included the melodrama, a square dance at the armory, a NASA spacecraft exhibit and the Lovell Day celebration itself.
The article spoke of a need for not only actors but also people for costumes, props, makeup, lighting, sets, music and prompting.
“The old-fashioned melodrama from the gay nineties will be a highlight of the Lovell anniversary celebration; men and women of all ages can share in the fun!” the Chronicle wrote. Co-directors were to be Mrs. Jack (Helen Gay) Mollenbrink and Mrs. Marlo (Irene) Robertson.
The May 20 edition of the Chronicle announced that the tryouts had been held and that casting was continuing for the melodrama “Switched at the Crossroads.” Committee members named included: “Costumes, Mrs. Brownie Brown and Mrs. Clint McMullin; Properties, Mrs. Elwood Emmett; Makeup, Mrs. Rex Sprouse and Mrs. Janet Sharp; Sets, Mr. and Mrs. Thales Haskell Jr., Mrs. David Moore and Mrs. Edna Stevens; Lighting, Wes Meeker and R.W. Snedeker; Prompter, Ruthann Holzer; Programs, Mrs. R.C. Richardson; Publicity, Mrs. Mark Robertson, Mrs. Ella Burke and Mr. and Mrs. John McKelvy; Music, Robin Robertson, Mrs. Richard Doerr and Mrs. R.B. Bowman; and Tickets, Mrs. Charles Wagner and Miss Loretta Bischoff.”
In the June 3 edition of the Chronicle the cast of the melodrama was announced with this lead-in: “The villain is waxing his mustache and the heroine is practicing her sighs this week as rehearsals progress on the melodrama to be staged at the Hyart Theatre June 18.
Cast members announced were Bill Powell as Sebastian Spitzmiller, Janean Jolley as heroine Mercy Doobee and Roy Krogman as her suitor, Richard Bonafide. Lavelle Garritson was to play Sheriff Mike Slade. Other cast members were Lila Maranville, Mae Emmett, Greta Workman, Ricka Doerr and Rev. Floyd Schwieger.
During set and scene changes in the melodrama, various “between-scene” numbers and acts were performed on stage including comedy routines, singing and costumed “dancing girls” in western dance hall costumes. A photo in the June 24 paper shows Deanna Wagner and Arlene Sessions (now Ross) in costume. The Chronicle wrote in its melodrama report:
“The bawdy barroom was recalled by Cody NeVille, Arlene Sessions, Deanna Wagner and Bobi Jo Leonhardt with a vigorous performance of daring Boom-der-ay can-can.”
The costumes were rented at first.
“I went to Billings to a costume house and picked up four costumes,” Arlene Ross said. “We rented them the first year.” Later, Arlene’s mother, Ella Keller, sewed new costumes to be used by the Lovell dancers, using the original rented costumes as her guide. Keller’s costumes were used for many years, and when they wore out Janean Jolley sewed new costumes that are in use today.
There was only one dance number that first year, Ross and Deanna Wagner recalled – the longtime favorite “Can Can.”
“Cody NeVille and I taught the dance. We made up that dance,” Ross recalled, and added Wagner, “Arlene has always been a dance instructor.”
The basic same routine is still in use today for the song “Can Can.”
Music was provided by Arlene’s sister Lorece Doerr on the piano, before the days of the Mustang Band, although a predecessor to the Mustang Band, then called the Melodrama Band, played a role in the melodrama.
Unfortunately, Bobi Jo Leonhardt hurt her ankle and couldn’t dance, Ross and Wagner said, but she posed on the piano while the other three danced.
The melodrama was a hit, and so, apparently, were the dancing girls. Another melodrama was staged in 1966, “The Chips are Down,” this time in honor of Lovell’s 60th anniversary. Cast members included Bill Powell, Deanna Keele, Lavelle Garritson, Greta Workman, Max Miller, Myrle Brosius, Ruth Ann Holzer and Mary Jo Preuit.
The “between-scene acts” were referred to as olios for the first time and included the can-can dancers once again, with Tara Wagner helping with the olio. A photo in the June 16, 1966, edition of the Chronicle shows the “can-can cuties” rehearsing for their olio number: Karen Brown, Margaret Winterholler, Chauna Welch, Terry Anderson Carol Winterholler and Sandy Rindel.
There was no mention of can-can girls in the lead-up to the 1967 melodrama “The Purloined Pearls,” and no photos were printed in the Chronicle, so perhaps the dancers didn’t form that year, but in 1968 they were back.
The June 6, 1968 edition of the Chronicle notes the performance of “Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch” to be staged on June 19-20, and although there is no caption on the sole photo of the can-can dancers, they have been identified as Arlene Sessions, Sheila Hansen, Lorraine Fisher and Bobbie Rae Sessions.
The summer of 1969 marked the fifth and final stand-alone melodrama, “Alaska” or “The Secret of Yonder Mountain,” staged on June 16-18 at the Hyart, but it also marked a transition to future activities and events that would carry into the future as the Follies.
A photo in the June 19, 1969, edition of the Chronicle shows what might be the first performance of the band and dancers on the median strip in front of the Hyart Theatre to promote the stage production about to begin inside. The photo shows the melodrama band known as the “Northern Blasts” with the can-can dancers and other cast members beside the band.
A photo on the next page shows the six can-can dancers on stage, and again, they are not identified, but Ross’s research shows that they are Bobbie Rae Sessions, Carrie Crosby, Julie Ann Frost, Linda Powell, Sharalyne Tippetts and Denys Tippetts.
Mustang Follies born
Lovell Day became Mustang Days in 1970 and was held later in the summer, July 9-12. The Mustang Follies replaced the melodrama and kicked off the celebration on July 9, still sponsored by the Lovell Woman’s Club. Different eras – the 1800s, the Gay ‘90s, the Roarin’ 20s and the modern era – were portrayed on stage.
A Chronicle story in the July 2, 1970, edition told of the new celebration and of the Follies, including the brand new band, the “Rose City Philharmonica,” which was said to include favorites like “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” Bill Powell organized the “town band” that summer, although with mostly younger players at first including Mike Graham, Dusty Beal, Bruce Morrison, John Powell, Thad Stevens, Todd Wilder, Linnea Engelking, Ginger Despain, Jerry Doerr, Ray Reutzel, Angela Johnson, Gary Dover, Stan Bay and Gayle Irwin.
According to the Chronicle, the band represented Lovell at various celebrations in the area, transported by “an old Lovell fire truck,” including the Greybull Days of ’49 parade. The band played “ragtime jazz,” according to the Chronicle.
The can-can dancers, not yet named Dollies of the Follies, that summer included Denys Tippetts, Janis Tippetts, Peggy Holt and Julie Anne Frost, along with two others.
Mustang Days 1971 was held July 6-11, with the Follies staged Thursday and Friday night. The Lovell Chronicle mentioned the Follies as bringing back “old favorites, the Mustang Tooters (band) and Lovell’s own can-can dancers for a great evening of entertainment.”
By that summer of ’71 many of the modern traditions for the Dollies and the Mustang Band were falling into place. A front page photo on July 15 shows the “Dollies of the Follies” dancing on Main Street during the parade with an old fire truck full of band members in the background. Dollies were Monica Nordenstam, Claudia Crosby, Lynne Strom, Julie Ann Frost, Denys Tippetts and Carol Winterholler who were said to have “delighted the crowds with their parade routines Saturday morning.”
Strom remembers how exciting it was to be a Dolly.
“We had a lot of fun,” she said. “When we went to Red Lodge some bikers came up to us and I thought, ‘Now I know how a movie star feels.’ I remember the fire engine overheated on the hill (trying to reach Red Lodge).”
By 1973 the moniker Dollies of the Follies was well established, and for the first time reference in the Chronicle was made to a new name for the band: Bill Powell’s Mustang Country Band.
Follies programs during the mid-1970s didn’t list the names of the Dollies, so Ross and others were unable to come up with names for the Dollies of the Follies in 1974, 1975 and some other years, so anyone dancing during those years is asked to call the Chronicle at 548-2217 so the record can be filled in.
Georgette Lewis, who danced during that time, has a photo with herself, Eva Busteed, Brenda Wardell, Judy Jones and Peggy Holt in Dollies costume from 1973, and she said Judy Snedeker was also a member of the ’73 group. She fondly recalled her days dancing and traveling with Bill Powell’s band.
“He was such a great guy,” she said. “He had so much fun with him.”
She recalled traveling annually to Cody and Cowley and said the Dollies and band also performed at least once during her time in Red Lodge and Greybull.
Lewis said she enjoyed both the camaraderie and the performing.
“We liked to dance and just liked to have fun,” she said. “We liked the interaction with the crowd.
“I was so excited when I first started because I got to dance with people I looked up to like Lynne (Strom), Julie Ann (Frost) and Michelle (Corbett). I thought they were amazing. They were our can-can idols.”
After taking a few years off, Strom, Frost and Corbett danced again in 1983, and Strom recalls that Bud Petrich built the Dolly trailer that freed up space on the fire truck and was much easier to hop off of and back onto to dance during the parade.
Another tradition that began during that time was daughters of Dollies dressing like their moms. Strom said she believes that Julie Ann’s daughter Sheridan might have been the first little Dolly replica.
One of the longest performing Dollies was Jody Lynne Bassett, who started dancing in 1987 when she was still Jody Woody and continued “off and on between babies” through the summer of 2004.
“It was the greatest experience,” she said. “It was awesome and I loved it. I wish more people would try out.
“In those days we wore cascade wiglets and we looked more like Miss Kitty with ringlets. When you put your feather on you felt like you were it. We looked like classy saloon girls.”
She also enjoyed the travel.
“The Red Lodge parade was fun,” she said. “We walked and danced the entire parade.”
Since she had no daughters, Bassett said she recruited little girls to participate as the mini-Dollies. Dominique Allred was one who really stood out, she said.
One memorable moment for Bassett was when a woman from Thermopolis asked her to pose for a photo. About 10 years later she received a beautiful oil painting of herself in the mail, a painting made from that photograph.
To this day, the Dollies of the Follies and the Mustang Band remain an integral part of Mustang Days. The current troupe includes Stephanie Wagner, Shannon Warman, Sara Green, Kari Angell, Sara Fink and Danielle Peck. Nicole Hendershot works closely with the Dollies as a coach and choreographer.
The Mustang Band
After Bill Powell started the “Rose City Philharmonica” in 1970, he continued to lead the band and play his trumpet for many years. Though filled with young people at first, it quickly became more of an adult, community band as Lovell High School had its own summer band program at the time. For years the band was referred to as “Bill Powell’s Mustang Band.”
“It became an adult group, and it was considered to be a big honor to be invited to play as a high school kid,” said longtime Lovell director and musician Rick Parmer. “The first one I can remember being invited to play was Tracy Preuit (now Bassett, a drummer).”
Bassett started playing the drums after her freshman year of high school, but she said she can’t remember being the first, nor would she claim to be. But she did enjoy her experience and was one of a handful of people to both play in the band and dance as a Dolly.
“We went everywhere,” she said. “We danced in Worland, Thermopolis, Billings, Greybull, Cody, Red Lodge and Powell. Chad Petrich (of NEPECO) was just amazing. He was willing to haul his truck and trailer everywhere.
“Red Lodge was my all-time favorite, both dancing and playing in the band. The crowd there appreciated both the band and the dancers. There were people in the street. It had a hometown feel.”
Bassett said dancer Charla Wagner did a great job organizing the various events during those days.
Powell directed the Mustang Band for more than 10 years, and after that others took over for brief periods of time: Bassett, Meg Anderson, Mona Wilkerson and Aletha Durtsche. Rick Parmer helped behind the scenes, and he took over directing the band in the mid-to-late 1980s, directing for 20 years before retiring, although he still plays with the group.
The current director is one of Parmer’s LHS graduates, Michael Montanez, who has directed the band for about six years.
“The thing I remember about Bill Powell’s band was that bass drum,” Parmer said. “I loved that bass drum, a brown, wood drum with a hand-painted logo.”
As any director would attest, organization and mobilization are huge parts of a director’s role: finding and handing out music, making arrangements, coordinating with the Dollies and simply hauling the equipment to all of the events, let alone the rehearsals and the performances themselves.
“The hardest thing for me, and for any civic group, is contacting people on a weekly basis,” he said. “ Some band members have done yeoman work helping with that.”
Then there are the small victories.
“One of the big deals was finally getting the eastbound lane of Main Street closed before the Follies,” Parmer said. “It was taking your life in your hands (to play on the median strip) before that. Why we never lost anybody is beyond me. Everybody driving by was watching the pretty girls.”
And to this day, hundreds if not thousands are still enjoying the Dollies of the Follies and listening to the Mustang Band. As long as there are dancers and musicians willing to put in the time, the can-can girls and the band will continue to be Lovell’s ambassadors.
By David Peck