DRILLINGER DOES is a weekly column that chronicles the exploits of urban daredevil Meagan Drillinger throughout the five boroughs. Every Monday is another adventure — from whiskey tours and no-pants subway rides to sex club date nights.
I thought it was just going to be a simple Times Square variety show. Sure, maybe done up in the Jazz Age-style, but other than that…just a variety show. Turns out I thought exceptionally wrong.
I arrived at the Times Square Theater. In lieu of a Playbill, I was handed a passport, which sent me spilling back in time to Paris in the 1920s via a cruise liner. Upon docking in “Paris,” I was whisked immediately to the Ritz where a gaggle of showgirls lounged in sequined leotards sipping Champagne and sniffing “cocaine” from bouquets of dried flowers. Before I could even remove my jacket, Lillian, an actress from the silent pictures, had snatched me up, telling me that for certain favors she could ensure that I never had to work again. Before I could answer with a polite, “…what?” she softly pressed her plum-colored lips directly onto mine and then told me I had better take my seat. The show was about to begin.
The whole evening began with an email: A list of instructions for Ziegfeld’s Midnight Follies — an immersive experience in a secret theater at the back of a diner in Times Square — that chronicles the story of Florenz Ziegfeld and his show girls. Ziegfeld was a notorious Broadway director famous for his revue, the Ziegfeld Follies. The story of the play follows the real-life tragic end of Olive Thomas, a Ziegfeld girl in the 1920s who died mysteriously while honeymooning in Paris. The police in Paris ruled the death as an accident, but back in the States, the papers and the public were far more skeptical. Olive Thomas’ death was considered to be one of the first real Hollywood scandals.
“When you arrive you will see a balloon girl on the street,” the email read. “Go into the diner and walk all the way to the back of the room. Whisper the password in the ticket person’s ear and they’ll give you a passport.”
I arrived (albeit a tad late) and did just that. I had to rush to make my ship as all the other passengers were safely onboard. From the back of the diner I was escorted through double doors into a dinner theater. Up a flight of stairs behind the stage we opened up to another bar area, and another small set of stairs took us into a drawing room with fainting couches, rose-colored chandeliers, and bottles of Champagne. We had arrived at The Ritz, which is where I met the luscious, lip-y Lillian. I guess it’s cool to get kissed in Paris, especially if it’s by a scantily-clad Ziegfeld beauty. It was, to say the least, a most elaborate opening act.
Back in the theater, guests settled into their seats as Eddie, the host of the evening, took to the stage and belted out “Let’s Begin.” From there, it unfolded in two parts: part variety show and part participatory experience. In addition to a passport, audience members are also handed a card with a specific role, which they can choose to fill or not — but it’s much more fun to play along. Reading my card I discovered that I had a husband with a nasty gambling problem who lost all of our money and left me with three kids, which I assume is why Lillian was so eager to help me out…for a “nominal” fee, of course.
During the performances, guests are encouraged to wander around the theater and poke into the different rooms while trying to play the parts they have been given. During intermissions, we were called back onboard to Paris for brief, 15-minute mini-plays in The Ritz, where we watched the story of Olive’s death unfold, each version raising more questions about this so-called “accident.”
I was lost in a blurry swirl of stimulation. The trumpet blared, the piano jangled, and the girls were gorgeous and near-naked. Ladies spilled from hanging chandeliers to twirl above the crowd, and the booze flowed like ridiculously expensive water. The variety show was jam-packed with impressive talent — musical numbers are followed by aerial acrobatics and one very interesting act where a woman in nothing but a banana-covered thong and sparkly bra takes the stage with bouncy burlesque. I felt like F. Scott and Zelda fed me goblets of absinthe and led me to a carnival where Elton John in an electric green feather boa was the headliner. I was tripped out of my mind, and I’d only had one glass of Champagne. Fight or flight?
“Excuse me, I’m trying to find Mr. Ziegfeld,” I heard myself say to a sailor hanging by the stage.
“Are you trying to be a show girl?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “My good-for-nothing husband lost all our money and left me with three kids.”
“Sounds terrible. Well, Mr. Ziegfeld sees a lot of girls who want to be in the show. Do you have any special talents that would interest him?” the sailor asked with a knowing wink.
“I’m sure there’s something I could do to convince him of my talent,” I offered back.
The sailor pointed to man in the corner with silver hair in a tuxedo, sipping scotch. “All right then, miss,” he said. “Mr. Ziegfeld is right over there.”
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