The Girls Can't Help It

Call it drag, call it nouveau vaudeville -- Little Havana's Teatro de Bellas Artes' Midnight Follies is all entertainment

"They've learned about this world of theater because before they didn't have that training. I say, 'Look, you're obligated in this profession -- like in the tradition of vaudeville -- to go on with the show. You have a headache, you go out on the stage smiling, and when you get off you can feel the pain. If the air conditioner's broken, you go out there cool as a cucumber. If someone in the audience says something inappropriate, no matter how insulting it was, smile first and think about a response. Don't blurt out the first dirty word you think of.'

"And absolutely no improper language," he intones sternly, his voice rising. "There are prohibited words here. We don't swear; it's vulgar. If you say a filthy word once, it's funny. But if you keep saying it, nobody's going to laugh any more."

On-stage, Mariloly, dressed in a black shift and black high heels, flirts with a Guantanamo refugee in the first row, who furiously chews a piece of gum and laughs nervously.

"These balseros are really fine," Mariloly says, working the crowd. "My friends and I are going to go out to Homestead Air Force Base and stand there with a sign that says 'Sisters to the Rescue.'. . . "

Mariloly asks her new friend to meet her in the parking lot after the show, then turns her attention to the right side of the theater. "Well, hello! Oh my God! It's my friend from Cuba, we used to play together when I was a little boy!" She paces back and forth, taking a poll of the nationalities of the audience members -- Colombian, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Argentine -- but after five people say "Cuban," she rolls her eyes and scoffs, "Yeah, so what else is new." Then she moves to the other side of the stage to tell a joke about a man with a long penis and a high voice -- the kind of dirty joke kids tell in elementary school. The audience roars in hysterics. On a roll, Mariloly launches into a story about three balseros waiting for the Metromover. A chubby Argentine man in a nylon print shirt laughs so hard he falls over into the aisle.

Next the comedian picks five men from the audience under the pretext of taking their picture. Instead, Mariloly enters them in a "doggy dance" contest, with each man wiggling his pelvis to a novelty merengue record called "El Perrito." As they gyrate, Mariloly goads them on, telling them to move as if they were "in a room in one of those hotels out by the airport." Tonight's contestants include two balseros and an Uruguayan tourist whose daughters scream with laughter from the third row. But the winner is a studly young Cuban (who came to Miami via Mexico seven years ago) in skintight black jeans and an unbuttoned vest, who has a cellular phone sticking out of his pocket.

"We've gotten better and better over the years," muses Herrera, watching another video back in his apartment, this one of last year's summer special, which featured a fashion show of fantasy bridal wear. "So many performers say that Midnight Follies is the Transvestite University. If you perform in the Midnight Follies, you have a degree in transvestitism. People from other countries, like Puerto Rico, come here and they ask to be in the show just once. They don't want money, they just want a certificate saying that they performed in the Midnight Follies."

Over the years, Midnight Follies cast members have come and gone. Some have left to pursue solo careers in clubs, which can be more financially lucrative. (Midnight Follies performers are paid a percentage of the door, awarded according to seniority.) One dropped out to marry a woman. Another fell ill with AIDS. Still others have had what Herrera refers to euphemistically as "personal problems," unable to adhere to the show's decorous rules or maintain its strict performance schedule. Not everyone can hack it, and the requirements to get into the cast in the first place are strict.

"First they have to lip-synch well," Herrera points out. "They should be able to do their own hair and makeup -- most of those who aren't already hairstylists take a six-month course to learn. They should also have some notion of dancing and singing -- this isn't just about posing on stage."

Jesus Gonzalez, known to Midnight Follies audiences as Debbie, had plenty of experience in that area. He was a dancer at the Tropicana in Cuba. But even with his elite nightclub experience, Gonzalez couldn't land a job when he arrived in Miami in 1980 as part of the Mariel exodus. "Dancing here is different than in Cuba," Gonzalez says. "There aren't many jobs for male nightclub dancers." Gonzalez's luck changed when he entered a drag contest one night and generated a lot of applause. "I saw there were more opportunities to do drag here than dance as man," he notes. "I like the theater, so I decided to work in that," eventually signing on as a founding member of the Midnight Follies. However, he soon abandoned the show to work in clubs, but returned to the cast a few years ago.

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