Turning 60 didn’t stop Lois Mazgaj from chasing her dream; it made it possible.
By Pamela Selbert
While waiting for the Branson Follies to begin at the Follies Theatre, in Branson, Missouri, this past fall, I noticed a woman in the audience wearing a sweatshirt blazoned with the words: “It’s All In The Attitude.” She couldn’t have chosen more appropriate attire for this particular performance.
That’s because all 16 members of the energetic cast who performed the “Over 60 Never Looked So Good!” segment of the show had reached their 60th birthday, although many were 10 and even 20-plus years beyond that. What other than an amazing attitude “” and, of course, a lot of hard work “” could keep these women and men, at their ages, so nimble on their feet?
Among the 10 women in the cast, whose ages ranged from 60 to 85, was strawberry-blonde Lois “Layne” Mazgaj (pronounced “Mazgay”), F340541. She’s 63 but looks a couple of decades younger. Lois and her husband, Dan, call Las Vegas, Nevada, home. But while Lois danced in the follies, they were full-time motorhomers, residing for much of the year in Branson. The couple shared a lovely 2005 40-foot Monaco Diplomat with four generous slideouts, which, Lois noted, provides enough living space to make full-timing “doable.”
The mobile home and RV park they stayed at, which was situated on the side of a steep hill overlooking the bustling town, was just a stone’s toss from the elegant 2,200-seat Follies Theatre (built by Glenn Campbell in 1993), close enough that Lois could walk to work if she chose. That involved a rather strenuous climb up the hill, but after a few weeks of eight-hour days in rehearsal and eight weeks of vigorous performances, Lois “” who chose Layne as her stage name “because everyone would remember it” “” said the walk no longer left her panting.
The high-energy dancing clearly did an excellent job of keeping her and the rest of the cast in first-rate shape. Ruth Foster, 85, who played the postmistress on TV’s “Little House on the Prairie” for 11 years, performed a tap dance solo in the Follies that most 20-year-olds could only dream of. Louise Farrand, 83, a former June Taylor dancer, seemed quite agile, as did the others well into their 70s.
Unfortunately, the Follies abruptly closed just before the start of the 2006 season, depriving fans of seeing this incredible show and leaving Lois and the rest of the cast wondering what happened. “We were on our way back to Branson for the opening on April 4, when we got the call while we were in Oklahoma,” Lois said. “My guess is that it was underfinanced, because the show was a hit.”
The couple continued on to Branson and met other cast members who had already made it into town. “We spent a week crying in our beer and partying,” she said. “We’re all hoping that it will be back, because it was really a wonderful show. It’s so disappointing, because there’s not a lot of work out there for 60-year-old dancers.”
Lois, who is originally from Brooklyn, New York, has been dancing since she began taking lessons at age 6. “I still take classes whenever possible, in tap, ballet, and jazz,” she said. “Dancing has always been my love.”
However, after she got engaged in 1959 at age 17, married the following year, and gave birth to her daughter, Abbe, a couple of years later, she had no time for dancing; at least for a while, anyway. But in 1971 she found herself single again and supporting her small family by teaching nursery school.
Then one evening she and a friend attended a Parents Without Partners meeting and stopped at a local tavern afterward. Dan Mazgaj, an air traffic controller who is originally from Hamburg, New York, just south of Buffalo, also happened to be at the establishment. Dan, who had become engaged just a week earlier, was there to help his roommate celebrate his 21st birthday. Lois and Dan met; they clicked; he called off his engagement; and the two were soon married. They have been married 34 years and enjoy frequent camping trips with their son, Neal.
“I married young,” Lois said with a grin. “Dan is just 59.” Lois said that she encouraged her husband to be a stagehand or otherwise become involved with the Branson show. But he was content to spend his days playing golf and being a “house husband,” taking care of the cleaning, laundry, shopping, and cooking. A “kept man,” she joked. “I don’t do kitchen.”
Dan explained that they moved (when he was offered a transfer) from New York to California in 1974 and to Las Vegas five years later. He gave up his job as an air traffic controller in 1984 and the couple purchased a Century 21 franchise to sell residential real estate until six years ago, when they sold the franchise but retained property management.
While Lois was performing in Branson last year, Dan worked long-distance via the computer system he had installed in the Diplomat. The two currently manage 200 Las Vegas homes for investors from all over the world. Dan’s sister, Sandy Parker, heads the staff at their Nevada office.
Lois noted that she “went back to dancing for the exercise,” studying with Peggy Ryan, who earlier had been Donald O’Connor’s dance partner. Grinning, Lois said that Ms. Ryan “took a look “” and asked me to join her TNT group.” That was in 1982 and marked the beginning of a showbiz career that eventually landed her the gig with the Follies.
“The TNTs were 10 female dancers, not professionals at the start, though we became professional,” she said. “We opened for headliners such as Donald O’Connor, Mickey Rooney, and the DeCastro Sisters.” The troupe also performed for Universal Child Stars reunions in California; opened a theater in Independence, Missouri; and “danced “” mostly tap, some jazz “” at a lot of fund-raisers over 20 years,” she said.
Lois learned of the opportunity to audition for the all-new show in Branson from friend John Cole, who was auditioning and made the grade. She gave it her best shot and was elated to become part of the show. Other cast members included Jan Daley, the main singer, who was Miss California in 1965 and performed in U.S.O. shows with Bob Hope. Among the six men in the cast were Jerry Antes, who performed for 11 years with the Palm Springs Follies; Sal Angelica, who danced professionally with Ginger Rogers; and Francois Szony, an adagio dancer, who Lois said “admits to being 80.”
Headliners with the show included Patti Page, Carol Channing, and the Four Aces, who were performing their hits on the occasion of our visit.
“Our show was different from typical Branson fare,” Lois said. “Many are family-oriented. We were old-fashioned vaudeville with a salute to veterans.”
She added that it typically takes three years to build an audience in Branson. This means many performers work to daytime audiences of as few as 20 individuals. However, after less than two months into their run, the Branson Follies attracted more than 100 spectators for afternoon performances, and up to 500 in the evening.
The only good thing about the Follies being cancelled is that the couple can travel more in their motorhome. They’ve taken several small trips and plan to do several one- and two-week jaunts during the summer after they return from Dan’s birthday present in June “” a cruise to Tahiti. And when they finally retire, possibly on Dan’s 65th birthday, they hope to join a caravan to Alaska, Lois said.
Dan and Lois became intrigued with motorhoming when friends invited them on an Alaskan odyssey in their coach three years ago. Wanting more evidence that this mode of travel was right for them, they rented a motorhome for a couple of weeks.
“We had a terrible experience with that, but still were so hooked on the idea that we bought a 1999 Tradewinds with one slide,” Dan said. “When Lois got the job in Branson we decided to full-time “” and she insisted on a bigger coach.” Hence the purchase of the Diplomat in 2005; its license plate reads “CNDO2GO” (Condo To Go).The couple also sold their second home in Palm Springs, California, but still maintain their Las Vegas residence.
“We like the mobility of motorhoming “” why else would we be in an RV?” Dan said.
The Mazgajs joined FMCA shortly after buying their first coach “because we heard it was a wonderful RV club to be a part of,” Lois said. “Since we were new to motorhoming we needed all the help we could get. We liked the idea of contacting others in [FMCA] about where to go, what to see.”
“We never stop moving,” she added with a grin. “And we’re having a great time.”