LOVELL — Nothing in Lovell’s Mustang Days program marks the Follies as anything more than just a small-town variety show put on by volunteers.
And yet, the Follies with the Dollies in Lovell often sells out the Hyart Theater, which seats about 1,000 people.
The Follies is enormously popular in the Lovell area, and puts a stop to most everything else that’s going on for just a little while each time there’s a performance.
The Bull Pub in the neighboring town of Cowley, for example, closed up shop two hours early so that the restaurant’s workers could all be there to either see or participate in the show.
The police, meanwhile, blocked off Main Street in Lovell for an hour, giving the Dollies a safe space to perform their opening act, which was accompanied by the Mustang Band — volunteer musicians of various ages.
A Hollywood star even put in a guest appearance by video for this year’s Follies. That came from none other than “The Walking Dead’s” Ethan McDowell, who moved to Lovell in the fifth grade and went to high school there.
McDowell has been in quite a few movies since playing Reaper Ira Washington in “The Walking Dead.” He starred in “Ms. Marvel” as Agent Barrie and as August Payne in “Echoes,” a newly released Netflix thriller. He also has a starring role in “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret,” released in April.
McDowell sent a video clip to the show, telling them all how well he remembers watching the Follies when he was growing up in Lovell — even though he himself only ever had a bit part in the actual Follies themselves.
“I grew up watching these follies, school plays, and every single movie that I could, sitting in these very seats that you are now,” he said. “The Hyart Theater opened its doors back in 1951, bringing this amazing venue of entertainment to Big Horn County, and I personally will never forget it.”
The smell of fresh popcorn filling the air inside the Hyart, playing video games in a building that had such cool vintage architecture — these were things that McDowell said allowed “imaginations to soar.”
“The (Hyart) theater played a major part in why, after graduating from Lovell High School — Go Bulldogs! — I wound up in Hollywood, chasing a dream of someday being up here on the silver screen at the Hyart,” McDowell said.
Chuckling a little, he added, “So I guess technically it worked out. But from me to you, if you have a dream to do something, just believe in yourself. Surround yourself with like-minded people and just go for it. Just follow the music.”
Music Is Big
Of course music plays a big part in the magic of Lovell’s Follies, which so impressed McDowell each and every year.
Every number features music to energize and put a little zing into the thing, whatever that thing might be — dance number, skit, comedy, interruptions — they’re all part of the scripted show.
“People don’t realize what a large production this is,” Renae Ball told Cowboy State Daily. She emceed the event along with Billy Foxtrot, aka Jace Grant, on stage, and coordinated production of the event with Tianne Samson.
“Tianne and I started kind of you know getting together about eight months before the Follies to get a theme and to kind of understand what we want to do. This year, I was adamant about doing an Oscars theme. So that was actually my idea, and then she and I collaborated on how we can make it flow, the categories, the acts, you know, what could work.”
After that, the two reach out to people who have done great acts in the past who might be willing to do another.
“We have a lot of people who, you know, do like to attend and do like to participate,” Ball said. “And then, you know, from there, we can reach out to other people, see if they’re willing to do it. It’s such a small town, so we kind of know who has, you know, the gumption to get on that stage.”
And it's not a small audience, so being on the stage does take some gumption, especially since that audience has come, over the years, to expect a great show.
“When we’re at full capacity, we’re close to 1,000 people here,” Ball said.
Wednesday’s and Thursday’s shows are both sold-out this year, meaning around 2,000 people will see the Follies.
“Usually Thursdays is the busier night,” Ball said. “So, the fact it was sold out (Wednesday night) makes me super excited to get on stage.”
Months Of Rehearsals
It may be volunteers putting on the show, but they practice like professionals.
That’s part of the magic that happens during the Follies, too.
The last week leading up to the big show is always something of a whirlwind. There are sound checks, dress rehearsals, costume adjustments, last-minute inspirations, as well as all the things that could be expected to go wrong in such a big production.
But each act has been rehearsing for months by then, on their own, and that’s part of what helps things to run so smoothly no matter what happens.
In and around Lovell, so many people have caught on to this great little show, and love to see it year after year, Ball said.
“You get a huge array of people that have either, you know, were born and raised here that are still here or are coming in from other places, and people who have just heard about it and like being entertained,” Ball said. “People do come from all around.”
Every year, it’s so much work that Ball tells herself it will be her last.
“But then, when I get off the stage, it’s just so fun and I just love the crowd,” she said. “I love seeing the crowd enjoy it, and I love putting it all together. When you finally get it, and it comes to fruition and you see that like, ‘OK, my idea is working, it’s all working,’ — and Tianna is working really hard too, you know, to make sure it flows, to make sure people are entertained — so, who knows, you might be able to get me back next year. I’m not sure. Ask me tomorrow.”
Sparking Community Connection
Lovell’s Follies are now a 58-year tradition, and a testament to what a community can do when it pulls together to make the most of the talent it has.
The program started small, with the Dollies, which consists of six ladies performing a variety of can-can routines both before and during the show itself.
Aubrey Strom, one of the girls on the team, is new to Lovell, but knew the moment she saw the act she wanted to be part of it.
“My husband’s grandma, there’s like newspaper clippings of when she did it,” Strom told Cowboy State Daily. “And so, I don’t know, it’s just really fun to see it be passed down for decades.”
At first, Strom was nervous.
“The last time I had danced was when I was like 9,” she said.
But once that music started, something happened. All that practicing and rehearsal kicked in, but also, the crowd was loving it, too. The big smiles just start happening all around Main Street as the girls danced. That made everything easy.
Rose stickers started coming around soon after that, one for a cheek here, another for a chest or a wrist there.
Pretty soon everyone was wearing a Lovell rose and loving it.
That’s what community connection looks like, and it’s all part of the draw that Ball said keeps people coming back year after year to Lovell’s Follies.
“I think it’s just a sense of belonging,” she said. “You know, feeling like you’re part of something, honestly. It’s something that they enjoy, and it’s entertaining, and it’s something they can rely on.”
A world with no Follies in Lovell would be a world no one who has ever been there could understand, Ball added.
“That’s the biggest thing,” she said. “The community. We wouldn’t be here if they didn’t support us.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.