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Save two dates to see a documentary featuring local dance troupe "Calendar Girls"

Tom Hall

For the past eleven years, Executive Director Eric Raddatz has selected a film with special appeal to open the Fort Myers Film Festival. This year is no exception. The 12th Annual Fort Myers Film Festival will open on Wednesday, May 18th with Calendar Girls, a documentary film about a group of local volunteer senior dancers who are determined to prove that age is just a number.

Since 2005, the Calendar Girls have danced their way into the hearts of Southwest Florida residents and vacationers. Known for their impressive make-up, handmade costumes, choreographed dance routines and bubbly, effervescent personalities, the troupe gives over 100 public and private performances each year. While they often appear at other organizations’ fundraising events, all of the money they earn from their appearances goes to support the Southeastern Guide Dogs’ mission of supporting veterans with disabilities. And one reason the Girls are especially excited about having their documentary shown locally is the spotlight it will shine on Southeastern Guide Dogs - as long-time member Lynn Hutton effuses.

“You know what the best part about the Fort Myers Film Festival is going to be?  Our puppy raisers will be there with our guide dogs in training, and some of the guide dogs we’ve sponsored. That’s our heart. That’s why we dance. It’s to raise money for a future guide dog. Miracles with tails," she said.

Although the Calendar Girls are accustomed to being asked for selfies and photo ops, being featured in a documentary was the last thing they ever expected. It happened after an event in Cape Coral a few years ago. In the audience were two aspiring filmmakers from Sweden, Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen. Although they had some reservations, the Girls said yes. But it wasn’t for the attention they would receive either personally or as a team. Rather, they were impressed by the reason that Maria and Love wanted to shoot the film. Calendar Girls Program Director Katherine Shortlidge explains.

“In Europe, when people retire, they don’t volunteer. They don’t work at Lee Memorial pushing a little cart around. They stay home and do not do much. So they thought this would be big in Sweden to show that these elderly American women retire and then they give back to their country, they give back to the military, they give back to their community.”

But little did the Calendar Girls know what they were in for, as Tina Pegler who, like Shortlidge, has been a Calendar Girl since the team’s inception in 2005, explains:

“We thought this documentary was going to last just maybe a few days or something, but this documentary led into three years of filming, where they would put mikes on a lot of us and during practice and going to all kinds of shows, and then also interviewing … some of us got interviewed in our homes. So that’s how it started.”

For a time, the troupe thought the documentary would only be shown in Sweden or perhaps elsewhere in Europe. That changed this past December when the film was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

While there is ample footage of the entire team practicing and performing, the film follows the stories of four individual members. Although Katherine Shortlidge asked Maria and Love not to focus on, in her words, girly drama, the storytelling inescapably includes some Kardashian moments. But, Katherine and the rest of the Girls were pleasantly surprised.

“I knew they had put years of their lives into it, working full time jobs and doing this at night, raising two small children. I knew what they put into it, but I knew what we put into it. And I didn’t know how they would piece it all together, but it’s beautifully done and it’s tasteful …. And I was the one who would be the most picky about … I’ve worked hard here … don’t sully the reputation of this team with too much junky drama.”

The documentary is so well done that Juno Films purchased the distribution rights at the conclusion of Sundance and plans to release it for runs in movie theaters around the world beginning this summer. But before then, Calendar Girls will be shown at select film festivals. For example, it was featured just this past weekend at the Sarasota Film Festival, where the team not only got to see it for the first time on a big screen, but in front of a live audience. Lynn Hutton, for one, was blown away by the experience.

“There was paparazzi and red carpet, but the best part for me was seeing the audience and their reaction. One gentleman stood up and said, ‘I didn’t think I was going to like this documentary, but I loved it.’ And there was almost a hundred people there. We were wondering if there was going to be three people in the audience. There was almost a hundred people there. It was so, so exciting.”

As an added bonus, they even got to meet and have their picture taken with Jacqueline Bisset. But they suddenly found themselves in the role of celebrities too.

“We blew them away because after the documentary, we got up and performed,” Lynn Hutton reports. “It was alluded to … we came out of the screen and down on the floor and we performed with the big bright lights and they were like oh my gosh. Actually, they wanted an encore.”

While other film festivals loom on the horizon, the Girls are most looking forward to the Fort Myers Film Festival, where they’ll also be performing a dance number and participating in a Q&A.

Tina Pegler can’t wait.

“In Sarasota, we felt like when Lynn said about the red carpet and celebrities and some of were able to get interviewed outside there by an educational TV producer, it felt like Hollywood Stars. So imagine being in our own home area, our own county area, that’s going to feel like, wow, you know us, you’ve seen us and now look where we are. Look where we are. Look what’s changed …”

The Calendar Girls can’t help but be flattered and awestruck by the buzz the documentary is creating. But that’s just icing on the proverbial cake. Having people see the documentary may not only spur contributions to Southeastern Guide Dogs, it will also remind viewers there’s a lot of life to be lived after retirement. Pegler and Hutton offer this insight:

Tina: “It’s important to show them that no matter what age you are, you can still be young inside. No matter how old you are, you can still move and you can still entertain and it’s kind of like, as I said in the documentary, I feel like putting on the make-up and the earrings and the costumes, you can feel like a super hero.

Lynn: Every day is Halloween.

Tina: Exactly, you can be whoever you want to be. I never care what anybody thinks. I’m gonna do what I want to do in my life. That’s how I am and you’re the same way. But I just think it’s a great feeling to be able to do that. And Katherine just took us and I assisted her throughout the 17 years and it’s been a great ride.

You can watch the documentary, see the Calendar Girls perform and get your picture taken with them under the lights of the Jim Sanborn light sculptures outside the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center on May 18th at the opening of the Fort Myers Film Festival.

You can also see a preview of the documentary on April 22nd under the stars on lawn of Henry Ford’s winter residence at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates along with one of Thomas Edison’s first talkies and a documentary by local filmmaker Ilene Safron titled The Koreshans: Legends and Legacies of Estero’s Urban Pioneers.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.