Low Price Lenny and the Fall River Senior Sweetheart Pageant

From the wonderful site The Small Story, learn about "Low Price" Lenny and the unique pageant he's been running for 31 years.

By Cara Solomon for The Small Story

FALL RIVER — For a while there, it looked a little dicey. The ladies were safely tucked away in the makeup room, getting their hair curled and coiffed. But outside, in the hallway, crisis had come to the annual Ms Senior Sweetheart Pageant. Word was spreading fast.

“They’re absolutely gorgeous in their evening gowns,” Lenny says. “They shine, they bubble, they walk across the stage.”And Lenny Kaplan was spreading it. An hour before the show was to begin, his tuxedo still on its hanger, a sandwich in one hand, a cell phone in the other, the 79-year-old unofficial mayor of Fall River was holding court in the hallway, informing all members of his crew who did not know.

“Somewheres,” he said with a solemn face, “a gown is missing.”

Not to worry. These things happen. In 31 years of running this show, Lenny has seen plenty of nice plans fall to pieces. Didn’t one of his right-hand men call in early this morning with some kind of sickness? He did indeed. But Lenny made do.

There are so many moving pieces to this pageant for women aged 58 to 84. Every year, they arrive in Fall River and stay for 11 days—touring the city, performing at nursing homes, answering the judges’ questions.

Then comes the big day, this day, when they show off their talents to several hundred in the local high school auditorium under a blitzkrieg of lights.

“They’re absolutely gorgeous in their evening gowns,” Lenny says. “They shine, they bubble, they walk across the stage.”

So of course Lenny is calling around, and looking for that gown, and telling the hotel receptionist he loves her, when the gown is finally found.

Lenny has a life outside the pageant—a patient wife, two understanding children, a couple of thriving businesses, more friends than he can possibly count. But anyone in Fall River will tell you, this is the kind of thing he lives for: The sight of a 74-year-old woman from St. Louis gliding across the stage in her red sequined gown, smiling pretty, smiling proud.

Mr. Fall River

“If he ran for Mayor, he’d win,” said Marion Gagnon, 74, a former Ms. Senior Sweetheart contestantIt may come as a surprise to some in this city, but Lenny Kaplan started out shy. Born in Providence, the son of a car mechanic, he was always a hard-working boy, but it took six years in the Army to shake the shyness out.

Then, when an Army/Navy supply franchise opened up in Fall River, he took his savings and made the leap.

Lenny’s big gimmick as a businessman was the kazoo. Catch him walking down the street without it, and you’d get a gift certificate to the store. Everyone in Fall River was in on the game.

“Bars would open their windows, buses would open their doors,” he said. “Cars would actually stop on the street: hey, Len, you got the kazoo?”

Over the years, he must have given away or sold 100,000 of those things.

Then there were the radio ads. He took a nickname—Low Price Lenny—and sang his way through the standards of the day, substituting his own lyrics about Fall River.

His voice was worn and raspy—“stupid-sounding,” in Lenny’s own opinion. But it worked. That first ad was so awful, and everyone knew it, and they came in to tell him so, and then they bought things.

A couple hundred ads later, he put out an LP: “The Best of Low Price Lenny.” He continued to live in Rhode Island. But Fall River felt like home.

“If he ran for Mayor, he’d win,” said Marion Gagnon, 74, a former Ms. Senior Sweetheart contestant, and his assistant in the pageant.

It seemed only natural that Low Price should step up one year when someone needed a last-minute emcee for a teenage beauty pageant. He was nervous at first, but then he just started talking to the audience like they were his friends.

“Man, when I touched that microphone, I knew where I belonged,” he said.

Pageant Pride

It started out small, a local Lions Club fundraiser, an idea Lenny came up with on the fly one year, after the club hired some outsider to organize a community talent contest. What if, Lenny said, we threw a pageant for “little old ladies”?

He was already famous around the region for emceeing the teenage contests, and the wrestling matches, and boxing matches. Lenny knew he could do it.

That first year, there were 21 contestants. And what a hometown crowd—1400 people showed up, and watched Anita Raposa, a former factory worker and union leader, take the title of Queen.

“It was the most wonderful thing the city’s ever seen,” said Lenny.

Historians may beg to differ. Fall River was the pride of New England once, the home of more than 100 cotton mills, employing tens of thousands of immigrants. It had several decades in the sun before industry moved down south, and left it struggling.

Still, the pageant is a major point of pride. A group of volunteers plans all year long for the big day—Lenny, Marion and the rest of the “whack pack.”

By the time the pageant comes around, they’ve got high school students and hospital nurses and former chiefs of police involved—for 11 days in November, all hands are on deck.

The Contestants

“Anything we want, he makes it available to us,” said Ida White, 74, a regular from St. Thomas.They come from across the country, and around the world: England, The Virgin Islands, Michigan. Singers and stilt-walkers, belly dancers and trumpet players—Fall River has seen it all.

Once recent Sunday, there they were again, sitting backstage, at the 31st annual Ms. Senior Sweetheart pageant, black pants, white shirt, red sash, sprayed hair. Oohing and aahing over a former contestant who had stopped by to visit.

“Well, she’s lightened her hair, and it’s so becoming,” said Phyllis Chickett, 83, of St. Paul, Minn.

In the room that day, there were newcomers, women like Connie Gabriel, 67, a part-time pharmacist from Rogers, Minn. Minutes before going on stage, she was still trying to process the experience.

“This is so totally out of my realm,” she said. “It’s like trying an extreme sport at an ancient age.”

Then there were past queens, like Vivian Kerns, 81, of Las Vegas, there to briefly perform, then settle into their places of privilege, in the front row of the auditorium.

And finally, the die-hard contestants, like Phyllis. Her doctor had advised her not to come, what with the two heart attacks this past summer. But who listens to him.

For some of the women, this is a highlight of their year. They are driven around in a trolley. Restaurants donate meals. And then there’s Lenny.

“Anything we want, he makes it available to us,” said Ida White, 74, a regular from St. Thomas.

For the most part, the women get along famously. Only once has Lenny had to send someone home, and that was for whining too much. There was an incident one year, when two contestants had to be separated after drinking too much at dinner. But in 31 years, Lenny can count the less-than-terrific on one and a half hands.

The Big Day

After all these years, the show is a well-oiled machine. There is a first half, with two production numbers, praise for the judges, and the talent presentation. And then a second half, with praise for corporate sponsors, the gown presentation, and the anointing of the Queen and her court.

This year’s pageant opened as it always opens, with Wayne Miranda, a building contractor, singing “Pretty Lady,” a song he penned 31 years ago for the pageant.

Then the curtain rose, and the women went forth, graceful as they could be with a dance they learned in a matter of days. The show’s director called out cues from the base of the stage.

Next up: the introductions. Each contestant walked up to the microphone, and stated her age. More than one woman stood with a hand on a hip, head held high.

Lenny watched it all from the sidelines. He was wearing his first tuxedo of the night, the white one with the red vest. For the first time that evening, but not the last, he began to tear up.

These ladies have accomplished so much—raised children, created careers, started foundations, survived cancer. The older he gets, the more he admires them.

Phyllis made her way to the spotlight for her talent presentation, walking with the help of an escort. Head cocked to the side, eyebrows raised, she then flirted her way through “You Made Me Love You.”

“If I die out there,” she said before the performance, “at least I’m having fun.”

All through the show, Lenny explained things to his audience—how difficult it can be to change clothes in two minutes, between numbers, particularly at this age. How one woman came down with laryngitis at the last minute, and another broke two of her toes.

It’s the trying that counts, he told them. Lenny himself has had plenty of missteps. One year, he and Wayne did a singing skit dressed as cowboys, and he stepped on one of the many Christmas lights lining his pants, and the whole thing shorted out.

“He’s standing there in a cloud of smoke,” said Wayne. “And that was the end of the Foggy Mountain Flashers.”

So of course Lenny was sympathetic when 82-year-old Hilda Conner, an accomplished guitar player, started “Walk Through This World With Me,” only to have her guitar strap snap off. Twice.

“I was kind of upset with that guitar strap,” said her grandson, Ryan Conner, 21, of New Bedford, during the intermission. “But she overcame it.”

See, Lenny told the audience, this is what older women do. They stick it out. Not like the young ones, he can tell you from experience. Not like the young ones at all.

“They would have been crying, shaking, their families would have been upset,” he declared. “But our contestants are used to these problems.”

The Final Bow

After each woman had walked across the stage in her gown, and after Lenny had twirled every one of them on stage, and after he had led the audience in an arm-linking, body-swaying rendition of an American anthem, the pageant got down to prizes.

The Flaming Glow first. This is Lenny’s favorite award. It goes to the woman who has brought the most cheer to others during her time in Fall River.

Then, any woman over the age of 80 was handed a trophy. Just because.

“That’s a hell of an age to reach,” Lenny said.

Finally, there was the crowning of the Queen. This year, the title went to Cheri Ann Schear, a former soloist from St. Louis, who gasped, gave a speech, then wandered the stage with a tiara on her head, posing for pictures with Lenny and the other ladies.

“It’s like Cinderella,” she said.

And then it was done. Lenny sat with a water bottle, sweating, deflated, staring blankly at someone’s camera, surrounded by smiling contestants. It is always a lot of work.

This summer, he spent five days in the ICU with a blood problem. Marion, his assistant, has taken over much of the pageant work now. A few years down the line, he may retire, just show up for the big day.

But not yet. Lenny’s thinking is, the thing could blow up big at any time. A “giant documentary” about the pageant is scheduled for release next year, and it could be the turning point, like the Donahue appearance was in ‘93. Boy, did they get a lot of mileage out of that.

Lenny’s big dream: Nationally televised pageants, once a week, in every state. Then the winners would go to Hawaii, for the final.

If it happens, the TV people might want to change the whole thing. That might be okay. But they’ll have to keep one thing the same. They’ll have to let him sing his own special version of “My Way” to the ladies, from the seat of a stool on stage.

Other people could sing it better—sweeter, maybe, with fewer cracks and less of the rasp. But he is Low Price Lenny, and this is his song.