One Hit Wonder

But what a hit Jeanie Linders’ play, Menopause the Musical, has been since its debut in Orlando 10 years ago. The show inspired by a hot flash has changed Linders’ formerly hard-luck life, yielding wealth, love and good will.



Jeanie Linders and her hit play Menopause the Musical, now in its 10th season, are still going strong

Tina Russell

It’s a quarter past one on a Friday afternoon and Jeanie Linders is in a rush as she arrives at the Winter Park headquarters of TOC Productions—“Home of Menopause The Musical.” Her two yappy white Cotons de Tuléar, Maddie and Moxie, welcome her, leaping like Lipizzaners from behind the plastic portcullis of a baby gate strategically placed to keep them in Linders’ office and separate them from Lola, a diminutive mutt with a Napoleon complex, who serves as the office’s unofficial greeter.

A spitfire with a red pixie cut, Linders has been racing from one meeting to another as she and her staff, who refer to their boss as “La Mama,” put together the 10th anniversary season of her hit production, which is scheduled to return to Orlando with the original 2001 cast for a five-week run starting Feb. 4.

I squeeze through the baby gate, taking care not to let Maddie and Moxie out, or Lola in. Linders has settled herself behind a large desk, surrounded by motivational messages and dog treats. On one wall is a painting of Wonder Woman’s distinctive red, white and blue costume; on another are photographs of Linders with her good friend “Phyllis.” That’s Ms. Diller to the hoi polloi. I’m trying to decide if the faux zebra chairs are for sitting, or just for show, and whether it would be OK to move a throw pillow that declares “It’s all about me.” I park myself in a chair, squishing the pillow against it.

Linders holds her hands self-consciously below the desk, rubbing a gnarled knuckle. The woman who laughed away menopause has found little humor in the rheumatoid arthritis claiming her joints like chess pieces. Linders has undergone so many arthritis-related surgeries she’s lost count of them.  She’s got four silicone knuckles, two metal knees, a titanium shoulder, a reconstructed foot and a synthetic thumb muscle. She takes a daily cocktail of powerful chemicals to keep from seizing up like the Tin Man of Oz. Foreseeing that distant day when she may no longer be able to care for herself, Linders has had a caretaker quarters built into her Orlando home. A lesser spirit might have retired to the Shady Acres home for the idly rich. But to appease her affliction would be to acknowledge defeat, and that isn’t in her character. 

For sure, if she wanted, Linders would never have to work another day in her life. That’s something she couldn’t have imagined a decade ago when, as a down-on-her luck arts promoter, she hit it big with a notebook full of song parodies drawn from her own menopausal misery. Menopause the Musical tells the story of four very different women who meet at a lingerie sale and bond over hot flashes, memory loss, mood swings, night sweats and chocolate binges, sung to the tune of hits from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Theater critics have panned the musical as pedestrian, but no matter: Its success at the box office has made Menopause arguably the biggest entertainment phenomenon to come out of Orlando since the Backstreet Boys. The show has played to more than 11 million people in more than 450 U.S. cities and an additional 300 cities in 15 foreign countries. It has been translated into seven languages. And with 45 million American women of menopausal age, the show has a seemingly endless supply of “hot” prospects.

Certainly, “the change” has profoundly changed Linders’ life. She is financially set, with homes in Orlando and Tucson, Ariz., and a condo in Chicago, and her wealth affords her luxuries like collecting art and traveling the world. She’s also working on another musical, although she won’t elaborate on what it’s about. On top of all of that, she is busy helping women near and far with her philanthropy. 

Her arthritic condition would seem to pose some restrictions on her quality of life, but even suggesting that causes Linders to narrow her eyes and look at me with the dour impatience of a casting director pressed into auditioning yet another investor’s tone-deaf daughter.

“I don’t give it any credence,” she says. “I don’t think of myself as arthritic. I’m a woman who has an assortment of issues. I’m 62. I have red hair. I need new glasses. I have arthritis. I have a wonderful love life. I have two dogs. They are not trained. I have a fabulous company. I have a more active life than most people I know who don’t have arthritis.”

Indeed, Linders has always maintained a busy schedule. Before Menopause the Musical it seemed she owned more arts businesses than shoes: There were Orlando Jazzfest, artsLink, artsMall, the Rotary Orlando Street Painting Festival—and those are just the ones I can remember—with a new one coming along every other year or so, like kids in a ’60s sitcom. None of the ventures made much money. In a good year, she might have cleared, maybe, $35,000. But money was never Linders’ yardstick of success.

“The challenge, for me, has always been seeing a need and doing something about it,” she says. “People think I’m nuts. But it just never occurs to me that something can’t be done.”

That ready, fire, then aim philosophy blew up in her face in 1986 and 1987, when back-to-back jazz festival failures left her deep in debt.

“I lost everything,” she says. “But I never considered myself down and out. . . . I had a choice: I could have gone to a homeless shelter or moved in with my mother. I got a job. I wasn’t dead, so I had to get up and get going. There just wasn’t time to feel sorry for myself.”

Possessed of an artist’s soul but lacking the fine motor skills, she became an agile facilitator, connecting other artists with the community, clearing obstacles, tackling challenges and putting butts in seats.

Her artsMall, a low-rent enclave for arts groups in the old Winter Park Mall, for example, gave a young Jim Helsinger a launch venue where he could afford to stage his one-man show, an adaptation of Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker. Helsinger was in his first season as creative director for the Orlando/UCF Shakespeare Festival, inheriting an organization that was $40,000 in the red. It finished the show’s one-month run in the black.

That one run generated enough money to turn the tide for Orlando Shakespeare Theater, which has never looked back. While Linders did not help Helsinger directly with his production, her artsMall came at a critical time for him.

“I can’t even remember what the rent was, but it was incredibly low,” Helsinger recalls. “We were only there for the one show, but if it hadn’t been for that, I don’t know if we would have established a fall season, which ultimately led to what we have now at
Orlando Shakes.”

Now that she has the means to do whatever she wants, Linders is launching new ventures at an even greater clip. But instead of making money, most of her new projects give it away. She adopts causes like fourth-grade girls collect Justin Bieber photos, funding them under the umbrella of the Jeanie C. Linders Fund, a nonprofit she formed in 2005 to help women around the world overcome adversity and abuse. The fund has spent more than $2 million on various goodwill efforts.

A phone call from an ovarian cancer survivor a few years back, asking Linders to bring Menopause the Musical to Greenville, S.C., prompted her to fly the caller and several of her friends to Orlando to see the show, meet the cast and enjoy the theme parks. Linders convened Kim Whitehurst, vice president of TOC Productions and president of the Jeanie C. Linders Fund, and the finance folks the next week. They decided to mount a national tour to raise awareness of the disease, dubbed the “silent killer” for its ability to remain undetected without special tests. The Menopause the Musical Out Loud Tour went on the road for two years, raising $500,000 for ovarian cancer awareness. Menopause the Musical continues to raise money for the cause through the sale of $1 paper fans (an inside joke to menopausal women suffering hot flashes).

Then there was the time Linders returned from an African safari—a trip she’d won at a charity auction—committed to helping three separate groups of women in Kenya. With the help of Whitehurst, she purchased land, livestock, tents, seeds and fencing. Linders paid for 28 girls in Ghana to go to school, and is working on establishing U.S. markets for the handmade goods her adopted families produce.
A post-Katrina trip to New Orleans led to the creation of There’s No Place Like Home National, a housing initiative that, to date, has built 10 homes for women displaced by floodwaters—an investment of more than $1 million.

Even a trip to her hometown of Dixon, Ill., led to the creation of The Jeanie Linders Initiative in Theatre and Dance at nearby Northern Illinois University, where she earned her graduate degree. It provides extended internships and “real world” training in the critical balance between the business and artistic functions in the arts—lessons Linders learned the hard way.

It has gotten to the point that any time Linders is gone for an extended period, Whitehurst just assumes La Mama will return with a new cause. “Jeanie’s whole goal is to help women. She goes somewhere and she meets people and, the next thing I know, we’re buying solar stoves from India and shipping them to Mozambique.”

Asked to describe Linders in a word, Whitehurst, who has worked for her since 2005, doesn’t hesitate: “Creative.” To which she immediately adds, “Compassionate.”

Examples of Linders’ goodwill are legion, except here in her adopted home of Orlando, where some members of the arts establishment greet her name with arctic stares and off-the-record aspersions.

Elizabeth Maupin, however, doesn’t run for cover when asked about Linders.

“She’s not part of the arts community,” says the former Orlando Sentinel theater critic, who was the first to call Linders’ baby ugly in 2001. “I’ve never met her; I don’t even know what she looks like. Six or seven years after I reviewed the show, she did write me a fairly nasty e-mail, taunting me because the show was so successful. I don’t know that she has any reputation in the arts community except as the creator of a show that has provided work for some good actresses—and a show that makes theater people roll their eyes.”

Asked to respond to the arts community’s apparent snub of her, Linders chooses her words carefully. “If I were into self-aggrandizement, I’d have my name on every handicapped bathroom in the new [Dr. Phillips] performing arts center. [But] I’d rather help people.”

As for not serving on any arts boards, she is to the point: “No one has asked.”

Helsinger, at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, is more generous than some of his peers. “Menopause the Musical ran here for two seasons. And I know it has run in other venues around town. The revenue that came out of that has enabled those theaters to run other shows. The fact that people are still going to see Menopause the Musical, and bringing other people back to see it, and the fact that you and I are still talking about it, 10 years later, . . . that is exactly what theater is supposed to do—entertain and provoke.”

If Linders had listened to her closest friends in 2000 and not to the voices in her head, her plan to stage a musical inspired by a hot flash would never have gotten a chance. She doesn’t hang with those friends anymore, preferring the company of childhood friends hundreds of miles away in Illinois, and Diller, who, still lucid at 93, has become a surrogate mother to her.

“Anyone who can take a dreaded ‘whispered’ female function and make it an international hit show has to be a genius,” Diller says through a publicist.

That need to create, friends say, is what drives Linders. But at the same time Linders has a tough time sticking to a project over the long haul, especially if it involves her being alone with her thoughts for extended periods. That’s one reason Linders says she has abandoned two separate attempts at writing novels.

“I haven’t found the place where I can sit and write a novel. I think being a novel writer is a very lonesome place. I’m a people person.”

 

Two weeks after our interview, I’m back at the TOC Productions offices to meet with Linders for a follow-up. She arrives, dogs in tow, with a black cast on her right hand—her ninth or tenth arthritis surgery. Plans for the 10th anniversary tour are coming together.  Linders is writing new songs to more modern melodies and updating the characters to appeal to the women who were in their 30s when she wrote the original play but are able to relate to menopause now. In addition to the Orlando engagement at The Plaza Live Theatre, there will be openings in Palm Springs, Calif., and Las Vegas. Three regional tours will launch at the same time, starting in Michigan, New Mexico and Glendale, Calif., with 27 cities already booked and more planned. An international tour also is planned.

There’s No Place Like Home National has just completed its tenth house. Linders is making progress on the mysterious new musical, and if the critics hated Menopause the Musical, they won’t know what to say about this one, she says. The little yippers, Maddie and Moxie, make their presence known, competing to be heard as employees shout back and forth between offices instead of picking up the telephone to talk. It’s loud and chaotic, exactly what you’d expect from an office full of creative professionals.

Linders’ cell phone rings. She looks at the number and answers the call.

“Hi, Honey, I’ll call you back. I’m talking to the guy from the article thing. Bye, Honey.”

Al Glann is the voice on the other end of the phone. An Arizona sculptor, he met Linders at her house in Orlando in 2008. He was there to install a steel figure of his, titled “Diva,” that she’d purchased. Conversation led to dinner and drinks. A couple of months later they looked at each other and realized they had more than art appreciation in common. Glann is the first man in her life since she divorced
in 1982.

Watching Linders talk to Glann on the phone is like watching a flower open to the sun. Her whole demeanor changes, exposing a soft spot in her body armor.

“That was my people,” she tells me. “Everyone should have people. We’re each other’s people.” 

When she gets off the phone, Linders is upbeat and pleasant, a nice change from our first meeting, when she seemed to scan every question for viruses before answering, and tensed up over having her picture taken.

“You can shoot me on the red couch with the dogs,” she instructed the photographer accompanying me that day, taking pains to make sure that the photo would capture not only her good side but the dogs’ good sides as well.

“Smile,” the photographer requested.

“I don’t smile,” Linders shot back.

Click.

And so it went.

Not so today.

Our interview concluded, Linders walks me to the door. The cacophony buzzes in her ears. She’s got success, wealth, a list of new projects stretching off into infinity and, more importantly, people.

She smiles.

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