ARCHIVE: The Girlettes Can’t Help It


Leader of the Pack: Cindy Wolfson Ciullo, pictured in her Backward Glances retro boutique, has reconvened the original 1984 lineup of her band The Girlettes for a special Saturday evening performance. (Photo by Diana Moore)

(First published on Red Bank oRBit July 16, 2009)

It’s got all the makings of a surefire Off-Broadway jukebox musical — maybe even a major motion picture, or at the very least a Lifetime Movie Network original. A trio of old friends — united by their love for the sugarsharp harmonies and protopunk attitudes of classic Girl Group pop — start a band, then go their separate career/ motherhood/ marriage ways in life, only to reunite 25 years later for one more Da-Doo-Ron-Ron and a bit of Best Friends Forever affirmation.

We’re wanting Julia RobertsDiane LaneMarisa Tomei for this. We’d settle for Geena DavisBrooke ShieldsEllen Barkin. Or if it’s Lifetime, we’ll get Kellie MartinTracey GoldMarkie Post.

In actual fact, it’s Cindy Wolfson Ciullo who’s living out this story in real time. While a couple of generations of Red Bank shoppers have known Cindy as the longtime proprietress of kitschy-cool vintage boutique Backward Glances — a place that we rather cleverly called a “go-to source for all things retro without the retch” — the downtown merchant with the remarkable staying power had a whole other identity prior to opening her first retail space in the old Red Bank Mini Mall, as a charter member of The Girlettes.

For five years between 1984 and 1989, Cindy and a shifting cast of fellow Girlettes played the “oldies circuit” of northern Jersey clubs and events, dolling themselves up with circa-1960 AquaNet ‘dos and Maybelline eyes while dishing up a dead-on homage to the great female-fronted pop groups of the early 60s, from The Ronettes (”Be My Baby”) and Shangri-Las (”Leader of the Pack”) to The Angels (”My Boyfriend’s Back”) and beyond.

The final configuration of The Girlettes played their last official gig at a Kearny bar in July of 1989 — whereupon Cindy Wolfson hung up her official Girlettes jacket (”which I still have, and which still fits me”) and redirected her love of Camelot-era pop culture into a successful business retailing the retro and the repro to an appreciative (if born-too-late) fanbase.

End of act one, we suppose. Skipping ahead to the second act, we pick things up this Saturday evening, nearly twenty years from that fateful night in Kearny, when the original 1984 Girlettes lineup of CindyKathy and Lisa (no last names necessary) reunites for a modest-but-milestone 5pm performance out in front of the Backward Glances storefront.

It’s a mini-concert event that Cindy regards as an unofficial prelude to the weekly Red Bank Street Life showcase that kicks off at 6pm; a little bonus feature keyed in to a July 18 “Girl Group Day” promotion at the store, and a fun “one-shot” that just might wind up being so much fun that — well, we’re definitely getting ahead of ourselves here.

girlettes1984As Cindy tells it, the big Girlettes reunion had its genesis in a current Off Broadway show about a (fictitious) vintage vocal group — The Marvelous Wonderettes — and a promotion involving the store and the show’s producers.

“The people from the show contacted me, as a storeowner who could do a little Girl Group Day promotion with them,” explains Cindy, peering out from behind her trademark cat’s-eye glasses. “It got me thinking about what else I could do to go along with it, and I immediately thought of getting the band back together — and then just as immediately discounted the idea.”

Once having put that bee in her beehive, however, the notion wasn’t so easily ignored. A little Facebook time managed to get a bead on the old bandmates, as well as most of the musicians who regularly accompanied the Girlettes at their gigs — including keyboard player Ward (”as in Ward, we need to talk about the Beaver”), who will be providing one-man-band accompaniment for the vocal trio on Saturday.

“Kathy, who was with me for the whole five years of the band, is now a college professor — and a mom,” Cindy continues. “On the other hand, Lisa, our other Girlette from ‘84, is now a victim of the recession — laid off from MTV Networks after 12 years.”

“So, with school being out for the summer, and Lisa being between jobs, I figured it was as good a time as any to look into this.”

Thus was the classic Girlettes lineup reborn; a lineup we could liken to the holy trinity of Moe, Larry and Curly — with later versions of the band teaming the constant elements of Cindy and Kathy with Dian (Shemp), Irene (Joe) and Camille(Curly Joe). It’s an analogy that works for us, although Cindy seems a little cool to the idea of thinking of themselves as a bunch of Stooges.

Rehearsals have been proceeding apace, and while Cindy was unable to report a finalized set list as we post this story (”we’ve been practicing more than twenty songs, and we’re looking to pare it down to ten”), she did promise “all the fun and drama” of those thrilling records created by legendary producers like Phil Spectorand Shadow Morton, in tandem with the savviest teen-pop songwriters of their day.

Passersby who are lured into the shop by the sidewalk entertainment on Saturday will be able to enter a drawing for two free tickets to a July or August performance of Wonderettes at Manhattan’s Westside Theatre. And, if nothing else, the reunion will allow the husbands of Cindy and Kathy — neither of whom ever saw The Girlettes perform — a chance to discover something new about their respective soulmates.

“We’ve been saying gee, this is fun, this little one-off thing,” observes Cindy, while simultaneously denying any long-range plans for a full-tilt Girlettes renaissance. “But it’s summer, and it gets you thinking that summer might be good for more possible excuses to reunite.”