Doc Scantlin and his wife Chou Chou Scantlin kick off the Alden Theatre’s Sunday Summer Concerts in the Park series this Sunday.
But instead of the 23-piece orchestra that has earned them the reputation as one of the most unique and entertaining big-band acts in the area, Scantlin will front a smaller ensemble, The Palmettos, established just a year ago.
“What we’re doing for Sunday’s concert is a rather new artistic stretch,” Chou Chou said. “Palmettos is new. Rather than the 23-member troupe, this is a sweet little combo we put together.”
Scantlin started his big-band orchestra — Doc Scantlin and his Imperial Palms Orchestra — in 1983. Chou Chou joined the band in 1993.
“Both of us have performed all our lives,” said Chou Chou. “My grandmother was a Vaudeville entertainer, my mother was in Hollywood and my father was on the stage in New York.”
A New Jersey native, Chou Chou is the band’s “Dream Girl,” and she looks — and sounds — the part. From her vintage clothing to her Betty Boop voice, Chou Chou exudes the swing era.
“She’s Betty Boop, Marilyn Monroe and Jessica Rabbit all rolled into one,” said Sarah Schallern, director of performing arts at the Alden Theatre.
Scantlin discovered Chou Chou while she was performing in her own cabaret show act in Richmond in the early 1990s.
“He heard about me and we met,” Chou Chou said. “He wanted me to be in his act.”
Chou Chou had been a widow for many years, but said she and Scantlin soon hit it off, both artistically and personally.
“The first time we were seen together, I was called Mrs. Doc Scantlin,” remembered Chou Chou. “We are certainly a unique taste. It just goes to show you there’s someone for everyone.”
The Palmetto’s performance this weekend is just the first in the Alden Theatre’s series of concerts featuring music from different eras.
“We’ve experimented with having a theme,” Schallern said. “Last year we did a trip around the world and had different ethnic music; Hawaiian, klezmer and African music. This year we’re doing a musical time machine.”
For Scantlin and Chou Chou, playing the big band music is going back to a time they experienced for themselves.
“We grew up in that time period,” Chou Chou said. “We’re immersed in the lifestyle. It is our rock ’n’ roll, our rap music. It’s real life to us and I think because of that, we deliver something that is valid.”
For the past 20 years, Scantlin, Chou Chou and the Palms Orchestra have found much success in the Washington, D.C., area — the band is a three-time winner of the Washington Area Music Association’s “Best Big Band” award — but the economy has recently forced them to downsize.
“We debuted [The Palmettos] year ago because in this economy, we have a large fan base but people just don’t have the budget to hire a band our size,” Chou Chou said. “Now we have the opportunity to do smaller venues. We couldn’t have fit in the [Alden] gazebo before.”
The outdoor concert series, which typically attracts a lot of families, is also a chance for The Palmettos to reach broader audiences, an ability they pride themselves on.
“Our biggest compliment we get is that we consistently see people of all ages,” Chou Chou said. “We hear people say to us, ‘We don’t even like big band music, but I liked it.’”
Chou Chou said she thinks this is probably due to the nature of the show.
“ ... Entertainment is the emphasis for us,” Chou Chou said. “Connecting with people ... as if they were in a nightclub from that time period.”
And continuing to perform together, whether it be with The Palmettos or the Palms Orchestra, gives Chou Chou and Scantlin the opportunity to do what they love most, with the person they love most.
“This is something we do and we’re very blessed that we get to do it together,” Chou Chou said. “Because we’re crazy about each other.”