They Don't Act Their Age

Life Is A Cabaret For These Performers

April 24, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

She's sexy, she's in a tight leotard and flimsy samba skirt, she's kicking up her heels to "Copacabana" on stage. And, yes, she could be your grandmother.

The Cabaret Players, a Baltimore areawide performing group, are a bunch of lively 55- to 75-year olds who belt out Sinatra with gusto, tap-dance in elaborate routines and aren't afraid to flaunt their sensuality.

The group even has a 64-year-old who does a "Marlene Didrich" number, a spoof of Dietrich, purring "Falling in Love Again" while straddling a bar stool in black fishnet stockings, tight shorts and a low-cut tank top.

"People are usually pleasantly surprised when they see our show," said Carroll Weyrich of Pasadena, the group's emcee. "Just because we're seniors, they expect us to come out in wheelchairs."

The Players, which was formed three years ago, is a volunteer group of mostly women that performs in senior centers and retirement homes in the area about once every two months. Their current performance, set in the 1940s and named "Copabanana," is an hourlong blend of comedy, big band music and tap, jazz and ballroom dancing. They've been doing the routine for two years. They charge $200 per booking, and design all sets and flashy costumes themselves.

Audrey Varlas, 59, the group's founder and artistic director, recruited the 20-member team when she realized many seniors were interested in performing. She has been teaching dance to seniors at Essex Community College for six years.

"For many, it was something they always wanted to do, but they were always too busy developing their careers and raising their families," she said. "Now, when they've retired, it's time for them."

Connie Saltz, president of the Baltimore-based Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work, said in the past 10 to 20 years, retirees have become more socially active. Many seniors work part-time, volunteer or take dance or art classes, said Saltz, an associate professor of social work at University of Maryland Baltimore.

"This is the new image, the new aging, if you will," Saltz said. "The population as a whole [has been] aging, so people get to be 65 and 70 and they say to themselves, `I don't feel like an old person, I can still do a lot of things I've always done.' And as more and more people get into the 55-and-older range, they're not closing their doors and saying, `That's it, I'm retired, I can't do anything any more.' "

Sigi Koefler, the shapely Marlene Didrich, had intensive ballet training while growing up in Bremerhaven, Germany. But when she got married in the United States and started having children at age 22, dance classes had to go. With her three children's swim-team practices, dance classes and little-league games, Koefler had no time for herself.

"Then six years ago, I saw a production of `Oklahoma!' that had seniors in it," said Koefler of Towson. "That's when I decided, `Hey, I've got time on my hands. Let's try it.' "

The next day, she signed up for classes with Varlas, and she's been with the Players from the start. She said her husband likes the show.

"He says, `If you have the legs, show them off!' " Koefler said.

Weyrich, 71, who also plays "Frank Notsohotra," a comic version of Ole Blue Eyes, said he dreamed of a career as a trumpet player when he was younger but never got beyond playing in school bands.

"The necessity to earn a living presented its ugly face," explained Weyrich, a retired business executive from Pasadena.

Weyrich said he loves taking seniors back to their younger days through music.

"It helps you think about the good things in life -- being a teen-ager, how you went to your senior prom, your first date, getting married and having children," he said. "Those were the times of a gentler world."

Audiences have been giving the Players standing ovations at every show, Weyrich said. At a recent performance at the At-Eaze Senior Center in Baltimore, 77-year-old Angela Dacre was among the adoring fans.

"When you see people our age get up there and do that, it's great," said Dacre, a retired clerk from Dundalk. "It shows we're still alive. And those men, the way they sing, they can sing at my door any time."

The performances also take the Players back. At the same performance, in between routines backstage, it was almost like high school theater all over again. Dancers rushed around, yelling "I need someone to unzip me," and going over steps one last time before hitting the stage for the samba finale.

And when the final bows are taken, and everyone's put aside the sequined costumes and tuxedos, the upbeat feeling remains.

"[Performing has] made them more aware of their bodies and [they] want to look and feel good," Varlas said. "I can really see how they've gained confidence and poise."

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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