Companionship hits the right note Orchestra: The seniors who make up Columbia's Goldenaires play charity gigs, but the most important thing is making music together.

October 10, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The details for Sunday's gig were in place. The musicians all had their new blue vests, and they'd settled on clip-on bow ties because they're easy to manage.

The regular piano player's wife was recovering from surgery, but she was doing well enough that he could still play. All the band needed was one more practice to polish the program.

Fronda Port arrived first. She checked in with band director Chuck Fredrick, then walked to the back of the building to have her blood pressure taken.

In a few minutes she was back, introducing herself to any strangers.

"I'm the girl singer," she said with a smile.

"The chanteuse."

By the appointed hour, a collection of 30 or so musicians was assembled within Columbia's Florence Bain Senior Center, tuning their instruments and bubbling like grade-schoolers as they waited for Fredrick to tap his baton.

They call themselves the Goldenaires. The youngest is 65.

The stories about how, in their later years, they all came to be members of a volunteer orchestra are as varied as the lives they led before.

"We have four doctors," Fredricksaid with pride. "I guess that's in case we have heart attacks."

And their range of talent is equally diverse. Some are quite good, others quite not, they agree. Who is which they neither say nor care.

But the reasons they come every Wednesday to play "Stardust" and to joke about hearing themselves or fingering a trumpet with arthritic hands are all the same.

Their performances are always for charity -- at churches, schools, nursing homes -- but the members didn't join for the performances. They joined for the practices, for the camaraderie and the old tunes.

They joined for the good time.

"Boy, if I didn't have this to do, I don't know what I'd be doing. Sitting in some VFW bar somewhere, I guess," said Luke Berry, 76, who plays a custom-made banjo.

His path to the Goldenaires was the same as most. He got his first banjo when he was a kid, but instead of playing it he "did

that whole war thing, came home, worked and then retired," he said.

After all that, Berry's wife reminded him he'd been lugging the thing around for some 45 years without so much as a pluck.

"I said, 'Well, I guess it's time I learned to play it,' " he said.

He learned. And now, every Wednesday afternoon, he sits in the second row and slaps down the rhythm for tunes like "Slow Poke" or "In the Mood."

In front of him, Maisey Ota strums her ukulele. George Horowitz sits to her right, stroking the violin while he taps both his feet.

'You've got to have it'

Morton Ellin played the alto saxophone a little in high school but hadn't touched it since. He managed college, medical school and a successful career as a physician before he retired and discovered the instrument again.

"And I found out I could still play," he said.

The extent to which that ability has survived the years is a point of controversy among Ellin and Leon Okun and any other friends who drive to practice from Pikesville every Wednesday.

This afternoon the discussion was about Ellin's ability to improvise. He can read music -- rates himself about a B-minus reading music -- but he still can't ad-lib.

"I couldn't do it in high school, and I can't do it today," Ellin said. "You've got to have the feel."

"You don't have it," offered Okun.

"You have to have it," said Ellin.

"Well, you don't have it."

"No, I don't have it."

Not all the members dusted off their talent after a few decades in the basement. Most did, but some, such as Roy McCoy and Port and trumpet player Morton Klasmer, used to make music a career. McCoy played trumpet almost 60 years ago with jazz great Lionel Hampton.

To them, the Goldenaires fulfills a lifelong affinity for swing and jazz and songs their children and grandchildren have long since forgotten.

"We play our kind of music," Klasmer said. "Nothing new."

Nothing?

He thought a moment more before answering. "We have a medley in there of Elvis Presley tunes, but but " He didn't complete the thought with words, just a wrinkled nose and a shake of his head.

The gig they were rehearsing would be a brief set at the Biding Savior Lutheran Church four traffic lights away.

Port started with "Happy Birthday." They'd play that in honor of the church's anniversary, she explained.

Some bluesy stuff

"Blue Skies" was next, then "Over the Rainbow." As she pulled the score out of her cardboard accordion box and headed for the microphone, she leaned over with her hand cupped around her mouth and whispered.

"I also do some bluesy stuff. But you wouldn't know it today."

As the practice continued, Jim Redding wandered to the back. A 77-year-old guitarist, banjo player and singer who sometimes plays the bells, he was one of the group's founding members in 1984.

"The intent of this group was to give seniors an opportunity to use their talents, whether dormant or active, to just have fun and spend time playing songs they love," Redding said.

"I would measure success by how much the people sitting in here enjoy themselves, not by how many gigs we play. And, yes, I think it's a success."

But there are still the gigs. The dances, the concerts, the recitals.

Even a theme song, sung by master of ceremonies Bill Hardy to the humming saxophones of Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade": "We are the Goldenaires, here to play many tunes of yesteryear. So sing, dance a waltz, or tap your feet, to the tune of a polka or cha-cha or rumba or other music treat."

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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