Keeping up the tempo

Activity: Several theatrical troupes, made up of people over age 50 who want to stay busy on the boards, have sprung up in the area.

March 09, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Ray DeGrafft, age 81, appears every inch the dapper young man as he croons "Somebody Stole My Gal" on the guitar that sounds like a ukulele. The song was popular around the turn of the century, and DeGrafft sings it just like the old-time crooners on scratchy phonograph discs: bright, clear and happy.

The song is one from a long laundry-list of ditties DeGrafft remembers from his youth. As it turns out, it's also perfect for his audition to be a part of Howard County's new musical theater group for seniors, the Fabulous Fifty Plus Players.

Sponsored by the Howard County Arts Council, the Fabulous Fifty Plus Players will perform over several days in May and June at the black box theatre in the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City. The group will also perform in May at the Lakefront in downtown Columbia as part of Columbia Festival of the Arts.

The Fabulous Fifty Plus Players is one of a few theatrical troupes geared toward seniors that have sprung up around the region. The best-known, Senior Star Showcase, performs at Essex Community College. Timonium Dinner Theatre also features a three-year-old senior performing group called "the Golden Girls."

For those auditioning at the black box theater recently for the Fabulous Fifty Plus Players, the group provides an opportunity to stay active. With the percentage of people 65 and older increasing significantly each year, offering senior citizens exciting social opportunities will become a fast-growing trend, said Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council.

The Fabulous Fifty Plus Players will perform popular songs that date from about 1890 to 1918. Only songs and arrangements that are in the public domain will be considered, since the troupe's $2,000 budget will not allow it to pay royalty fees.

Hariet Lynn, the group's artistic director, is excited about the musical repertoire, which includes tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan and George M. Cohan. Popular songs like "You're In the Army Now," "Bird in a Gilded Cage" and "Heart of My Heart" will be included in the performances.

The group's players will wear costumes from the period. The National Gallery of Art has agreed to lend slides of artwork from its collection that will be projected onto the walls of the theater. Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theater in Columbia, will lend a number of authentic costumes.

Lynn, who readily acknowledges her age (55), said, "Some people are sensitive about their age. I think people should embrace it."

"I really look forward to this kind of thing because I really like this kind of music," said 57-year-old Jana Peach of Ellicott City, who teaches aerobics part-time. She said she encouraged everyone in her exercise classes to audition for the performance.

"Retired people these days stay very busy; that's the key to their longevity," she said. "This is a very good example of that. There's a lot of untapped resources out there that people just don't know about."

Around the region, senior performing groups are finding their audiences.

Perhaps the most famous of the groups is Senior Star Showcase, which features 85 senior volunteers who perform elaborate musical productions that have traveled around the country.

Taking part in a senior revue gets them back into the action, said Arne Lindquist, the group's artistic director and professor of music at Essex Community College.

"The old pros can start over again and sing the music they love," he said of the 20 percent of the cast who are former professional performers. "For everyone else, it's like fulfilling a fantasy. A lot of older people have a real desire to kick up their heels and sing. They love the fact that they're in show business," even on a local stage.

Besides, Lindquist added, "Older people are the most dependable group you could ever hope to work with. They have a work ethic from a different generation that the young performers just don't have. You ask them to come to rehearsals at 5, they'll be there at 4: 30, warming up."

Debbie Meyer, Howard County Arts Council deputy director, said it was time for a senior performing group in Howard.

"There's really a need for something like this in this area," she said. "A lot of older people do a lot of performing when they're younger, and as they get older, they're pushed out of community theater, maybe even the ones who started the theater. We wanted to show how much talent there was out there. It's important to have a good show, but it's more important to have fun."

"I don't want anyone to feel intimidated," Lynn tells each of the auditioners after they have run through their vocal scales with Phyllis Stanley, the Fabulous Fifty Plus Players' musical director. "It already looks like an ensemble. I want everyone to get comfortable with the idea of moving and doing a little dancing."

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