The other day, hubby and I watched a DVD titled Young@Heart. This was the most inspiring film we’d watched in more than two decades. Rather than try and describe a bit of the film’s content…I’ll copy it straight from their web site. The current ages of those in the group are 73-88 yrs old.
This group of most extraordinary folks sing primarily rock music! Such as “Fix Me” by Coldplay, “I Feel Good” by James Brown, “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth, “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads, etc., etc., etc.
Their rehearsal sessions become frustrating at times due to hearing loss, memory limitations, physical challenges and the idiosyncrasies of the group members. One of the members remarked (regarding their musical director…Bob Cilman)…”He chews nails and spits rust!” However, Mr. Cilman has the patience to work within this most amazing group of senior citizens!
The story is true. In the film we watched them perform in the midst of tremendous tragedy. In one segment of the film they have a show to do, yet, one of their beloved colleagues passed away the day of the performance. To make matters worse…they lost another chorus member the same week. This is not only uplifiting, but gives renewed hope that just because you reach a certain age…life does not stop nor pass you by.
When the Young@ Heart began in 1982 the members all lived in an elderly housing project in Northampton, MA called the Walter Salvo House. The first group included elders who lived through both World Wars. One of our members had fought in the Battle of the Somme as a 16 year old and another, Anna Main, lost her husband in the First World War. Anna was a stand-up comic who at 88 told jokes that only she could get away with. She sang with us until she was 100. We celebrated her 100th birthday with a parade downtown. We actually had to reschedule the parade for a year later when her family informed us that we had the date wrong and she was only 99. This initial group also included Diamond Lillian Aubrey who came on our first two European tours and wowed the audiences with her deadpan version of Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy”. In later years she appeared “on stage” via video, performing the Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
By 1983 our original group was ready to create our first stage production. We enlisted the support of Roy Faudree from No Theater to stage “Stompin’ at the Salvo”. No Theater was doing the most intriguing theater work in town and I was stunned when Roy agreed to stage the first show. That first production was memorable for the sensation and buzz it created in town. The show sold out four times and brought in a broad cross section of younger and older people from the community. It also brought us new performers. In early 1984 Eileen Hall, Warren Clark, and Ralph Intorcio joined the group. Warren and Ralph were both very good at doing female impersonations. Warren took on the persona of Sophie Tucker, a popular vaudevillian stage performer and Ralph did a send-up of Carol Channing’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. Eileen was born and raised in London and brought us an array of different routines, including strip, mime and the song “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s …Ninety.” We decided to combine these performances with a group of Latino break-dancers from another local housing project. The result was “Boola Boola Bimini Bop”. These two shows were the first of many collaborations we created with different arts groups in town. A few others included “Oh No a Condo” in 1988, with Cambodian folk artists and punk rockers; in 1991 “Louis Lou I – A Revolting Musical” reunited us with Roy and No Theater for a huge production (over 100 people involved). The piece was a re-telling of the French Revolution using the songs of Sinatra. In 1994 we created “Flaming Saddles”, a big campy production with the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus. There were many others along the way.
In 1996 No Theater was in Rotterdam performing in the annual R Festival. Roy asked the organizers about the theme for the next year’s festival. When he discovered that it was Forever Young, he told the organizers about Young@Heart and plans began to bring the group over to Europe. This was the first time we would create a stage production that just included members of the chorus. Mixing songs and costumes from past shows with some new music we created “Road to Heaven” staged by No Theater. The response was phenomenal and the chorus went on to 12 more tours of Europe, Australia and Canada from 1997-2004. We performed “Road to Heaven” at the Lyric Hammersmith in November 2000 with the support of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). It was in London that the groundwork was laid for “Road to Nowhere” A consortium of presenters including LIFT, The Rotterdamse Schouwburg, The Hebbel Theater in Berlin, and Brugge 2002 commissioned the new work. The show premiered fall 2004 in the Oude Luxor Theater in Rotterdam presented by the Rotterdamse Schouwburg.
The current performers in Young@Heart range in age from 73 to 88. There are some with prior professional theater or music experience, others who have performed extensively on the amateur level, and some who never stepped onto a stage before turning eighty. None of the current performers of Y@H were part of the original group that formed in 1982, but they have kept alive the spirit of the early pioneers and continue to push the group into glorious new directions.
-Bob Cilman http://www.youngatheartchorus.com
The Walker George film “Young@Heart” has been nominated for a Critic’s Choice Award in the Documentary Category. The awards air live on VH1, Thursday, January 8, 2009 9/8c. The film cannot be nominated for an Academy Award because it was originally made for British TV.