Back in the days on her hit sitcom “Cheers,” Rhea Perlman — as the hilariously caustic waitress Carla — would be more likely to wisecrack about cheerleaders than wax eloquent about them.
So it’s amusing to see her now, in the trailer for “Poms,” admitting to Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver, “I always did want to be a cheerleader.”
Apparently, it’s true.
“The cheerleaders in my high school were the coolest girls — of course I wanted to be one,” says Perlman, 71, who attended Lafayette High School in Bensonhurst. Perlman had to settle for being a “Go Getter,” a group several rungs below cheerleader that sold team jackets. “We didn’t get to do anything with pompoms,” she says.
Well, it’s never too late. That’s the message behind “Poms,” a new feature film opening Friday, May 10, starring Keaton, Weaver, Perlman and Pam Grier as women who form a ragtag cheerleading squad in their retirement community.
Directed by British documentary filmmaker Zara Hayes, the movie is inspired by a real-life phenomenon — senior citizen cheerleader groups that in recent years have sprung up across the country. These silver-haired cheerers, many with no traditional cheering experience, are ignoring the concerns of well-meaning (or out-and-out hostile) relatives and friends, and challenging notions of how women, especially women of a certain age, should act.
In search of senior spirit
It may come as something of a surprise to learn that cheerleading, with its pompoms and team pride, is a distinctly American pastime.
“When I was growing up it didn’t exist in England,” says Hayes. “I think that’s why I was so intrigued by it.”
But unlike other iconic American inventions — baseball, jazz — cheerleading doesn’t get much respect, and cheerleaders in pop culture are often portrayed as cruel, cliquish, shallow. “I think it’s because it’s still seen as a female thing, and frivolous,” says Hayes.
And not for grown-ups — certainly not card-carrying members of the AARP.
That reality is made quite clear in “Poms” when Martha, a cynical New Yorker (played by Keaton) moves to a retirement community in Georgia. Fighting her own depression about mortality, and looking to shake things up, Martha decides to form a cheerleading squad.
But who will you cheer for, she’s asked.
“For us,” she states.
The crew she cobbles together — nursing sore shoulders, new knees — finds itself in a high school gymnasium, stunned by the feats of today’s athletic cheerleaders. So was Perlman.
“When we walked into that auditorium, I had no idea that’s what cheerleaders had become,” she recalled.
Anyone who’s spent any time at Long Island Cheer, a training facility for enthusiasts starting at age five, knows that today’s cheerleaders rely heavily on gymnastic skills (flips, leaps, tumbling), with any and all genders participating.
Under the tutelage of choreographer Marguerite Pomerhn Derricks, who has created moves for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “A Bad Moms Christmas,” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” Keaton, Perlman and company rehearsed for several days in Los Angeles, then a week — a sort of cheerleading boot camp — in Atlanta, where the film was shot.
“I feel like we were practicing all the time,” says Perlman, who also practiced to a recording in her hotel room. They had to learn each routine twice — performing as clumsy, achy beginners, then polished pros.
Finding great source material
As a documentary filmmaker, Hayes was eager to connect with real senior cheerleaders, and interviewed many, finding inspiration in their stories. One woman in her mid-sixties, after surviving breast cancer, taught herself to do a split, something she’d always wanted to achieve.
“I was like, this is amazing,” says Hayes, who admits she’s never been able to do them herself. “I’d tapped into something about aging and women and what we expect women of a certain age to do.”
Or not do.
Senior cheerleaders — even today — face serious pressures to act their age. And lower those hemlines.
Perlman’s character is discouraged from taking part by her husband, who makes it clear he thinks such activity — and short cheerleader skirts — inappropriate.
In real life, Perlman has never faced such limitations from others — “That’s … not gonna happen,” she says, chuckling — but admits she limits herself. When shopping, she’s found herself drawn to clothes her daughters, who are in their thirties, might wear. Perlman is trim, fit, works out regularly, and knows she’d look good in them. “But then I go, ‘Wow, I probably shouldn’t wear these … because it doesn’t feel appropriate.’ So I still have some of that in my head.”
But maybe there’s hope. The majority of cheerleaders Hayes interviewed said they’d received abundant support from loved ones. And most people who hear the premise of the film?
They just smile, she says.
As a testament to that, Hayes added a surprise during the film’s final credits — a sequence of videos, made to look like real social media posts from people around the world imitating Martha’s cheerleading moves. (In the film, Martha’s cheerleading is recorded and posted online, with the hashtag #Marthasmoves, much to her embarrassment.) Hayes wondered what it might look like if such a thing went viral, and so sent footage of Keaton to various people across the world — from Burbank to Bangladesh — and let them create their own homage. The videos are fictional, but the enthusiasm in participants’ eyes seems real.
“It feels like there really is a viral hashtag — which I hope there will be when the film comes out,” says Hayes. “I mean, I really hope everyone starts doing ‘The Martha.’”
AT 90, STILL FULL OF CHEER
Patti Swetz never had time to be a cheerleader.
Back when she was a teenager, and known as Patti Finn, the Baldwin native spent all her free time at the Mineola Roller Rink, where she trained as an artistic roller skater — a competitive sport, like figure skating, but without the ice. She trained three to four hours a day, and won the national championships in the junior ladies’ singles division in 1944.
But, hey, once a competitor, always a competitor.
Some fifty years later — after marrying, raising a family in Baldwin and retiring with her husband to Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina — a friend there started up a senior cheerleading squad, and needed women to join. Swetz leapt at the chance.
Yes, in her mid-sixties, she was still able to cartwheel — and confident enough to perch atop the squad’s three-tier pyramid.
“Or stupid enough,” says Swetz, laughing.
Now 90 and a widow, living with her daughter and her daughter’s family in Dunedin, New Zealand, Swetz has fond memories of the 15 years she spent as a member of the Carteret County Senior Cheerleaders. Speaking in a video call over Skype, she holds up a mug with a photo of the nine-member squad from 2008.
Just like in the new movie, “Poms,” the team was composed of a random assortment of women — some, former cheerleaders; but most, like Swetz, just eager for a chance to bond, and challenge themselves.
The group practiced weekly, and each year piled into a van — along with Swetz’ husband, Charlie, who served as a one-man support staff, carrying uniforms and assorted pompoms — and headed to North Carolina’s Senior Games in Raleigh, an annual Olympic-like competition for senior citizens. They won top cheerleading honors frequently.
One year, in her climb up the pyramid, disaster struck. Swetz fell, breaking her shoulder. But a few months later, after recuperating, she was back.
“Well, I loved it,” she says. “It was a good group of ladies. We never got annoyed with each other if we screwed up.” And she felt a sense of responsibility to continue, she says, perhaps honed from years of roller-skating practice.
The crew sometimes faced controversy, like when a friend wanted to join but couldn’t because the woman’s husband objected. “He thought the costumes were too skimpy,” Swetz recalls. (Rhea Perlman’s character in the film faces similar pressure.)
Though Swetz’ memory is starting to get a little fuzzy around the edges, she can still recite her squad’s opening cheer.
“Are you ready? Are you ready? We’re as ready as a senior can be!”
She smiles, holding that old coffee mug and staring at the faces of her fellow cheerleaders. “Gosh,” she says. “Those were good days.”
— JOSEPH V. AMODIO