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Book it: Entertaining library gigs

Louis Cialdella, 83, leads workshops on birdhouse construction.

Louis Cialdella, 83, leads workshops on birdhouse construction. (July 5, 2012) Credit: Steve Pfost

When country music singer Charlie Pappas sways his hips from side to side while performing, some of his female fans can get a little frisky. But that's an understandable audience reaction to a rising star. Even on the senior circuit.

"I did a show where one woman threw me a bra, another one threw me keys," says Pappas, 81, a retired duct tape salesman-turned singer from Glen Cove. Sometimes the women throw money, too, but it's done with humor. "It's all in jest," he says. Beside, the man can't stop groovin' to the rockin' country tunes streaming from his karaoke machine. "I wiggle and shake when I get up there," the affable Pappas says. "I can't help it when I'm singing."

Pappas and his singing partner, Micky Jimenez of Levittown, 82, are The Mellow Tones. On a warm day in June, their show is a crowd-pleaser for a Westbury Senior Center audience. About 75 people -- mostly women -- sing along and several dance during the hourlong set. Pappas is dressed for the part in a cowboy hat and Western shirt. Jimenez, a retired Plainview office worker, is elegant in her silver-spangled, embroidered ensemble.

"Why don't we sing a tribute to our wonderful country," Pappas says, encouraging the audience to join in singing choruses of "This Land Is Your Land" and "America the Beautiful."

With the crowd warmed up, The Mellow Tones take turns at the mic. Jimenez, with the velvet voice of a cabaret chanteuse, entertains with standards such as "All of Me" and "It's Magic." Pappas croons "All My Ex's Live in Texas" and "Folsom Prison Blues." Between numbers, they tell a well-timed joke or anecdote about the lighter side of aging.

Audience member Beryl Nugent, 70, of Westbury, approaches afterward to express her appreciation and share her critique with an onlooker. "Their songs are beautiful," she says, "and the jokes are good."

Pappas is the team manager and arranges the bookings. The Mellow Tones are a busy twosome, performing about 90 paid gigs a year at libraries, senior centers and assisted-living facilities. And the bright lights (usually fluorescent) haven't turned their heads.

"I really don't feel like the stardom type of a person," Jimenez says. "I just love it [performing], and if I make somebody smile and sing along, that's what really makes me happy."

People who can sing better than average, demonstrate crafts they've mastered or know enough about anything from poetry to Pilates and can lead workshops have a good chance at finding an audience. With talent, a winning personality and the time and energy to promote yourself, your retirement days could be filled with adulation, applause and a little extra cash [see box].

However, not all talent can be turned into a show. You probably won't gain a following showing slides from your Galapagos vacation (unless they're spectacular), or telling cute grandkid anecdotes (everybody has their own). Today's libraries and senior centers want presenters with marketable skills and subjects that stand out from the crowd.

"We're looking for people who are really good at what they do, people who can really provide a quality performance," says Nancy Curtin, director of the Port Washington Library, which offers daily programs. Some shows are so popular that audience members need tickets to attend. For instance, a recent series on Shakespeare was packed, Curtin says. The library schedules "a broad spectrum of programming," which appeals to seniors who have "time to explore topics they didn't have time for before in their work life," she says.

One of Port Washington's regular speakers, who also appears at the Manhasset and Half Hollow Hills libraries, is James Kolb, of Levittown, a Hofstra drama professor. Kolb, 68, is an opera and musical theater expert who offers 60 programs a year. His audiences of a certain age can be challenging because they have "been there, done that."

He says, "When I teach senior citizens, they might say, 'I was there opening night at 'South Pacific.' " And they don't mean the 2008 revival, but the original 1949 Broadway production, with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.

"It's a tough crowd and a fun crowd," Kolb says of his older fans.

Being able "to be flexible and to think on their feet if a program isn't going exactly as envisioned, and being very responsive to the audience" are qualities libraries look for in presenters, says Elizabeth Olesh, assistant director of the Nassau Library Systems. It also helps to have an outgoing personality and to specialize in a subject that isn't already being offered by someone else in your area.

Off-the-beaten-track programs are a specialty of Louis Cialdella, 83, of Lake Ronkonkoma. He offers 12 to 15 workshops a year on a wide variety of subjects, including conserving energy and saving money at home, coin collecting and a favorite, birdhouse construction. He also lectures on the lives of Houdini and Thomas Alva Edison. "People love it because there aren't any people that cover these subjects," says Cialdella, a retired licensed electrician.

Libraries seem to agree. In 2010, Cialdella received a letter from Connetquot Library program coordinator Janet Eagan, praising his "informal yet knowledgeable style."

Although the free programs appeal to seniors, "It's good to know what interests children as well as the grandmas," says Joy L. Rankin, director of the Roosevelt Public Library. Rankin, 50, of Hempstead, is no amateur on the subject. She's a former library performer with expertise in black and Latino children's literature. She's told scary stories to kids and re-enacted the poet Maya Angelou's life at libraries in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie.

For the three or four programs she schedules each month in Roosevelt, she generally looks for physical activities or crafts. "Anything that's physical, from yoga to Zumba to Pilates -- that's big now," Rankin says.

Roosevelt also books programs by authors, especially if the subject matter relates to the library's extensive Black Heritage Collection. And, adds Rankin, "We're looking to bring in people in the music industry."

With some musical talent and spare time, maybe you'll match the success of Pappas and Jimenez, the singing duo, who started their entertaining careers later in life.

Pappas worked for three decades as a wholesaler, supplying hardware stores, before retiring in 1995 at age 65. He used to noodle around with a guitar at home and at parties for his own enjoyment. Then, one day he was singing at the Glen Cove Senior Center, and the director there asked him to put on "a little show."

After Pappas' first singing partner stopped performing because of a cancer diagnosis, he went shopping for another collaborator. By the time they were introduced at the Glen Cove Senior Center, Jimenez had already seen Pappas perform his "wiggle and shake." Said Jimenez, "I loved when he did that wiggle. I said, 'That's so cute.' Little did I know that I'd end up singing with him."

She'd worked for two decades in the billing and order department at a bathroom fixtures firm and sang only at home. "I always loved singing around the house, and my husband used to say I had a nice voice," she says.

After retirement in the early 1990s and the passing of her husband 14 years ago, Jimenez began singing for others -- first in the choir at Holy Family R.C. Church in Hicksville, then as a contestant in the Miss New York Senior America pageant, where she performed "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."

Now, The Mellow Tones (mellowtonesduo.com) are becoming established stars of the library circuit, booked six months ahead, including a return engagement at the Baldwin Library in January.

"If I'm alive and well," Pappas says, "I'll be there."

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