Senior theater groups: Ticket to fun for members, audiences

Are you tired of all the creepy music out there?” Steven Gianturco asked the audience. With heads nodding all around, Gianturco and his fellow performers went into their act. “It’s fun to be in the A-A-R-P,” they sang, the tune sounding very much like the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”

Meet the Retirement Village People, a quartet of seniors who take their show of skits and musical parodies to theaters, libraries and other venues all over Long Island. “These are songs for the ages by the aging,” said Gianturco, 65, a mostly retired accountant who started the group in 2019.

“We’re the older generation and we have something to say,” Gianturco told the audience of about 40 at an early November show at the Seaford Public Library. And he has company — at least two other senior acting groups are active in the area, giving performers an outlet for their craft and audiences a great time.

“We’re getting standing ovations,” said Gianturco. “People are loving it.”

The performance, about an hour and a half, included parodies of songs by everyone from Bob Dylan (“like a kidney stone,” they sing) to Simon and Garfunkel (“hello heartburn, my old friend”). And what would a show for seniors be without a parody of “Memory,” that famed anthem from “Cats”?

Gianturco, of Holbrook, started the group after performing in a show about Groucho Marx with Northport resident Joe Gelish, now 63, who played Chico Marx. They had lunch frequently and started kicking around ideas for parodies of music from the ’60s and ’70s.

“Before we knew it,” Gianturco said, “we had 20 songs and decided to put on some shows.” They have some holiday shows, and Gianturco said they’re thinking of creating a play in which everyone escapes from a gated community. “They have security guards,” he joked. “They’re like prisons.”

Doing it for laughs

The Retirement Village People — from left, Les Degen, Steven...

The Retirement Village People — from left, Les Degen, Steven Gianturco, Anita Bloomfield and Joe Gelish — performs recently at the Seaford Library. The group takes its show of skits and musical parodies to venues all over Long Island. Credit: Corey Sipkin

A year and a half ago, they decided to expand, inviting Anita Bloomfield, 70, of North Massapequa and Les Degen, 68, of Seaford to join the group.

“I always loved music,” Bloomfield said. “My father always had music going and I loved singing along . . . and I always wanted to do theater.” But she didn’t pursue any of it professionally until later in life, after working as a bank teller among other things. She was frequently in the audience for Gianturco’s stand-up routines (he goes by Stevie G.B. on that circuit) when he noticed her impossible-to-miss laugh.

“Comedians love me,” she said. Eventually he heard her sing in restaurants (she’s known for her Barbra Streisand tributes) and asked her to join the group. A fan of “The Carol Burnett Show,” she agreed, attracted to the Retirement Village People’s similar entertaining style. “I always had that crazy comedic timing,” she said.

“I love the audience reaction,” Bloomfield said. “Older people get it, they’ve been around, they’ve heard it all.” And, she added, “seniors love a good laugh and recognize good comedy. There’s nothing funnier than making fun of yourself and your own generation.”

Emily Cannati of Seaford, who was in the audience that day, couldn’t agree more. “I thought they were fabulous,” she said, especially impressed that they could remember all the words. “All the work they put into it.”

Anyone who runs a theater is happy to talk about the work involved. For Lori Diaz, 65, of Bayside, Queens, running the Senior Theater Acting Repertory, known as STAR, seems like a full-time job. The company does shows in the fall and the spring, usually eight shows each, and rehearses twice a week. They perform mostly in Queens but occasionally venture into western Nassau.

The group started as a drama club, said founder Ronnie Arond, who doesn’t remember the exact year (she thinks it was around 1981). They started off doing serious plays like “Of Mice and Men” and “Inherit the Wind.” The 98-year-old Bayside resident confesses to not being thrilled when members started having trouble remembering the lines, forcing the group to change its format.

Now the shows are a unique mix of sketches, some taken from actual plays like “Arsenic and Old Lace,” others written by members. Once a scene is over, the group’s chorus takes over, performing a song that complements it.

A mix of plays

Members of Senior Theater Acting Repertory (STAR) perform recently during...

Members of Senior Theater Acting Repertory (STAR) perform recently during a dress rehearsal at Bellerose Library in Queens. Ronnie Arond, second from right, 98, founded the group, which performs sketches and songs in Queens and western Nassau County in the fall and spring. Credit: Danielle Silverman

After the “Arsenic and Old Lace” scene, the group performed an Addams Family parody called “The Brewster Family” (fans of the 1944 movie adaptation of “Arsenic and Old Lace” starring Cary Grant will get the reference). And a scene about lost socks, written by the group’s music director, Nance Hinchliffe, 71, of Huntington, is finished with “At the Hop.” Every show closes with STAR’s signature song, “Young At Heart.”

“Audiences seem to like the quick comedies,” said artistic director Nick Davanzo, 66, noting the troupe tries to keep each show to around an hour. The Wantagh resident also performs — he’s especially funny in the tongue-twisting Johnny Carson and Jack Webb skit “The Clapper Caper.”

The reaction makes it all worthwhile, said Davanzo. “People come over to me and are so grateful, it brings a tear to your eye. Hopefully we bring some joy to people and that makes us feel good.”

Hinchliffe echoed the sentiment. “I’m a giving person,” she said. “If we can bring a smile, a little chuckle, then we can say we did a good job.”

“Members find it very rewarding,” added Arond. Plus she feels like all the memorizing is good for the brain. “It’s such great brain activity for seniors. It’s good we’re keeping those cells active.”

Diaz, who became president of the group this year, joined about four years ago after taking a singing class at Queensborough Community College. “I hadn’t done anything since eighth-grade chorus,” she said, and “I didn’t think I was good enough for this.” But encouraged by a friend, she saw a show and decided to give it a shot. Now she mostly joins the chorus, though she has a small role in the sock skit — she plays that voice-activated nuisance known as Alexa.

Diaz does a lot of the grunt work. “We don’t have many people left who can carry things,” she said, pointing out that this is a traveling company so even the minimal sets and props must be transported to show locations. But she’s proud that the group doesn’t charge for performances (they get some grants to cover expenses) and is able to maintain its membership. Unlike most community theaters, she said, they rehearse and perform during the day “because many seniors are not comfortable driving at night.”

The reluctance of seniors to drive at night actually led to the formation of another group. Afternoon Delight Players — we’ll get to the name in a minute — was formed for that very reason, said the troupe’s director Starr, who has used the single name for more than 70 years.

A theater veteran and multimedia artist who lives in Brooklyn, Starr, 80, started the group four years ago when she found actors in her traveling repertory company, Bust-A-Gut, didn’t want to drive at night.

“I was doing dinner theater on Long Island,” she recalled, when someone sent her a script titled “Oy, A Murder.” She loved it, but it required senior actors and none of her company wanted to rehearse or perform after dark.

Daily inspiration

Several of the Afternoon Delight Players — from left, Rosanne...

Several of the Afternoon Delight Players — from left, Rosanne Lazarus, Karen Brosman and Nicholas Fabiano — have a dress rehearsal recently in Bay Shore. The group, founded by theater veteran Starr, specializes in afternoon shows, including fundraisers for the American Legion Hall in East Meadow and St. Peter's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Bay Shore. Credit: Gary Licker

Someone suggested doing the show in the afternoon, prompting Starr to come up with the name Afternoon Delight Players. “Everyone started laughing at me,” she recalled, asking whether she understood the naughty innuendo. “I had no idea what it meant,” she said. “But I liked it and kept it.”

“We launched the group with 10 actors and were scheduled for three performances when COVID hit,” Starr said. “We lost four of our actors to the world,” she said, “and others did not want to audition or perform. We tried doing shows with masks — it just didn’t work.”

Having turned on a dime many times in her life, Starr recognized she would need to change things up. So instead of relying on a scripted play, she created a variety show with individual acts. “That way,” she said, “if one actor couldn’t make it, the whole show wouldn’t suffer.”

The new production, “There’s No Business Like Show Business!,” consists of about 10 five- to seven-minute vignettes, with music and audience participation in between so the actors have time to change. She writes sketches and finds new material and inspiration online and in everyday life. “If I hear something funny in a restaurant, I write it down.”

Afternoon Delight Players rehearse in two places, the American Legion Hall in East Meadow and St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Bay Shore, and will do a fundraiser for each once the show is ready to go.

Starr has an interesting way of judging audience reaction to a show — how well the raffle does. It’s conducted during intermission, with proceeds going to the cast. “It’s fun,” she said, “there are blooper gifts and some really nice gifts.”

She’s hoping to schedule more shows shortly, but with COVID-19 still around and a threat to seniors, she recognizes that “so much depends on things I have no control over.”

In the meantime, she’d love to expand the group. “I want anybody who’s acted with me in the past to come back,” she said with her customary dry humor. “That is, if they’re still alive.”

Get in on the fun

Retirement Village People: See them Jan. 22, 2023, at the Clare Rose Playhouse, 155 W. Roe Blvd., Patchogue; $17.55 at bit.ly/3H18XVM. Follow them at facebook.com/retirementvillagepeople.

Senior Theater Acting Repertory (STAR): The group will resume shows in March; auditions for new members will be in early in the new year; visit star-queens.org for show and audition dates.

Afternoon Delight Players: Shows will be scheduled early in the new year. The group welcomes new members, both performers and those interested in working behind the scenes. For information, visit starrsbustagut.wixsite.com/home or email thefrozendozen@aol.com.