SPOKANE, WASHINGTON — Regular gigs for the band The Jerry-At-Tricks require a tiny stage, but the singing duo’s audience size keeps growing.
Their musical journey began two years ago as a budget-friendly answer to holding the Hillyard Senior Center’s monthly dances. Before then, the social activity was discontinued for about two years when attendance dwindled to fewer than a dozen people. Hiring talent wasn’t cost-effective.
These days, up to 50 people arrive the first Wednesday of each month for a twirl or two, thanks to music performed at a bargain by the center’s guitar-playing director, Jerry Unruh, and bandmate volunteer Teri Creek.
“When you’re the director of a nonprofit, you have to be the bus driver, the band, everything to make it work,” said Unruh, who has worked at the center nearly 20 years. “I wear many hats. Fortunate for me, that includes that I play guitar.”
“We got some requests to bring dances back. I started only DJing to cut costs, and then it morphed into playing. More people have attended since we started playing together, and we now get 30 to 50 people, depends on the month.”
Unruh, 56, sings many of the tunes but trades off a few with Creek, who also handles the tambourine, maracas and other percussion. Unruh discovered Creek’s vocal talent at a karaoke session and realized he’d found a complementary singer for performances.
“I came in for one of his senior karaoke days held three times a year at the Hillyard Senior Center,” said Creek, 65, now a center member and volunteer. “I came with a friend and sang a couple of songs. Obviously, Jerry liked it.”
Unruh and Creek started by performing a handful of songs for the dances, a springboard to The Jerry-At-Tricks’ extensive playlist of country-western and rock and roll tunes in their repertoire. Songs range from Elvis’ “Little Sister” to “Could I Have This Dance?” by Anne Murray. Hank Williams is also a favorite.
“We use some backing tracks to fill out the music,” Unruh said. “With only two pieces, you’re limited to how much you can do. Obviously, we’ve improved over time. We started out playing a few songs. Now, we have over 170 songs. Most of them are classic country and ’50s music.”
After about a year of “house band” performances, a senior center member came up with the band’s name, a play on Unruh’s first name and the word geriatrics.
Membership chairwoman Jene Brideau, 71, gets that credit after Unruh joked about a naming contest. Both she and Unruh say the play on words didn’t sink in for him at first.
“I used to do caregiving, and geriatrics is a term for older people,” she said. “So of course, with Jerry’s name, I was just fooling around and I wrote the idea down. I handed it to Jerry. It kind of dawned on him later when he said it fast.”
“We’ve been after him to make an album, but he said it cost too much,” Brideau added. “I love the music. It’s nice to have the dances back. You’ll see people in their 90s. It’s what keeps them young, being able to socialize and dance.”
Both Unruh and Creek grew up around music and bands. Unruh played in a number of different rock groups during his Montana youth.
Creek credits the influence of her father, Bud Rosenthal, 85, a singer for a band during the 1950s and ’60s playing in Spokane, Idaho and Montana. He still sings at family events.
“People tell me I got my pipes from him,” she said. “I sang in a high school choir, and I love karaoke. Music has always been a big part of my life.”
Their setup at dances for The Jerry-At-Tricks is fairly stripped down. A black banner with white lettering displays the band name above the small corner stage, which has one multicolored disco ball, music stands, a couple of large speakers and two spotlights.
Unruh sits in an office chair while strumming the guitar. Creek stands at a microphone, usually with a tambourine in hand.
A dance in January drew 37 seniors, a good number for a day when Spokane had an unusual cold snap. Inside an assembly room, seniors joined hands for waltzes, two-stepping and country swing. A steady swishing of feet across the dance floor kept time to the musical beat. They took a few twirls, and many of the dancers carried smiles. One man danced while holding a cane.
Sandi White, a meal program assistant, watched as couples danced after lunch. She said the center is seeing more widowers coming to the dances now.
“To see more single people coming to the dances, to see them coming out again, it really warms my heart,” White said. “There’s a grieving process. Part of the grieving process is reintroducing yourself back into the community as a single person. “We easily have up to 50 people during better weather.”
Creek said she’s made many good friends at the center, and the audiences are easygoing.
“Music is so uplifting to all of them,” Creek said. “They really look forward to our monthly performances.”