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Forever in Prime Time : Seniors Hit the Boards and Lift Many Spirits

December 15, 1986|CLARE WHITE

SAN DIEGO — "Grandma?" Gerry Bassham's granddaughter once asked. "Remember when you played Snow Off White?"

Bassham is a star to her grandchild. As a member of the Forever in Their Prime Time Players, a theater group for senior citizens in East County, Bassham appears in two musicals each year.

At a recent dress rehearsal for their December production, "The Secret of Christmas," the group's director, Leslie Johnson, called out cues and forgotten lines from backstage. The senior citizens, disguised by their colorful costumes, gathered around, relishing the opportunity to toss out wisecracks and comments. Clearly, they consider Johnson more than just a director.

"She's like a daughter," said Jadell Arnold, who plays Santa.

"No," said Bassham, costumed in a man's suit and black bowler to play the Price Gouger. "She's like a younger sister. We wouldn't do this for anyone but Leslie.

"She keeps us off the streets and out of the bars. Because of her we don't have to hang out at the shuffleboard courts or the shopping malls like Valley Girls," said Bassham.

Then, Arnold said, more seriously, "Leslie brings out the most in us. It's all that hollering--she shows that you can do it. She's considerate, she's got finesse. She may criticize but she never hurts your feelings."

It's obvious from the warm backstage camaraderie that eight years of rehearsing together, of changing costumes together with little or no privacy, of using car pools, of experiencing death and illness together, have created a tight-knit group who can joke about themselves and the rigors of the theater.

Changing costumes in cramped quarters isn't a problem. "After age 60 or 80 who cares?" said Ruth Colove. "If you haven't seen it all by then. . . . Anyway, modesty and vanity fly out the window at 70. After that, you look for comfort."

No One Left Out

Like any professional acting ensemble, this one enjoys performing for appreciative audiences. "We have more fun when people applaud for us," said Bassham. "Most places give us a good reception. But then we won't go back if they are too old and fall asleep."

Johnson does everything she can to limit performance anxiety. Actors who have trouble memorizing their lines often carry index cards on stage to prompt themselves. Every member has a part to play, a song to sing. No one is left out. If someone doesn't feel comfortable on stage, he can work behind the scenes.

For some of the players, the group becomes a reason for living, Johnson said. Pauline Carnell, 91, plays the piano for every production. Her husband died when she was 43 so Carnell supported herself and sent her two children to college playing the piano in nightclubs.

"I played in every hole there was," she said, dressed in a pastel pink blouse, her silver hair pulled back in combs. "Except I never played in a burlesque house--that I know of." She played the piano professionally until retiring at age 76. Her employers "didn't know how old I was. It was a hard life but I enjoyed every bit."

Although Carnell has had many health and family problems during her years with the Forever in Their Prime Time Players, but she bounces back faster than most people her age. Not too long after she joined the group, Johnson said, Carnell suffered a stroke. Using piano playing as part of her therapy, she recovered quickly. Later, she broke a wrist. Again, Carnell made an amazingly fast recovery. Then last year, a sister she had lived with for 20 years died. It was very traumatic for her, Johnson said, but Carnell knew the show must go on. She played the piano and dedicated the show to the memory of her sister.

In her youth, perky Lucy Gyure was a performer. In "The Secret of Christmas," Gyure and her husband, Andy, play Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy. But in her 20s, Lucy danced with the Rockettes at the Roxy Theatre in New York, and she appeared with the Marx Brothers in the 1940s. Even now, at age 80, when Lucy performs there is a bit of the ingenue about her. Andy also had some stage experience during his youth; he was an assistant lion tamer with a circus.

Ties That Bind

Drama has proven to be an effective personal and social outlet for the group members. "When you perform," Johnson said, "you have to become very vulnerable. You have to really release certain things inside yourself that you might not release otherwise. If you don't, the performance isn't effective."

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