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Senior Citizens Kick Up Their Heels in Commercials

May 10, 1987|JOHN M. LEIGHTY | United Press International

SAN FRANCISCO — Lawrence and Columbia (Chris) Menkin have become a model couple in their golden years.

Married for 46 years, their favorite words are now, "Lights, camera, action!"

The Menkins have been to dozens of local auditions during the last year, and have landed jobs in television commercials for Kodak, Pacific Telephone, Monterey Vineyards and the Bay Pacific Health Plan.

They've also played bit parts in feature films shot on location, including Francis Ford Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married."

"We're new faces at the age of 70 and 75 and loving every minute of it," said Menkin, 75, whose white hair and mustache give him a distinguished, grandfatherly image.

But the Menkins are not unique. Hundreds of commercials are made each month in metropolitan areas using local talents, and casting directors say older people are being sought more than ever. The jobs range from television spots to radio commercials, newspaper and magazine ads and industrial films.

"There's a lot of work for senior citizens," said Mike Humphrey, one of San Francisco's busiest casting agents. "They can be used for almost any product."

Humphrey said the best field for seniors is in "commercial print" work where they do spots for health products, soft drinks and so forth.

"There's always a grandparent or two around," Humphrey said of the spots. "The far ages of society are usually the most charming--the small children and the great-grandparents.

"They may not be the purchase-power people or may not even use the products, but putting them in the scene creates a sense of family and a sense of proper society structure."

Humphrey said those chosen for commercial work usually have some background in the entertainment field and get paid a minimum day's wage of $333, which is union scale. Residuals for appearing in national ads, he said, can range from nothing to $12,000, depending on when the spots are aired and in what markets.

"It's a wonderful hobby and a good opportunity to earn additional money," Humphrey said.

The Menkins are no strangers to show business. In his younger days, Larry wrote, produced and directed for television and radio and was the originator of the popular "Captain Video" TV series of the 1950s. Chris collaborated on some of his 350 television episodes, including scripts for "The Cisco Kid."

Although legally blind, Larry runs an acting workshop at a studio near his San Rafael home and has trained dozens of local comedians to perform for the camera.

Chris, a former real estate agent and a child model, said she was surprised to find herself back in front of the cameras in her twilight years. In order to make the plunge, she took her husband's acting course.

"It was very difficult for me to go into his classes and take up acting, being his wife," Chris said. "I was terrified, my knees literally shook, but I got up there and did it anyway."

Soon after she mastered "cold readings" and other tricks of the trade, the Menkins went out as a team to audition.

"Boy, did we bomb," Larry said.

Wear a Rubber Suit

But rejections are part of the game, said Chris, adding that a model can be turned down for being too tall, too short, too fat or too thin. She once posed for hours as a grandmother baking a pie, only to find out the camera was photographing only her hands, which weren't wrinkled enough for the commercial.

"When you go into this business, you have to wear a rubber suit because you're going to get a lot of rejections and you have to be able to bounce," she said. "You never know why you're out and should never, never take it personally."

However, they soon started picking up jobs and were chosen as the elderly couple in a television commercial for the Bay Pacific Health Plan. All they had to do was dance, turn toward the camera and kiss--a task that took hours of shooting.

Two of the busiest models in the San Francisco area are a husband and wife team who took Menkin's acting classes and then studied at television commercial workshops. The couple, Dottie Lewis, 52, and Peter Hight, 55, have had dozens of high-paying jobs since going into the modeling business in 1984.

Landed a Job

Hight was fed up with 25 years of being a stockbroker when he went to an audition with his wife and was talked into trying out for commercials by the talent agency. They later got a job as a couple in ads for the Emporium Capwell department stores and their careers took off.

"We're kept fairly busy and it's an exciting career," said Lewis, a former interior decorator from Baltimore. "We've been lucky. We market ourselves as a couple and really enjoy it."

One of their latest assignments was for a brochure advertising Royal Viking Cruise Lines. The assignment included a first-class, 17-day cruise through the Panama Canal and to Costa Rica and the West Indies. In addition to their salary, they received two free cruises for two for anywhere in the world.

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