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Mother Is Role Model for Daughter's Course

April 18, 1993|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Celia Kushner will have to think of a new wish for herself when she blows out the candles on the cake that marks her 80th birthday this year, because she finally fulfilled the one she has been making all these years--with a little help from her daughter.

From the time she was a child growing up in Chicago, Kushner wanted to be an actress. She played make-believe with neighborhood kids. She wrote and starred in all of her "productions." She used to sneak into the local movie theater.

"We were very poor. I didn't even have a nickel to go to the movies. But we were happy as children. My mother used to send me out to the grocery store to buy one egg. She used to feed four people with it--one egg and a lot of water, bread and imagination. She called it French toast," she said.

Even after she married and moved to Los Angeles, Kushner still tried to be an actress, and she pushed her daughter, Adrienne, in the same direction.

"My husband was against it," she said. "He used to drive me to auditions, but as I opened the car door to get out he always said I was wasting my time."

Then one day on her way to a producer's office with her daughter, Kushner was hit by a car. Badly injured, she spent six months in an iron lung.

"Forget the career, I was 39 years old and I was happy to be alive," she said. It was not until she was 70 that she worked again.

If Kushner looks familiar it is because she works in commercials. She is one of the growing number of older people who are in demand to act in television commercials. And her daughter is her manager and coach.

Adrienne Omansky is unusually qualified as a stage-door daughter. She has worked for 18 years training people to work with senior citizens through a program of the Los Angeles Unified School District. She has a master's degree in recreational therapy, has taken classes in gerontology and has a background in dance.

After her mother got a role as an Alzheimer's victim in a local commercial, Omansky decided that not only were older people becoming more popular in commercials, there also was an opportunity for older people to have a meaningful second career. So she developed a class that is offered through the Los Angeles Community Adult School to train them for the work.

"I have devoted much of my life to trying to figure out how to provide opportunities for older people so they can live creatively in later years," she said. "Having a mother who always wanted to be an actress obviously influenced me, but watching her go through so much and come back with her spirit intact is what's so interesting about her. So I created a class for seniors to be creative and productive because of my mother. She was the inspiration."

Kushner was hardly an overnight success. But if hard times test character, she has been incubating her talent for most of her life. Kushner knows about grim times. She nursed an ailing husband until his death and recently underwent surgery for breast cancer.

One week after leaving the hospital, she did a McDonald's commercial.

"Looking forward to tomorrow is the best cure for any ailment," Kushner said.

She is professional in her approach to her new career. She has a beeper, an answering machine, and a portfolio of 8-by-10 glossies. She belongs to the Screen Actors Guild.

"You just don't read a script," she said. "You put yourself in the person's shoes and pretend no one is there watching you and let go of self-consciousness. I joke with everyone and I'm up for anything they want to do. And it's very competitive. Those grannies who come for the auditions are serious."

Kushner has a capable manager. "I do for my mother what I do for my students--provide a free service which prepares them to not be intimidated, set up auditions, teach them techniques, and develop their self-esteem through self-expression," Omansky said. "I am determined to get these people jobs."

Omansky's students range in age from 60 to 92, and six of them have already been signed for paying jobs.

Omansky's Commercial and Self-Expression class is offered by the Los Angeles Community Adult School. For more information, call the Claude Pepper Senior Center at (310) 559-9677.

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