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Ageless Activity : A City Where Senior Citizens Stay on the Move

July 29, 1993|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DOWNEY — Three men--68, 69 and 70--were in Apollo Park playing bocce, which they learned as boys in Italy. Their laughter and shouts over this game reflected their utter delight at being alive, and they refused to act their ages.

"We enjoy," said Benito DiPalma, a thickset man with heavy eyebrows, as he rolled a green ball slowly down a clay court, trying to get it close to a little white ball that was the target. "In Italy we start playing bocce when we are young boy."

They shouted in English and Italian.

"We mixed up," DiPalma said with a laugh.

A former construction worker, DiPalma was playing against Angelo Bilo, who used to be a structural engineer, and Joe Sapia, who directs the Monterey Park Concert Band. They are among 20,000 senior citizens who make up about 25% of the city's population.

"Downey is good for the old people," DiPalma said.

The city, which has a large Italian-American community, put in the bocce court about a year ago so the men wouldn't have to play in picnic areas.

While DiPalma, Bilo and Sapia play bocce on weekday mornings, their contemporaries can be found in a building in the corner of the park that the city furnishes as a sort of senior citizen center.

The former school gym is home to the two main social clubs--the Senior Californians, who play cards and bingo on Thursday mornings, and the Downey Senior Citizens Recreation Club, which holds ballroom dances on Tuesdays.

But the three men playing bocce professed no interest in the activities traditionally linked with the elderly. It's an attitude that is increasingly common, said Alta Duke, manager of the Social Services Division of Downey's Department of Community Services.

"People aren't flocking to the clubs anymore," Duke said, noting that membership has markedly decreased the last decade. "My mother is 80 and she says, 'I don't want to belong to a club with all those old people.' I don't think there is a great interest in bingo, cards and dancing. I think there's more interest in traveling and playing golf."

On the bocce court there was a loud craaack . Bilo had just blasted away DiPalma's ball with one of his own.

An animated man in Bermuda shorts, Bilo would take an exaggerated windup, roll his last ball, then sprint after it, talking to it, urging it closer to the target.

Bocce begins when a player rolls the white ball (the pallino ) down the 60-foot court. The players then take turns rolling larger red and green balls toward the white one. After all the balls have been rolled, points are awarded for each ball that's closer to the white one than those of the other color. First one to get 11 points wins.

"You have to know the feel," said DiPalma, alluding to the slant in the court that causes balls to break like putts on a golf green.

When all the balls have been rolled, there often is a logjam near the pallino , and uncertainty over which is closest. "I don't think it's you," DiPalma said to an opponent, and then took out his measuring rule.

After about an hour, DiPalma put the balls in a duffel bag and the men left. "Now we go home and drink beer," Sapia said.

What would they do without bocce?

"Maybe we go dancing then," DiPalma said.

*

The dancing was about to begin up in the gym. Members of the 37-year-old Downey Senior Citizens Recreation Club greeted one another as if it had been six months, not just last week, since they had been together.

The Eddie Jackson Trio was on the stage--Jackson, 71, a trumpet player; Keith Horton, 81, at the piano, and drummer Frank Tiano, 71.

They started with a slow song, and, beneath a vaulted ceiling, 15 couples waltzed around the gray tile basketball court. Before the morning was over, they would also do the fox trot, the polka, the salty dog and the Boston two-step.

Georgia Jones, 82, who had curly gray hair and shiny blue earrings, sat alone. "We need men," she said. "Nice men who like to dance."

Like many women in Downey senior citizen clubs, Jones is a widow. "My poor dear went 13 years ago," she said.

Men seem to die first, but Jones wasn't sure why. "We're awfully good to them," she said.

She clapped her hands to an upbeat piece Jackson was blowing out, then got up to dance with a woman in a pink dress.

Reynold Souza, who has been club president three times, talked about the drop in membership (from 450 to 176) over the last 10 years.

"People dying and moving away," Souza said. "And the young people are not coming in yet. Soon as they get around 65, they start coming to the club."

By young people, he meant those from 55 to 64, many of whom still work and couldn't attend the daytime activities even if they wanted to.

Curtis Williams, 77, the group's current president, agreed, but added, "Some don't like to go to senior citizen clubs even when they get older. Maybe they're trying to stay young or something."

It was definitely an older crowd at the dance.

"We got a lot of 'em here over 90," said Bob Mullinax, 73. "We got one here 84 and she's the best dancer in town. She'll wear you out."

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