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Topics / THEATER : Vaudeville Veterans Back in the Footlights

November 17, 1994|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most of the performers in the Vintage Variety Theatre began collecting Social Security many, many years ago, but age has hardly slowed them down.

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"In September, I celebrated my 89th year in show business," says Estelle Milmar, who was five weeks old when her acrobat parents dressed her as a clown for their act.

On Sunday, Milmar will sing "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" joining other company members for a onetime performance of the variety-musical "Minstrel Days" at the Hollywood Palms Hotel.

Vintage Variety was formed this year to offer a venue to former stage and movie actors--and entertainment to audiences ranging from hospital patients to the general public. The group grew out of ongoing theater performances staged over the years by Vintage Variety's founder and producer, Vi Lawson.

"We play tambourines, hop around, sing and dance," says Lawson of Sunday's production. "I wrote a little dialogue. And the music is early Americana: Stephen Foster, (George) Gershwin."

Lawson staged the group's maiden production, "Seaside Terrace Cafe," last month at the hotel. On Dec. 18, the Vintage Variety Theatre returns with a Christmas show.

Lawson, a Colorado native, trained as a ballet dancer and later segued into musical comedy. In the 1960s, she began performing in Los Angeles-area hospitals with fellow entertainers.

Over the years, she has helped provide entertainment for groups including Grand People, a Downtown Los Angeles service program for seniors, and has produced shows at the now-defunct Variety Arts Theatre.

Vintage Variety Theatre's Sunday production includes two actors in their 20s, but the majority of the 14 performers are seniors.

Pianist Al DeCrescent doesn't like to give his age, but admits, "I go back a while." During World War II, DeCrescent spent three years touring with Rudy Vallee and the Coast Guard Band. After the war, he put in two years as Jimmy Durante's pianist, then another two with Pinky Lee.

"I've played with every star you can imagine: Roy Rogers, Frank Sinatra, George Jessel, George Burns," he says proudly. "I don't have favorites. There were all good." As for himself, the pianist allows, "I play better than I did 25 years ago--because I'm experienced. And I practice every day."

At age 54, Ron Davis is the lone middle-aged company member. After studying theater at the University of Nevada at Reno, he arrived in Los Angeles and performed stand-up comedy at such venues as the Improv and the Comedy Store.

"When Milt Larsen started the Variety Arts Center, I worked for him, hosting (and) emceeing, and I'd scout clubs for people to put in our shows," says Davis, who also performs every week with friends at an AIDS hospice. "That's how I met Vi, and I had her come to work as my choreographer."

In this show, Davis will sing "Camptown Races." He is also scheduled to sing "Frankie and Johnny Were Lovers" with Milmar, one of many company members with long and colorful careers.

Milmar started out traveling the country with her acrobat parents, playing a new town almost every week. Settling in Los Angeles in 1930, she performed up and down the coast--in nightclubs and on TV and radio--and then got into producing and writing variety shows.

These days, she keeps limber by square-dancing several nights a week.

Then there's Harriet Hassler, 86, who describes herself as "one of those tough old broads." She began dancing as a 12-year-old in St. Louis.

"My kid brother and I would go to a dance hall and dance till midnight," she recalls. "My mother was Cherokee and French, very liberal-minded."

After showman Bob Alton put her on stage as a chorus girl and renamed her Charleston Crowder, Hassler danced with Frolics, the Ziegfeld Follies and with such stars-to-be as Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers and Virginia Mayo.

In this show, Hassler says, "I dance, do different things. I'm a jack-of-all-trades. I'm very lucky--God gave me a lot of talent. And my whole life has been show business."

"Minstrel Days" will be performed at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Hollywood Palms Hotel, 2005 Highland Ave. in Hollywood. Tickets are $7.50. For reservations: (213) 466-9955.

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