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At 79, life takes a comic turn

Jobless and broke, Adele Samuelson is passing up the retirement home for a new life in stand-up.

September 10, 2003|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

Adele Samuelson isn't one to wallow. Adversity isn't her thing. If you catch her running around town, taking meetings, you'd never know that she's a financial victim of Sept. 11 -- a woman who's out of money and, some say, out of time. You'd never know that she's 79 (she doesn't look a day past 60). What you'd see is a small, plump, perpetually smiling person who walks and talks as if her batteries have just been recharged. And in a way, they have.

Samuelson's life has been a brand new ballgame since Sept. 11, 2001.

Until that day of terrorist attacks, she'd earned up to $10,000 a month as an independent travel agent, with a client list of actors, agents, production companies and assorted foreign royals.

After Sept. 11, she says, her business "just dropped dead." The five phone lines in her home office stopped ringing and never started up again. "People didn't want to travel," she says. And when they started to fly again, they didn't need her services. "Now they rent private jets because they feel it's safer. All the years I put into this business were washed away."

But Samuelson believes that life begins at 60. By her reckoning, she's just entering middle age. At a time of life when many people shrink their horizons and expectations, she is fearlessly expanding hers. She's determined to start a new career -- as a stand-up comic. And maybe as host of a talk show about senior citizens and sex.

And she says she'll do all that without help from those friends and family members who've told her she ought to face facts: She's broke, she's pushing 80, she belongs in a home for old people.

Ridiculous, she said on a recent day, as she bounced around the Westwood apartment overlooking Wilshire Boulevard where she's lived for 25 years. (Her Social Security pays the rent each month, she says. After that, it's touch-and-go whether she can feed herself or her little white dog. She no longer has health insurance, but her phone was recently turned back on, courtesy of a friend.)

Samuelson's living room is still set up as an agency: two huge desks, two computers, all the paraphernalia that she and her one full-time employee needed to run the once-bustling firm, which she says sometimes kept her busy 18 hours a day.

An enterprising spirit

She might not be the woman you'd choose as a shoo-in stand-up comedy success. But she's determined to try. "People always said I was funny, so I've decided to capitalize on it," she says. Which leads us to a Saturday night earlier this summer at a small club in Beverly Hills, the Backstage Cafe. It's where Samuelson gave the fourth performance of her new stand-up career.

How did she get hired? She didn't, exactly. She contacts small clubs and persuades management to let her perform for no pay so she can hone her act.

Backstage Cafe's general manager, Joules Morlini, says Samuelson phoned him a few times and her enterprising spirit intrigued him. "I was curious about her, and the very different angle she was coming from. It wasn't just her age -- it's that she's such a sweet talker," he says.

The club is a late-night spot that rocks from about 10 until 2 a.m. Morlini scheduled Samuelson early, before the place filled with its regular clientele. She clutches a mike, forces a smile and launches into what might have been a modern routine in the Borscht Belt in the '50s. It's what she calls a "blue routine," which means sex-oriented jokes in which she misuses words like "mastication." Or comments on Monica Lewinsky's Oval Office talents. Or tosses condoms to male guests.

When the audience responds with tepid smiles instead of guffaws, she finishes fast and says goodnight.

"That was the worst performance of my life," she says after the show. Her first three club performances were boffo, she reports, because she could use a cordless microphone, which she calls "essential for my act. This place didn't have one, so I was chained to one spot. I usually never stand still. I pick up the mike, look at it and ask, 'Does this vibrate?' Then I go into the crowd, talk to the men, ask questions and give funny answers. The crowd breaks up."

She says she's determined to perform again as soon as possible, but then a summer of minor health problems, car problems and financial hardship foil her plans. She realizes also, she says, that these comedy forays aren't making money, "yet." She's dependent on tips from the crowd dropped into a discreetly placed jar on the bar. The take from the Backstage Cafe won't even pay for the gas she used to get there.

Will this deter her? "Never," she says with a cheery smile and a toss of her short pale curls. She'll revamp the act, focus on something more contemporary -- maybe the Internet chat lines she's become so enamored of and where she has recently met so many interesting "gentleman friends."

And she's hedging her bets with a Plan B.

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