by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 21, 2002
YOUNG AGAIN, AND ALIVE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Well, I'm back in Vermont again, sitting at my desk, looking through the pictures I took in Florida. Here's one of Beth Greenberg on stage in her ruffled pink party dress, her mouth wide open, channeling Ethel Merman with all her heart and soul as she lip-synchs "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from "Gypsy." And here's Jeanne Max in a chef's hat and apron, lip-synching to, well, Jeanne Max. The song is "BeMy Guest" from "Beauty and the Beast," but Jeanne has trouble remembering lyrics these days, so she pre-recorded her number.
And here's a picture of the beautiful set that Will Shulman painted for the "Fiddler" number, floating straight out of a Marc Chagall stained glass window. And here's one of Tony Scoppetta standing proudly in his workshop. He built all the sets and props, then fell off a tall ladder at the last dress rehearsal and had to take his bows using a walker.
These are just some of the many people involved in "Broadway Banquet," a musical that was written, directed and choreographed by my mother, Rose Kagan, 84, for her Florida condominium, Lauderdale West.
Just in terms of numbers, what my mother does is impressive. This was her 26th show; there were 48 people in the cast, another 40 or so working behind the scenes, and they drew over 1,000 people to the three performances.
Two years ago I saw one of my mother's shows and was swept away by the excitement of it all. The costumes glittered. The performers had personalities. The chorus girls -- average age 76 -- their great legs showcased in fishnet stockings, were all blonde and radiant.
So this year I decided to document a whole production. I went to Florida in November to sit in on auditions. In mid-January, I checked back in to see how rehearsals were going and dish the dirt (the politicking behind the scenes is fierce). Two weeks ago, I flew down again to watch the dress rehearsals, interview the cast, take lots of pictures, see the shows and go to the cast party. It was a revelation.
The Theater Club people were welcoming, generous with their time, and quite frank. No one minded my intrusive questions, the worst of which was, of course, "How old are you?" (Some of the chorus girls, however, lied.)
I met remarkable people. Edith Levine, for example, is a small woman with white hair and an almond-eyed, expressive face. Her solo was "Some People" from "Gypsy," which she lip-synched in an elegant blue silk dress. Edith's husband, Lou, equally small, stood in the back of the audience every night, his proud eyes glued to his wife. She ran into his arms as soon as she got off-stage. At the cast party I asked how long they had been married.
"Fifty-five years," Lou said.
Jeanne Max, 85, has a powerful voice and stage presence to burn. Two years ago she lip-synched Tina Turner's "Proud Mary," stomping her feet, shaking her wig, rocking and rolling and bringing down the house. She told me she always wanted to be a professional performer. When she was just out of high school, she had the opportunity to tour as the singer with a band. But her parents hit the roof, and so she found a regular job, married, and raised her children. But she never stopped singing and performing.
Several people in the club told me stories like that, about their thwarted longings for an artistic life. My talented mother always wanted a career in show business. And Will Shulman ran a children's furniture store in the Bronx when he would have been happier painting in Paris.
I didn't get Bob Wallach's age, but I would guess he's over 70, since he spent 40 years in the printing and binding business before retiring with his wife, Judy, to Florida. A rough-looking man with big eyes, a weathered face and large, strong hands, he now specializes in lip-synching in drag.
Judy, who is one of the chorus girls, taught him feminine hand gestures. Bob taught himself how to walk in heels. With grace, tenderness and wistful sadness, he lip-synched "Mascara" from "La Cage aux Folles, starting out with make-up, his own bald head, and a florid pink kimono. He ended in a blonde wig, a silvery beaded dress that brought gasps of wonder from the audience, and a borrowed fuchsia marabou boa.
"I'm not gay, you understand," he told me. "But I like these songs. With songs like these, a man can express himself."
For me, what stands out most is the way that the performers carry on in the midst of illness and death.
During the course of this show, Beth Greenberg's husband died. S odid Bo Salsberg's mother. Barbara Seltzer's mother had a stroke. Bob Wallach had knee surgery. Will Shulman was diagnosed with a heart condition. Lead dancer Sylvia Tannenbaum's back hurt so much that she couldn't bend down, and she needed an X-ray and a cortisone shot. But she danced every night, and on stage she was incandescent. Comedian Lenny Novie cares for a sick wife. When someone asked about her, he said, "She'll never walk or talk again. No matter how many times you ask me, it'll never change."
And then there is Red Gershon, 80, handsome, white-haired, a former mailman who lives to dance with my mother. He had such serious back problems that it was widely understood he couldn't be in the show. But only a few days after major back surgery, Red came to a rehearsal "just to watch."
Slowly, he and my mother gravitated towards each other. She put on the music of a number they had done before, "Ann on My Arm" from "La Cage." He took her in his arms, they gazed deeply into each other's eyes, and they floated around the rehearsal hall together as if they were alone. When the music ended the rest of the cast applauded, while Red made a quick grab for a three-footed cane.
Making things even more difficult, Red's knee went out a few days before the show. He got "a shot" from his doctor and rested each day until it was time to put on his costume and makeup. Then he came out on stage with my graceful mother -- always to applause -- and they lit up the theater with their love of dancing.
Enchanted by all the heart and courage I saw, I asked many of the performers how they concentrated on performing when so many of their friends and family were ill. All of them said pretty much the same thing:"When I'm out there, I forget about everything else. It makes me feel young again, and alive."
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.