Friday, 8 February 2008

Wait 'Til You're Sixty Four 8/2/08

“When you are as old I my dear, and I hope that you stay as you are….” So sings “The Old Lady” in Stephen Schwartz’s much loved seventies musical “Pippin”. You get a lot of old ladies in musicals. Whether it’s Hattie Walker belting out “Broadway Baby” in “Follies” or any number of gymnastic grandma’s in “The Producers” musical theatre has a plethora of women of a certain age. In my own professional capacity I deal with many old ladies myself, although on the other side of the footlights of course. They can be cantankerous, rude, difficult, forgetful, energetic, enthusiastic, organized, pleasant and wonderful. Basically they can be just like everybody else whatever their age. Although sometimes the qualities they possess are a little more pointed. I suppose that may be down to old age!

I dealt with one of these old ladies just a few days ago. She was at great pains to tell me that she might get a little muddled. However there she was with a plastic folder containing all the information she needed. In fact she was very organized. It was a painless transaction. During the course of the sale she informed me she was ninety two. Ninety Two!! I mean, let’s face it, most of us will be lucky to live that long and she was going out and about in the West End of London buying theatre tickets. It’s ironic to think that she was probably born the year that the First World War broke out yet I work with people who weren’t even born when the Falklands conflict occurred.

Of course in the entertainment industry there is also no shortage of old ladies treading the boards. It’s fascinating to see some of these performers and think of their lengthy careers and the theatrical legends they worked with. For instance, I recently saw the legendary Broadway star Barbara Cook in her eightieth birthday concert. Her concerts are often fascinating as she intersperses the songs with anecdotes and stories about her career and the people she knew such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein. Off the top of my head there are also Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury and Chita Rivera still going strong into their seventies and beyond. In Rivera’s case she is still dancing up a storm too. However, I think the prize must go to “Coronation Street’s” Betty Driver though who is still going strong, and pulling pints, at 88.

I remember twenty years ago seeing Elisabeth Welch in a show - she too must have been around eighty at the time. The name didn’t mean much to me back then, and probably means even less to you. What made Welch exceptional was that she was a black performer who had been a star on Broadway and in London from the 1920’s onwards – a time when there weren’t that many black stars around. Not only this but she had songs specially written for her by Noel Coward, and introduced Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale”. She had a long and varied career although, I believe, it suffered in the fifties because of the McCarthy witch hunts – but I would need to research that so don’t quote me! Infact if you know the Sondheim song “I’m Still Here” there are few performers who it seems to “fit” more than Welch. I got to meet her that night and remember her saying “like The Ritz, how wonderful” when she heard my name. I also got to meet a real legend that night as Alan Jay Lerner was in the audience. He died a couple of years later so I am pleased that I got an opportunity to shake hands with the man who made Eliza Doolittle sing in “My Fair Lady” and King Arthur declare his passion for “Camelot”. One of the greatest lyricists the theatre has ever seen, so a true privilege!

Of course not all old ladies tread the boards. For some of them, like my neighbour Kitty, their lives can become quite mundane and certainly lacking in glamour. I mention Kitty as she showed real bravery a couple of weeks ago. Almost totally deaf, and blind in one eye, she doesn’t really let being ninety two get the better of her. There she was watching “Emmerdale” when she had a knock at her door. On this occasion she really shouldn’t have answered. She was greeted by two men in their mid thirties. One of them pushed her back and held his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams as the other made his way through to her lounge and started ransacking the place. She politely asked the first man to move his hand as she couldn’t breathe then was ushered into her lounge as they tried to break into a suitcase. “Please don’t break it” said Kitty, “I can unlock it for you!”. Apparently they seemed really surprised as she calmly opened the case. At this point they asked her where “the money” was. “Oh you want the money do you?” said Kitty “I can give you the money!” And she took them to her bedroom and threw the money on the bed. The last think they did was ask her for her switch card and the pin number. She calmly told them the first four digits that came into her head. “They can take my money and whatever they like but I’m not letting them harm my health”! she told me the following day. Apparently her blood pressure had only gone up one point. Her bravery by remaining calm was quite astonishing. These old ladies! I ask you!

Well I can’t finish without mentioning an old lady I saw on my bus home a few days ago. Probably in her late seventies, with flame orange hair a la “Rita Sullivan”. A man she recognized boarded and they got into a conversation which I found really touching. “I can’t remember where I know you from” she began “I’m having a senior moment!” . The next bit I caught was her saying “I lost my partner a while ago”. “What did you do with her?” replied the man. A bit flippant I thought. “Well she died” said the old lady, “she died very suddenly it was a real shock although she was eighty four”. I was really moved by this tale, particularly that she was comfortable enough to talk to the man about it. After all he was of a generation that is possibly a little less enlightened in regards to same sex relationships. Now the next thing she said almost moved me to tears! “Her family are very religious so they only allowed close family to the funeral. I feel like I never really got the chance to say goodbye”. Honestly I could have wept as she said “I know I’ll never find another partner”. It was a really tragic story. …… “I really do miss Bridge” she said (Bridget?) “it’s always been a lovely way to relax, having a good game”. So there you have it! It was her Bridge partner all along! I felt rather silly it has to be said.

So there we go! A whole cart load of old ladies, and I think that’s more than enough for one week!!

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