The old folks in the wheelchairs in the back of the room were slumbering, chins bumping chests, when Don Komar started tinkering with his piano. Lenny Kaye started blowing his sax and Anita Smith broke into a snappy version of “Silver Bells,” and no one was sleeping anymore. One elderly gentleman in baggy blue pants and a red shirt got so inspired that he rose from his chair and started dancing with his nurse as the rest of the audience clapped and cheered.

It was another performance of the Senior Circuit, a new program that brings dancers, storytellers, and, in this case, jazz to residents of nursing homes throughout Rogers Park, Edgewater, and Uptown. The audience at this December 8 concert included residents from the Nathalie Salmon House, the Pat Crowley House, and the Lakefront Healthcare Center, gathered in the center’s community room to hear comic Rudy Horn and the Don Komar + 2 Trio.

“The beauty of this show is that the musicians and Rudy Horn know how to play to seniors,” says Gina Richard, coordinator of assisted living at the Salmon House. “I’ve seen groups go to places like this and not engage the people. They didn’t know how to work with the elderly. You don’t have to scream, but you have to talk clearly and distinctly. Then play your music–everybody loves music. Everybody’s got a note inside them.”

The Senior Circuit is sponsored by Arts Bridge, an Uptown-based group best known for providing business and marketing training to not-for-profit arts groups. “The Senior Circuit was inspired by Rudy, who performs at a lot of “residents’ in Chicago,” says Ann Cole, an Arts Bridge board member. “Rudy let us know that there’s a large community of seniors on the north side that’s often forgotten.”

Senior Circuit shows feature folk musician Steve Rosen and tap dancer Bobby Rubenstein, who perform as “Steppin’ Tunes,” with 89-year-old tap dancer Jimmy Payne as emcee; the Alyo Children’s Dance Theatre, with modern dancer Tommy Gomez, 75, as emcee; and either storyteller Kathleen Visovatti or the Komar Trio, with Horn, who’s 86, as emcee. Underwritten by a grant from the Hulda B. and Maurice L. Rothschild Foundation, the Senior Circuit is nearing the end of a pilot phase that began in October and will run until late December. Cole hopes to raise enough money to offer year-round entertainment in north-side nursing homes.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to get it going and we’re still working things out,” says Cole. “But so far the response wherever we go has been fantastic.”

In its own way, the scene at a Senior Circuit concert reflects the diverse makeup of north-side nursing homes. The audience features nurses, doctors, social workers, administrators, and, of course, residents of every age, race, and religion. Coincidentally, Richard, 30, is an accomplished singer herself, and after hearing the Komar Trio she agreed to sing with the group at a weekend supper club gig.

She was once the lead singer of Love and Addiction, a local alternative rock band, before she got a job with Salmon House. “We were pretty good–Smashing Pumpkins opened for us at the Metro a few years back,” Richard says. “But you can only go so far in this city and I got tired of the rock scene.”

So she enrolled at Loyola University to study psychology and moved into the Pat Crowley House, a Rogers Park residence where old and young live together. (The commonly owned Salmon House was recently opened on the same principles.) “In exchange for room and board the young people do light house care,” says Richard. “We had a lot of cross-generation discussions. They would tell me, ‘You kids don’t understand.’ Or, ‘You young women, why aren’t you married?’ Or, ‘Why are you wearing that dress so short? We could never get away with that stuff.’ I’d joke back, ‘That was then. You can wear them now. Why don’t you wear short skirts?’

“A lot of the people don’t want to be here. They’re used to their independence. You shouldn’t just lock people in a home when they get old and forget about them. My thing is to get them out as much as possible. We go to museums or the planetarium or wherever. Some of the people don’t want to go with you. They’ll say, ‘I just want to stay home.’ But I don’t let them get away with that. I say, ‘Come on, we’re going. Let’s get out of here.'”

Music’s a common bridge, says Richard. “I love the old music. I love the standards–‘Unforgettable,’ ‘Makin’ Whoopee,’ ‘That’s why the lady

is a tramp.’ I know I’m sounding like a senior citizen, but they don’t write songs like that anymore. Those lyrics are so witty or poetic or profound–they’re meant to be heard.”

Richard is grateful for the Senior Circuit if for no other reason than that it allowed her to meet a man who once shared a billing with one of her heroes, Billie Holiday.

“I played with Billie Holiday in Denver,” says Horn, who began his show business career in the 20s. “They canceled her because she was so high on dope. That was in 1950 or 1952, I can’t remember the year. I had just got back from Europe. Oh, that girl could sing.

“I got my start here in Chicago. My father used to run the old Green Mill nightclub and I was in grammar school and I won the Herald Examiner’s Charleston contest; after that I was in show business. I’ve been all over the world. I played Vegas. I did the Ed Sullivan Show. I knew Fred Astaire when he was performing with his sister Adele. I knew Rodney Dangerfield when he couldn’t get jobs, he was selling wallpaper. Frank Sinatra and I used to hang around the same talent agency looking for work. A good friend of mine was Ray Bolger. Oh, there were so many of them–great dancers and singers and performers.”

In his old act, Horn told jokes and danced. “I used to be a hell of a dancer until I lost my equilibrium. I used to finish with a series of flips–eight of them, right across the stage. I still like performing, but it gets you down when you can’t do your old tricks.”

Horn was the master of ceremonies at last week’s show at the Lakefront Healthcare Center. His audience included about 75 people, most of them seniors. One woman in the front occasionally blurted out comments, but Horn was not fazed.

“You’re crazier than I am,” the woman called out, as Horn performed a few magic tricks.

“I love an appreciative audience,” he said.

After his tricks, Horn introduced Don Komar, sax player Lenny Kaye, and Anita Smith.

Smith sang a few numbers before turning the mike over to Kaye, who put aside his sax to sing “White Christmas.”

Almost everyone in the room sang along, including the nurses and nurse’s aides along the wall.

“How about this one,” said Kaye, as Komar began playing “I Got You Under My Skin.” “Remember this?”

“You can sing to me all night, baby,” said one of the nurses.

“I got you under my skin,” Kaye crooned.

“That’s all right with me, baby,” said the nurse.

“I’m poor,” said a woman in a wheelchair as a nurse rushed over to calm her. “I’m so poor.”

The man in the red shirt began dancing with the center’s activity director, Juanita Dixon.

Then Kaye sang Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” He strolled around the room, holding the microphone before various audience members so they could sing solo.

A woman in the front, her eyes closed and her voice pulsating with emotion, stood to sing the song’s closing lines: “And so I’m offering this simple tune / to folks from one to ninety-two. / Though it’s been said many times, many ways, / Merry Christmas to you.”

“Girl, look at you,” exclaimed a nurse, as the woman waved to the clapping crowd.

“We have some people here today in the audience who are also musicians,” Kaye announced. He pointed to Leonard Schatke, a man in a wheelchair near the front. “Leonard used to play the piano at Mayor’s Row,” said Kaye.

Kaye called on Richard Forde, a Lakefront resident, who sang “Ich liebe Dich,” a German love song. A man identified only as Nicholas sang a gospel song. “These hands are callused and I’m growing old,” Nicholas sang. “Oh, dear Lord, when it comes time to judge me, take a close look at these working hands.”

The evening closed with some more jokes from Horn. “Someone told me that sex wasn’t good for your memory, but I forgot who told me that.

“Three drunks walk into a bar. The first drunk says, ‘Give me a scotch.’ The second drunk says, ‘Give me a whiskey sour.'” And here Horn slowly lowered himself to the floor, careful not to bang his knees. “And the third drunk says, ‘No thanks, I’m drivin’.'”

The audience laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll get up,” said Horn, as he slowly climbed to his feet.

“I want to wish everyone Merry Christmas,” he said.

“And Happy New Year,” said a woman in a wheelchair.

“And a Happy New Year,” said Horn, as Komar started playing “Auld Lang Syne.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.