When Bob Cilman and Judith Sharpe organized the Young@Heart (Y@H) in 1982 all of the members lived in an elderly housing project in Northampton, MA called the Walter Salvo House. The first group included elders who lived through both World Wars. One of our members had fought in the Battle of the Somme as a 16 year old and another, Anna Main, lost her husband in the First World War. Anna was a stand-up comic who at 88 told jokes that only she could get away with. She sang with us until she was 100. We celebrated her 100th birthday with a parade downtown. We actually had to reschedule the parade for a year later when her family informed us that we had the date wrong and she was only 99. This initial group also included Diamond Lillian Aubrey who came on our first two European tours and wowed the audiences with her deadpan version of Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy”. In later years she appeared “on stage” via video, performing the Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
By 1983 our original group was ready to create our first stage production. We enlisted the support of Roy Faudree from No Theater to stage “Stompin’ at the Salvo”. No Theater was doing the most intriguing theater work in town and I was stunned when Roy agreed to stage the first show. That first production was memorable for the sensation and buzz it created in town. The show sold out four times and brought in a broad cross section of younger and older people from the community. It also brought us new performers. In early 1984 Eileen Hall, Warren Clark, and Ralph Intorcio joined the group. Warren and Ralph were both very good at doing female impersonations. Warren took on the persona of Sophie Tucker, a popular vaudevillian stage performer and Ralph did a send-up of Carol Channing’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. Eileen was born and raised in London and brought us an array of different routines, including strip, mime and the song “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s ...Ninety.” Y@H decided to combine these performances with a group of Latino break-dancers from another local housing project. The result was “Boola Boola Bimini Bop”. These two shows were the first of many collaborations Y@H created with different arts groups in town. A few others included "Oh No a Condo" in 1988, with Cambodian folk artists and punk rockers; in 1991 “Louis Lou I – A Revolting Musical” reunited us with Roy and No Theater for a huge production (over 100 people involved). The piece was a re-telling of the French Revolution using the songs of Sinatra. In 1994 Y@H created "Flaming Saddles", a big campy production with the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus written by Sally Rubenstone. There were many other community collaborations along the way.
In 1996 No Theater was in Rotterdam performing in the annual R Festival. Roy asked the organizers about the theme for the next year’s festival. When he discovered that it was Forever Young, he told the organizers about Young@Heart and plans began to bring the group over to Europe. This was the first time we would create a stage production that just included members of the chorus. Mixing songs and costumes from past shows with some new music we created Young@Heart in “Road to Heaven” staged by No Theater. The response was phenomenal and the chorus went on to 12 more tours of Europe, Australia and Canada from 1997-2004. We performed “Road to Heaven” at the Lyric Hammersmith in November 2000 with the support of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). It was in London that the groundwork was laid for Young@Heart in “Road to Nowhere” stage by No Theater. A consortium of presenters including LIFT, The Rotterdamse Schouwburg, The Hebbel Theater in Berlin, and Brugge 2002 commissioned the new work. The show premiered fall 2004 in the Oude Luxor Theater in Rotterdam presented by the Rotterdamse Schouwburg. “Road to Nowhere” toured to Zurich, Berlin, Dublin, Angers and Strasbourg after a 12-show run in London in 2005. In July 2009 Young@Heart in "End of the Road" by No Theater premiered at the Manchester International Festival in Manchester, England. Young@Heart performed "End of the Road" at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and the Vooruit Theatre in Ghent, Belgium in September 2009. "End of the Road"'s US premier was at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York in April 2010 in Poland in 2011.
The 2006 Walker George documentary “Young @ Heart”, originally broadcast on Channel 4 television in the UK, won two Rose d’Or awards, the LA Film Festival Audience Award, screened at Sundance in 2008 and in April 2008 Fox Searchlight released it in North American cinemas. The film was released in cinemas around the world including the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, and Japan. In 2008 the film won the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival, the Paris Cinema International Film Festival, Ghent Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, Bergen International Film Festival, Warsaw Film Festival and others. The film aired in January 2010 on the PBS series “Independent Lens”.
Encouraged by an event for the film staged at our local jail for the film, we have continued to work with the incarcerated in our community. It has been some of the most collaborative powerful work we've ever done. And it just gets better.
Returning to our roots, we are working with community groups and specifically, young children. These Mash-ups are a fabulous forum to for singing out at all ages.
The current performers in Young@Heart range in age from 73 to 89. There are some with prior professional theater or music experience, others who have performed extensively on the amateur level, and some who never stepped onto a stage before turning eighty. None of the current performers of Y@H were part of the original group that formed in 1982, but they have kept alive the spirit of the early pioneers and continue to push the group into glorious new directions.
How did the Y@H start?
I was offered a job running a meal site for the elderly. It came with health insurance so I took it. I had some wonderful older people in my life, so I was intrigued by the job. After a year or so Judith Sharpe approached me and asked if I could get some people together for a sing along where she would play the piano. That was how it started in 1982.
How do you select the songs for the Y@H?
There are many different ways in which songs get chosen. Often we are trying to match songs with individuals, we listen for lyrics that will be more interesting coming from them. The chorus members make suggestions, too.
Do you have a songbook or arrangements?
No, we have an amazing band and we make it up as we go along. One of the best things is to see how songs change as we continue to sing them.
What are some of your favorite songs to perform?
There are currently 30 chorus members and you would probably get 30 different answers to that question. I tend to like the songs we are currently working on because they are stuck in my head.
What are some of the challenges and rewards in directing seniors?
I think they are similar to working with any group of people on a mission. Our reward is working hard on something and watching it progress. The challenge is making it sound like something you want others to hear.
Do you have advice for people who want to start a similar group?
Don’t try to be like Young@Heart. Find what you are passionate about and make it your own. This is a lot of work, so you should love it. Don’t go into thinking about the concerts and the travel. Think about the work you do on a weekly basis to make it an interesting ensemble.