February 22, 2020
Young@Heart Rocks Around the World

By Andrea Decof

Young@Heart Chorus, “a rowdy bunch of 70-, 80-, and 90-year-olds” who started singing for fun, is now celebrating its twenty-fifth season as a nonprofit supported by grant funding, traveling the world and wowing audiences that range from college students to royalty.

“Rock on!” raves Time Magazine about the of 25 septuagenarians and others up to age 93 who sing rock tunes that strike a chord with audiences everywhere. With 16 tours of Europe and a royal performance to their credit, the Young@Heart Chorus, based in Northampton, is a success story no one anticipated.

Their website proclaims, “The Young@Heart is a rowdy bunch of 70-, 80-, and 90-year-olds singing music your mother wouldn’t like. In fact, they are positively attracted to the bad boys and naughty girls of the last 50 years, covering Led Zeppelin to OutKast with a good measure of The Clash and Radiohead. Young@Heart has become infamous for its defiant and moving performances.”

“It just started as a group of people singing in an elder housing project” in Northampton in 1982, says Artistic Director Bob Cilman. “I was working in the Meals Program for the Elderly at the time. I had played in some rock bands and had some theater background. A friend of mine came up with the idea of an elders chorus and approached me to work on it.”

In the Walter Salvo House, a senior living community in Northampton, Bob found a treasure trove of talent, including veterans of both World Wars; an 88-year-old stand-up comic who “told jokes that only she could get away with”; and “Diamond Lillian” Aubrey, who “wowed audiences with a deadpan version of Manfred Mann’s ‘Doo Wah Diddy.” Of Anna Main, the 88-year-old comic, Bob notes, “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 we had the date wrong and she was only 99.”

With these and more star performers, Bob put together the first stage show at the Meals Program site. It was a hit. The following year, he enlisted a professional theater group, the local No Theater, and its director, Roy Faudree, to stage “Stompin’ at the Salvo,” the group’s first professional production. It sold out four times and attracted a “broad cross section of young and older people from the community,” says Bob.

Collaborating with other Arts Groups

In 1984 Bob moved the Young@Heart Chorus to the Northampton Center for the Arts, where they began collaborating with other arts groups.

Along the way they added new Chorus performers, including two gents who did female impersonations—one performed a mean Sophie Tucker, the other a wicked Carol Channing—and an English songstress with a knack for burlesque routines. Bob combined these talents with local performing artists, including, among others, Latino break-dancers; Cambodian folk artists; punk rockers; and the local Gay Men’s Chorus, to create some memorable and very popular productions.

In 1997 the Young@Heart Chorus was invited to participate in an arts festival in Rotterdam, whose theme was “Forever Young.” The show was such a success that since then the group has gone on to do sixteen more tours of Europe, Australia, and Canada.

In 2000, while performing in the London International Festival of Theater, a consortium of presenters from London, Rotterdam, Berlin and Bruges commissioned the Young@Heart to create a new production, “Road to Nowhere.” It premiered in 2005 in the Oude Luxor Theater in Rotterdam.

Nonprofit Status Helps Attain Grant Funding

At first, Bob says, the Chorus didn’t need funding; they just sang for fun. But after their first two performances sold out, he saw the writing on the wall. Bob established the Young@Heart Chorus as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to enable them to apply for grants. And, he reports, they now “get grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the City of Northampton. We also get support from the National Endowment for the Arts, which pays for our five musicians.”

But most of their support comes from private funding. Bob notes, “Groups like the Dublin Theater Festival and presenting organizations all over Europe pay us to perform.” Each chorus member receives a per diem, and all travel costs are covered. Sightseeing tours are also arranged at each stop.

In 2005 they did a 12-show run in London, and sold out in Zurich. Another highlight was performing for the King and Queen of Norway during their visit there.

As to the challenges of touring with septua-, octo-, and nonagenarians, Bob reports they are small. The biggest prerequisite is to have a doctor on call in each town they visit. And where rock bands will ask for champagne and caviar in their dressing rooms, the Young@Heart’s demands are simpler.

“It’s pretty much peanut butter and coffee, things like that,” laughs Bob.

“Initially,” Bob says, “the chorus members were shocked at the response the shows received. Now they take it in stride.” More recently, they were stunned to receive over 3,000 heartfelt emails from fans in England after a documentary about the Young@Heart was shown on British TV.

Today the Young@Heart Chorus is still going strong, with a new cast of performers stepping in for the originals. They spend a lot of time rehearsing, have performed all over western Massachusetts, and play many benefit concerts. They also continue to tour Europe, generally twice a year. Currently they have tours of Brussels and Estonia lined up for 2008.

Bob Cilman’s life, too, has been impacted by his work with the Young@Heart. In addition to directing the Chorus, he’s also now the Director of the Northampton Arts Council.

“Northampton is a thriving arts scene,” he notes. “And all the arts groups are connected. I was already involved with many of the local artists because of the collaborative work of the Young@Heart.

“The Arts Council raises money for local artists and arts groups, so it made sense for me to take the position.”

Bob’s current ambition for the Chorus is to bring it to college campuses. He thinks it has a lot to say to college kids, and wants to spark the intergenerational dialogue. The Chorus did a show at Mount Holyoke College recently, which was a big hit. In April it will perform at Dartmouth College.

When auditioning for the Chorus, what does Bob look for? “I look for normal people,” he says. “The older they are, the more interesting they are. The median age of this group is 80. They are real people doing real things, they’re not trying to be young. Some have some stage background, some have never stepped on a stage before. But what makes them great is, they are all real people.”

“Young@Heart”, a musical documentary made for British TV about the Young@Heart Chorus, has been aired on TV in the U.K., Ireland and Italy, and will be shown on Japanese TV in March. The film will have three benefit screenings at the Academy of Music Theater, Northampton on March 10 and 11, 2007, with all proceeds to benefit the Academy of Music and the new Northampton Senior Center. For tickets and information call 413-587-1300 or visit their website, www.youngatheartchorus.com.

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