The Mature Mob makes another hit
Through the years with Springfield’s talented old-timers
If anyone can lay claim to being the “father” of The Mature Mob, it’s Jim Myers. It began in the early ’90s, when Jim, at age 76, began taking tap dance lessons at the Springfield Senior Center, located at the corner of Walnut and Mason streets. But his teacher, Dorothy Irvine, surely had something to do with the group’s birth as well. She taught tap as a form of exercise; the Mob soon became an expression of the dancers’ talent. Jim met 10 “girls,” known as the “Rockettes of Ages,” and was impressed enough to conclude there must be other talented seniors who could, in the words of more than one old movie musical, put on a show.
This abundance of talent, combined with the need to raise funds for the Senior Center’s parent, Senior Services of Central Illinois, resulted in the Mature Mob’s first show, Over 60 but a Long Way from Over the Hill, in 1992. As for the troupe’s name, that was coined by Kay Feurer of the Springfield Area Arts Council, also a representative on the founding Mob Board. Moore and Irvine have passed on, but the Mature Mob continues.
I was unaware of this at the time that I first heard of the Mature Mob in 2006. In addition to being a freelance writer, I had dabbled in local theater. At a party thrown by one of my actor friends, I met two other local thespians, Pete Bariether and Shirley McConnaughay, who told me of this group they were in called The Mature Mob. By then, the minimum age had been lowered to 50, a milestone I’d passed a couple of years earlier.
Rehearsals were already underway for that year’s show, so it was too late for me to be in that one. But I did join the Mob the following year, 2007, for Remembering the Harvest Moon Ball, and every show since then. From just being in the chorus those first few years, I became more involved by becoming a board member a few years later, and last year, board secretary.
For this year’s show, I came up with the title, Road Show USA, and the concept of a collection of songs, jokes and production numbers about various cities, states and regions of America, as well as co-directing with Sue Dorsey. Sue wrote the script and came up with the list of songs. The end product takes place this coming weekend, Friday, Sept. 20, through Sunday, Sept. 22, at the Sacred Heart-Griffin Auditorium.
Some two dozen songs are featured, ranging from “This Land is Your Land” and a medley of two train songs, “Chattanooga Choo Choo/On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe,” to more recent ones such as “On the Road Again,” “Weekend in New England” and “New York State of Mind.” Illinois is well represented with “Route 66,” “My Kind of Town” and the Illinois state song.
So who are these talented old-timers? Most of them have some prior performing or musical experience, usually in community theater or their church choir. No current Mob member has been at it longer than George Jirgal, who has been with the Mob since its second show in 1993. As George himself says, “It all started with the Muni.”
In 1993, the Muni produced Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. He auditioned, hoping for a solo number. He did get a part in the Pirates chorus. George concluded, “I needed more experience to sing a solo at the Muni, so when the second Mature Mob show announced auditions, I signed up quickly, especially since...the cast members must be at least 55 years old. No competition from most of the Muni casts.” His wife, Lois, joined the Mob several years later, and they are one of nine couples in this year’s show.
Bonnie Ryder has been dancing in Mob shows with husband, Cliff, for 12 years, most of it as a tap dancer. She was one of Dorothy Irvine’s students, and says, “I enjoy dancing. It’s fun, and the steps always come easily to me.” As with previous Mob shows, there are numbers with tap, ballroom and line dancers.
Some Mob regulars also belong to “Mob on the Road,” a troupe of singers who perform year-round at seemingly any venue that will have them. Three of their regular stops are at the Illinois State Fairgrounds – the State Fair itself, the annual Festival of Trees, held every November, and the Senior Celebration in May.
Most of the Mobsters are strictly amateurs, but there are a few with professional experience on their resumes. The leader in that category would have to be Herb DeFreese, who spent well over 20 years on the road, often six nights a week. “Bonnie (his wife) spent the first seven years with me, playing keyboard for about a year, then became a dancer.” In all those years of one-nighters, the DeFreeses played on the same show with everyone from Count Basie and the Ink Spots to Tommy James, Del Shannon and the Lettermen. He had his own radio show on WSDR in Sterling, Ill., for about a year, and has opened many events with his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” including two Chicago Cubs games. Herb and Bonnie are both in this year’s show, he doing “Beep Beep,” the story of a Cadillac vs. a Volkswagen Beetle and “Georgia on My Mind” and she (along with Herb, Maria Ferraro, Michele McHugh and Kay Adams) crooning to the Mamas and the Papas favorite “California Dreamin.’”
Loretta Hess, another Mob veteran, has a list of professional gigs to her credit as well. One of her first was while she was still in college: “We were in a group sponsored by the Riverside Church (a prominent New York church) doing Every Man in churches around Manhattan. I played the Angel of Death, and did a dance kind of like a snake.” It was while attending college at the University of Connecticut that she met her husband, Jonathan, an English professor at the time. He’s also joined the Mob and they are singing a Barry Manilow duet. Hess has played some famous women from history, such as Jane Addams at Chicago’s Hull House, and Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea at local schools. Her theatrical resumé includes commercials and a long list of credits with the Springfield Theatre Centre and the Muni.
Frank Wilhite and good friend Vickie Power have been with the Mob for a number of years. Their first show was also 2007’s Remembering the Harvest Moon Ball, a recreation of an old-time dance. It was that show that provided what is surely their most memorable Mob moment based on a true story. Frank says, “Vickie got into it first, and then talked me into it...We first met at a ball when we were both 13, then eventually got married to other people, and later divorced. We met again years later and got back together.” That’s the story that was related in Harvest Moon Ball, concluding with them dancing to “Autumn Leaves.”
The qualifying age for the Mob has been lowered a couple of times from the original minimum of 60, most recently, in 2003, to 50. My co-director and I are the youngest Mobsters, in our mid-to-late 50s, with the oldest ones in their 80s. A few use a walker or a cane, and one is currently on dialysis but he plans to take part in this year’s show. They’re obviously not letting the inevitable problems of aging stop them, or even slow them down much.
Randy Roller, who with Charley Cross co-directed the 2010 and 2011 shows, is a physician with more than 30 years of experience. He told Illinois Times in 2010 that his older patients do best when they remain “actively engaged in living,” citing the Mature Mob as an example: “People who do what they enjoy are happier, and that helps them tolerate their medical problems.”
Roller said a love of performing draws most participants to the group, all the more important given that they’re at an age where it’s often hard to land roles with mainstream theater groups: “They do this because they like to laugh. A big part of this is doing something good for senior citizens. The overall message is that you’re never too old to do something important and good for the community. What you do really does make a difference.” They’ve definitely made a difference for Senior Services of Central Illinois. In 21 years they’ve raised more than $260,000.
A former Mobster who remains a fan of the group, Suzanne Wainwright, took part in several Mob shows, including last year’s Melodies from A to Z. After attending three shows, she said to a friend, “I want to do this!” As soon as she was old enough, she did. Wainwright has fond memories of the shows she was in: “My favorite performances were the ones where I got to interact with other cast members.” In 2009’s Give My Regards to Vaudeville, she and Wilhite played a bickering husband and wife arguing over their car’s GPS unit. She sang “Why Can’t You Behave?” to Wilhite.
Her most memorable number may have been the saddest in recent Mob history. In 2010’s Seasons of Life, she played a young widow mourning her lost soldier husband, and sang the Shirelles classic “Soldier Boy,” in an arrangement that sounded closer to a dirge. But, as Wainwright recalls, “I really didn’t relish the idea that it was my job to bring the audience to tears.” She may have been able to keep from crying, but almost no one else present was, including me. Though she’s not taking part in this year’s show, Wainwright says she’ll be in the audience.
The Mob has played at a number of venues over the years. This year will be the second at the Sacred Heart-Griffin School auditorium, which also includes the help of several SH-G students who satisfy their school’s public service requirements by assisting in the show’s production. Last year, students worked backstage and ushered. Several are returning to help in this year’s show.
In recent years, there has been a trend towards more recent music in the Mob revues, while not forsaking the old tunes. In 2007’s Harvest Moon Ball, some of the oldies were truly old: “After the Ball” dates back to the 1890s; “K-K-Katy” to World War I. By contrast, about half of the tunes in Road Show USA are from the 1960s or later. Sue Dorsey says it’s a conscious decision: “If you think about it, the Rolling Stones are in their 70s, so why not bring in some of this more current music (60s, 70s, 80s) to our shows?”
That trend may have started as early as three years ago. The score for Seasons of Life included songs from two recent Broadway musicals: “Seasons of Love” from Rent; and “Dancing Through Life” from Wicked.
At least 10 Mobsters have been with the show for more than a decade. What keeps them coming back? Several are quick to cite the contributions made to the Senior Center. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Frank Wilhite, “and it raises money for the Senior Center.”
There’s also the opportunity it provides to an often overlooked age group to demonstrate their talents. This year’s musical director, Jeanne Welch, believes the Mob “presents an opportunity for many of our mature community friends who sometimes think they’re beyond acting, singing or dancing in community theater to find a comfortable place for their seasoned voices and other talents.” She applauds “the high level of dedication with this group as indicated by the continuous level of attendance for the audition and rehearsals.” The cast has been in rehearsals at least two nights a week for the past three months.
And then there is the camaraderie. Loretta Hess says, “People wouldn’t think this to know me, but I’m kind of shy personally. But the Mob has always made me feel welcome, that I had friends. It means so much on a personal level.” Suzanne Wainwright eagerly seconds that thought: “I have enjoyed being a part of such a group of talented and generous individuals, and I’m grateful for the lessons learned from so many of them. I’m proud to have been a part of their company.”
I concur. Doing a production such as this is a good way to meet a lot of people in a short time. I’ve made many friends that I would not have met otherwise, and have had a lot of fun. And yes, there’s the chance to perform, something this ham rarely passes up. Once you’re bitten by that bug, an audience is the only cure.
In his Illinois Times article three years ago, Zach Baliva described the Mature Mob as “a little more ‘hip’ than average senior citizens.” I like to think that’s true.
Will Burpee is a Springfield freelance writer and occasional actor/singer. This year’s Mature Mob show is his seventh.