The Show Must Go On

By Charlie Huisking Photography by Lori Sax May 1, 2011


At the end of a rehearsal of The Ghost on the Seventeenth Floor, anxious cast members gather around director Don Wallace.

"That was good, folks, but the pace is dragging," Wallace tells them. "You’re making too much of throwaway lines. You don’t have to hit every line over the head. And don’t concentrate on projecting your voices at the expense of pace."

During a long career as a writer and director, Wallace worked with such stars as Larry Hagman, Tommy Lee Jones and Judith Light. He helped create two long-running television soap operas, All My Children and One Life to Live, and earned four Daytime Emmy nominations in the process.

But directing The Ghost on the Seventeenth Floor, a one-act play Wallace also wrote, poses a special challenge. "My biggest job as director is keeping the energy level up," Wallace says. "After all, most of the cast members are in their 80s or 90s."

The amateur actors, known as the Plymouth Harbor Players, are all residents of the Plymouth Harbor retirement community in Sarasota. For more than 20 years, this annual play has been a tradition at Plymouth Harbor, which, with its high-rise bayfront location and elegant interiors, resembles a luxury hotel.

Its residents keep busy attending on-site art classes, lecture series and musical programs, and some even kayak around nearby mangrove islands. But for many who live and work here, this play is the highlight of the winter season.

Wallace, a gregarious 88-year-old who moved to Plymouth Harbor in 2008, knows that expectations are high. "But that’s great, that inspires us to keep pushing, to make this the best production we can possibly deliver," he says.

But that goal seems elusive during a run-through only five days before the Feb. 23 opening night. Some of the performances are still a bit stiff.

And though rehearsals have been held twice and sometimes three times a week for the past two months, a few cast members are having trouble with their lines. Backstage prompters help jog their memories.

"You’d think we’d have our lines down cold by now, but we are ancient," says Francie Jones, who, at 80, is actually the ingénue in this cast. She plays female lead Louise, an attractive widow who has just moved into a retirement home called Puritan Cove. (As you can see, any resemblance to a certain real retirement complex is strictly intentional.)

Male lead Bobby Broderick, who’ll be 90 in August, seems to have his part down pat. "My wife reads lines with me at night, so that helps a lot," says Broderick, who plays Walt, a Lothario always on the lookout for new and available females. When Walt goes to introduce himself to Louise, he’s shocked to discover she was his girlfriend 50 years ago when they both attended the University of Michigan. That relationship ended badly, so the plot centers on whether they’ll have a second chance at love.

Broderick, soft-spoken and gracious, is a former businessman who doesn’t really look the part of a heart-breaking cad. He’s more Jimmy Stewart than Clark Gable. And he’s modest about getting his first leading role after playing supporting parts in previous productions. He explains that auditions are hardly cutthroat, American Idol-style competitions. "Usually we have to go out and recruit people in the halls, bushwhack them into trying out," he says.

"They like to grab the new people and get them involved right away," agrees Jones, a spirited Illinois native who moved in three years ago. "Doing these plays has been a great way to meet people, and it’s so much fun."

The 10 cast members huddle around Wallace in the 135-seat Plymouth Harbor theater, which is usually the site of movies, recitals and an occasional memorial service. Wallace’s wife, Peggy, the production’s stage manager, rearranges some props on the simple set and chats with the behind-the-scenes volunteers. Then she tells the cast that the cramped backstage area—which is hardly senior-friendly—will be better lit by performance time.

"And we’ve gotten rid of the piano back there, so there’s a wider passageway now," she says. "And just think, folks, at this time next week, it’ll all be over, and we’ll be by the pool."

"Or at the cocktail lounge," quips Jones.

While a few in the cast did some acting in high school and college, most never set foot on stage before coming to Plymouth Harbor. They were too busy excelling in other fields.

One performer, Marlow Cook, is a former U.S. Senator from Kentucky. Another, George Heitler, helped design the Medicare program in the 1960s when he was senior counsel for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Jeanne Nunn was a labor lawyer. Retired businessman Jack Denison traveled the world working for the International Executive Service Corps, a nonprofit organization founded by David Rockefeller that assists companies located in developing countries. Ed Toner is a retired Catholic priest.

"That’s one of the pleasures of doing this show, getting to know these terrific people, who have such interesting backgrounds," says the chipper Wallace, who has the avuncular look of a friendly neighbor in a TV sitcom.

His part-time actors definitely aren’t shy about voicing their opinions. "The people at Plymouth Harbor have one thing in common with the professional actors I’ve directed: After a couple of rehearsals, they begin to suggest changes," Wallace says, smiling. "And certainly some of their suggestions have been very constructive."

The actors clearly respect and admire Wallace.

"His background is so impressive," says Jones. "He’s a great director, low-key and tactful. In fact, sometimes he’s so tactful you don’t realize at first that the suggestion he’s making is directed at you. But suddenly, the light bulb

goes off."

Wallace got his start in show business after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He went to work for a New York ad agency that produced soap operas on radio and television for Procter and Gamble and General Foods. He was the first director on The Edge of Night, and subsequently formed a production company with Agnes Nixon that created All My Children and One Life to Live.

He’s proud that those two soaps, which are still on the air, revolutionized the genre. "Agnes really deserves the credit for this, but we tried to deal with contemporary problems," Wallace says. "It wasn’t just Jane and Judy talking over the coffee cups. We dealt with drug abuse and racial issues and mixed marriages, which was a big deal at the time. We tried to do it in constructive and nonhysterical ways."

Wallace, a Michigan native, and his wife settled into Plymouth Harbor after selling their Siesta Key home. When word of his background spread among the residents, he was immediately approached about keeping Plymouth Harbor’s theatrical tradition alive.

For 18 years, resident Howard Buermann, who had a background writing radio serials, had penned a series of plays that poked gentle fun at life at Plymouth Harbor and at the foibles of its residents. When Buermann, who died in 2007, was not able to continue writing, two other residents, Jack Denison and Naomi Wittenberg, stepped in to direct some of his previously performed works.

"When Don Wallace moved in, we induced him to take over, because he clearly had the experience to do a great job," says Wittenberg, a no-nonsense woman who is the producer of The Ghost on the Seventeenth Floor. ("That means I’m the gopher: I help find the actors, arrange for the DVDs of the production, things like that," she says).

The play is Wallace’s second at Plymouth Harbor, following the similarly titled 2010 production, The Dog on the Seventeenth Floor. ("I guess I’m stuck on the 17th floor," Wallace says.)

While Buermann was adept at filling his plays with clever one-liners, Wallace says he doesn’t try to write jokes. "The humor in my plays comes more out of the situations and the characters," he says. But like Buermann, he slips in commentary about Plymouth Harbor life. One character, for example, tells another that she shouldn’t accept as fact everything that’s written in the brief resident bios that are on file in the library. "Some of them read like job resumes," she says.

In the past, the Plymouth Harbor productions were more like staged readings, with the actors holding scripts as they paced about the set. But Wallace insists that his cast members memorize their lines, so the show will have a more professional flavor. To enhance the acoustics, the actors also wear microphone headsets, just like the stars of Broadway musicals do.

When the cast reassembles for a rehearsal two days before opening night, a few performers are still up on their lines. "I have no trouble remembering them in my apartment," says Jeanne Nunn, who plays a friendly longtime resident. "But then I get down here and they run out of my head."

The 90-year-old Nunn, who with her freshly coiffed white hair and smart pantsuit could pass for a former fashion model, has lots of experience speaking in public. When she was handling workers’ compensation cases as a labor lawyer, she was in court three times a week. "But making an argument in court, when you know what you’re talking about, is a lot different than this," she says, laughing.

Marlow Cook and George Heitler don’t have to worry about memorization. They are alternating in the role of the friendly ghost, who is heard but not seen. They lend their voices to the character from backstage.

The 84-year-old Cook, who says he was reluctant to move to Plymouth Harbor "because I thought it was a place for old people," is now its most ardent booster. "This place gives you such enthusiasm for life," he says. "You can’t be around here very long before you get involved in something or another, like this play. You become a volunteer, you get put on a committee. It’s just terrific.’’

Even a blood clot a few weeks earlier didn’t cause Cook to drop out. "They were counting on me, so I wanted to keep my commitment," he says. "But I don’t think they are expecting Sarah Bernhardt."

With his courtly manner, his white, neatly trimmed hair and his freshly pressed long-sleeved polo shirt, Cook looks like the central casting version of the senator he was. He has a rich, resonant voice, which served him well when he debated colleagues like Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater.

But in rehearsal, Wallace tells Cook to tone it down a bit. "Senator, don’t make the ghost stentorian and ponderous," Wallace says. "He really needs to be as casual as the folks out here on stage."

The 95-year-old Heitler also has a deep, booming voice that benefited him not only in his law practice, but as a barbershop singer and as an amateur actor in Connecticut and at the Players of Sarasota. ("I was the oldest knight of the round table in Camelot.") He arrives at rehearsal wearing shorts and a windbreaker, as he’ll soon be heading to Longboat Key for one of his three-times-a-week tennis matches.

As the rehearsal concludes, Broderick and Jones are trying to figure out why their microphones buzzed during their romantic scene. "Maybe it’s our hearing aids," Broderick says, smiling. "Or else, it’s the sparks flying between us."

Wallace tries to calm everybody’s nerves. "We’re really doing fine, folks," he says. "We’re way ahead of where we were last year. Then, we had to schedule a second dress rehearsal, but we don’t have to do that this year."

"If we’re ahead of last year, I’d hate to see last year," whispers one cast member who is clearly still worried.

But Wallace was right—there was no need to fret.

On opening night, the performance goes off almost without a hitch. The theater is full a half-hour ahead before curtain time, and the audience responds with cheers and sustained applause. The action switches smoothly between the two locations on the set, Louise’s apartment and the Puritan Cove café. The prompters only have to prod the actors a couple of times. Jones and Nunn are particularly strong, as is Anne Moore, who plays a snoop known as "a fount of misinformation."

Broderick gets big laughs and cheers when he lends his fine tenor voice to a Michigan song that Wallace, a Michigan grad, couldn’t help including in the script: "Don’t send my boy to Harvard/The loving mother said/Don’t send my boy to Illinois/I’d rather see him dead/Please send my boy to Michigan/I know he’ll do quite well/and rather than Ohio State/I’d see my boy in hell!"

Audience members gasp when the evening’s big surprise is revealed: For the first time ever, a Plymouth Harbor staff member is in the cast, and it’s none other than CEO Harry Hobson. He plays Puritan Cove CEO Barry Dobson, who is there "to protect the reputation" of the facility.

Hobson, looking dapper in a dark suit he wears in his real-life role, delivers his lines with wit and assurance. But he says it wasn’t a given that he’d get the part.

"When Don Wallace asked me to consider being in it, I said, ‘Sure,’ and figured I had it in the bag," Hobson says. "But then I found out he was only asking me to audition. After the audition, he said they’d be in touch! But whew, I got it."

Hobson thinks the cast members get a real kick out of assuming new identities, "which gives them a license to say and do things they would not dream of doing offstage.

"At the end of the day, it’s all about having fun and fellowship," Hobson says. "What I enjoyed most was being able to interact with our residents shoulder-to-shoulder and gain further insight into what’s important to them."

At the Feb. 24 matinee, the buzz surrounding the production is even greater than it was opening night. All the seats are full again, and a line of walkers, some festooned with artificial flowers and bright bows, extends down the hallway outside the theater. "This is usually the most responsive audience, because many staff members are able to come," Wallace says.

There’s a glitch at the beginning, when one actress’s microphone isn’t working. But Wittenberg runs backstage to solve the problem. A bigger gaffe occurs near the end, when one actor fails to hear his cue to knock on Louise’s door.

This leaves Hobson and Denison, who plays the show’s tour director, with time to fill. But they rise to the occasion with funny ad-libs.

"Spring is coming early this year," Hobson says. "I’m hearing crickets."

"For the first time in my life, I’m speechless," Denison responds.

"I’m sure that sometime soon, we’re gonna hear a knock at that door," Hobson says, barely suppressing his laughter.

The audience roars and applauds, and finally the knock comes.

Broderick and Jones are touching and authentic in their penultimate reconciliation scene, which is followed by a one-minute-long wedding ceremony performed by Hobson. Wallace scoots backstage to play the organ for the ceremony, while his wife emerges from behind the curtain to scatter rose petals over the happy couple.

The applause is loud and sustained. One audience member wipes a tear from her eye. Another remarks to a friend how professional and polished this production was. "The best show ever," one woman says. But you can’t please everybody: "It needed more jokes," a man tells his wife as they leave.

Outside the theater, the cast and crew have formed a receiving line, and the residents wait patiently for their turn to congratulate them. Somebody asks Wallace if he’s thought about next year’s play yet. "Oh, give me a few months to relax," he says.

The cast members are beaming like Oscar winners working the red carpet. And just like those stars, they have plenty of post-show parties to choose from. There’s a wine-and-cheese reception in one resident’s apartment, and a cast-and-crew bash a couple of nights later in the private dining room.

Their happy faces and exuberant conversation make it clear that the joy of creative accomplishment does not diminish with age or depend upon fame and rewards. And the humor and determination these folks display as they face the challenges of growing older are impressive. They may be moving forward slowly and carefully, but there’s a defiant spring in their steps.

Denison asks when this story about the production will appear. When he’s told it won’t be published until May, he nods his head.

"That’s OK," he says. "I plan to still be alive in May."

Charlie Huisking, who reports on Sarasota’s cultural life in features, his Arts Capital column and Arts & Travel blog, won a first place for Best Arts Reporting from the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists. He wrote "Webb Master" in the November 2010 Season Preview issue.


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