Kelly Street Cabaret spreads joy to senior homes, memory care centers

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Kelly Street Cabaret audiences often arrive in walkers, wheelchairs and hospital beds, unable to rise for standing ovations, or even muster the strength for a round of applause.

Ask the performers who sing, dance and provide comic banter during the shows at senior homes and memory care centers, and they’ll insist there couldn’t be a better audience around.

“The payback we get, it’s huge. It’s huge,” said Betsy Glincher, who founded the Santa Rosa cabaret in 2000 after approaching her neighbor, classically trained pianist Janet Wentworth, about accompanying a group of local musical theater performers to spread some joy for “forgotten” audiences.

The friends, who live on Kelly Street in Santa Rosa, have been the core of the cabaret ever since. Several performers have rotated in and out over the years as schedules allow, each donating their time so elderly residents of convalescent homes and acute care centers, as well as retirement homes, can enjoy an hour of music and laughter.

Some in the audience may doze, but no one takes it personally. If there’s a connection to the music with the most frail senior for even a few moments, the show is a success.

“Music just brings them alive, it really does,” Glincher said. “It’s magical.”

Shows are designed to bring back happy memories through familiar songs, mostly show tunes and songs from popular musicals of the 1970s, ’60s and earlier, including “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music.” Tunes from the Beatles, Johnny Cash and Peter, Paul and Mary also were featured during a recent performance.

“We pick songs that were popular and that they would know,” Glincher said. “We do upbeat and slower songs, but we don’t do sad songs.”

In addition to Wentworth’s accompaniment, cabaret members play kazoos, guitar, ukulele and tambourine for various numbers. There’s a full vocal range within the group, with singers hitting every note.

The group typically schedules shows two or three times per year in Santa Rosa, often in spring or summer, and during Christmastime or for holidays like Veterans Day. They recently presented five shows for seniors in acute care, memory care and assisted living/independent living facilities.

During a show attended by some 20 residents at Park View Post Acute on Montgomery Drive, performers sang “Getting to Know You,” from the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I.” As Wentworth played the piano, the five singers paused to greet audience members, shake hands, make eye contact and exchange smiles.

“Good morning. So glad you’re here,” said performer Nancy Proctor. “So nice to see you,” added fellow cabaret member Marilyn Carsner.

Acknowledging individual audience members is an important part of each show. The performers, in their 40s to their 60s, know they often are sharing their talents to lift spirits for particularly frail or isolated seniors.

“We know a lot of people here have no family,” said performer Tika Moon. “I had two people who didn’t want to let go of my hand.” There’s no amount of pay, she said, “that could give that to you.”

Glincher said that when the cabaret receives a donation, monies go toward expenses like music stands, props or costumes, or to help fund the fresh carnations that are presented to audience members.

The group doesn’t use fancy props or elaborate costumes. Matching shirts and “light” props can add an element of fun and showcase song themes, Glincher said. For George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway” (which debuted in “Little Johnny Jones” in 1904), performers used golden top hats, feather boas and canes; for Roger Miller’s finger-snapping “King of the Road,” hobo hats, phony mustaches, knapsacks and stogies helped bring the 1964 country hit to life.

With 20 songs — some solos, some duets — there are multiple opportunities to sing along. An 84-year-old woman named Evelyn tapped her foot to the beat of “I Got Rhythm” while quietly singing along to the George and Ira Gershwin jazz standard from the 1930 musical “Girl Crazy.”

“I can see some of you singing along,” said entertainer Andre Andrus. “That’s good. That’s good.” Evelyn, with a plaid blanket draped over her shoulders, sang along to several songs.

Andrus said he and fellow performers are touched by seniors singing along, tapping their hands or feet or gently swaying to the music. “It’s the subtle things,” he said.

Glincher said those small signs “are what’s kept us going all this time. It’s not the applause or accolades. It’s that toe tap.

“You don’t expect the reaction and tender moments we get. What we see is the lady in the wheelchair in front of me who kept smiling,” she said.

For more information, contact Betsy Glincher at betsy@kellystreetcabaret.com.

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