Applause / Return of Vaudeville in New Canaan
Mrs. Killebrew was in her 90s, wheelchair-bound and living at the New Canaan Inn when she got the moniker “Killer Killebrew” so dubbed by New Canaan High School’s Service League of Boys. “The first year the SLOBS came to the Inn, they decided they would play poker,” explained Barbara Jeffries, the Inn’s director of activities and programs.
“We all figured that would be something special for the men, but no men arrived, just women, including Mrs. Killebrew, who was an unbelievably good poker player and trounced everyone. So the boys affectionately named her ‘Killer Killebrew.’ And the boy who was in charge wrote his college essay on playing poker with the residents at the inn. He got into Notre Dame and I’m convinced he did so because of that essay.”
Days were when nursing and assisted living homes’ activities consisted mainly of bingo, hooking rugs and attending ice cream socials. At the Inn, something enlivening and stimulating happens every day: lectures, book discussions, exercise and memory classes.
Thanks to Jeffries’ inventiveness and creativity, she and the inn have offered something even more unusual annually for the past decade: an original musical revue. Rolling out the carpet for a “come one, come all” welcome, it attracts townspeople as well as residents. “We always have packed houses, even standing room, and we’re televised locally.” said Jeffries in a person-to-person interview.
“An Old-Fashioned Vaudeville Show” will be performed at The Inn, 73 Oenoke Ridge, New Canaan, Tuesday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.
“Every year we pick a theme. Last year it was ‘Songs of the 50s’ with doo-wop singers. We’ve done ‘From Sea to Shining Sea,’ a musical journey across America, ‘The Roaring 20s,’ ‘The Gay 90s.’ Our residents may be older, but they’re still lively, still able to learn and put on a show.”
This year, it’s “An Old-Fashioned Vaudeville Show.” Promised are singers, tap dancers, a magician, a comedian who’ll tell chicken jokes (accompanied by a live chicken), a barbershop quartet, stilt walkers, dogs, even a gorilla.
One of the residents, Fred Stark, is scheduled to sing “Baby Face” and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,” while seven-year-old boy wonder townie, Carey Wang, will play piano. Soprano Allegro Themmin will sing the Doll Song from “The Tales of Hoffman.”
This year’s barbershop quartet was last year’s doo-wop singers whom Jeffries encouraged to, er, change their tune. Accompanied by Justine Macurdy on the piano, the quartet — Mike Allorca, Bob Caird, Fred Haines and Lou Scalfani — will don bowties to belt out favorites. In addition, a local plumber, Gary Sirico, is the magician, Ken Oxman the comedian and local students the tap dancers. June Bird and inn resident Don Harbour are surprise novelty acts and a Great Dane will wear a tutu.
Jeffries, born in Wilmington, Del., was brought up in Fairfield. Married to the late Robert Jeffries in Greenfield Hills’ Congregational Church at the height of a dogwood season, she has three sons: Chris, a composer, lives in Seattle; Andrew lives in Manila, where he works for the Asian Development Bank; Jeff, a sales representative for Marvin Windows, lives in Connecticut.
A French major at Bucknell University, Jeffries received a master’s degree in that language at
Middlebury College. Entering the work force, she was administrative manager in New Canaan High School’s guidance office, then worked for a consulting firm before answering an ad for the New Canaan Inn, an independent living residence under the umbrella of the Waveny Life Care Center.
“I’ve been here for 25 years,” she said. “I think they hired me because I knew so many people in New Canaan, where to call and whom to call. If they were hiring someone now, that person would have to have initials after their names.”
When you tote it up, what she does is amazing. Her singing group, the Inn-Notes, consisting of a dozen or more residents, rehearse every Tuesday. For the revue, they’ll perform familiar tunes like “If You Knew Susie,” “My Gal Sal,” “I Want a Girl” and “Ain’t We Got Fun.”
“We give concerts during the year for schools, nursing homes, senior residencies,” Jeffries said. “Also for what’s called Special Church for Special Needs, young adults with challenges and disabilities. They love our singers; they clap and sing along; they’re so joyous. Last year we taught them how to play the kazoo.”
To keep the residents active — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically — Jeffries invites professors to give lectures, plus luminaries like the first selectman and the director of the Chamber of Commerce to talk about the town. Local retired men discuss current events to keep residents as engaged in the community as possible.
Jeffries, who laughs easily and lustily and whose enthusiasm is contagious, does everything on a shoestring budget. “I’ve been collecting material for 25 years,” she said. “I go to Goodwill, the Party Shop, Happy Daze, the Christmas Tree Shop. I have a closet full of costumes and hats.” For the shows, she also makes signs and props, sends out invitations, writes the scripts, narrates the revues and conducts the choir.
“You get ideas,” she said. “I can do whatever I want, whatever creative idea I can come up with. It’s not rocket science. You just have to love these residents.”
Who Barbara Jeffries is and how she conveys her love is illustrated by one particular guest: “We had an artist named Deirdre Lane who drew childlike, cartoon-like heads of animals — a giraffe, a seahorse, a pig — in brilliant, bold colors. She wrote a bunch of letters to hospitals all over the country, saying she would donate framed prints of her work to cancer wards. There’s a cancer center in Kentucky, in a poor, rural community, where every time a child leaves, they can choose and take home one of her paintings. It’s the last thing they have. Deirdre came to the Inn to show her pictures and tell her story and people were hanging on every word. She actually started to cry, saying she just wanted to give something back.”
“To give something back . . .”
David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.