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North Hills Monthly

Vintage Radio Players Provide Old-time Entertainment for Seniors

Dec 30, 2015 10:52AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Janice Ortenberg and Paul Porta

Jeanne Miller reading from a script.
For today’s generation, it’s hard to imagine a time when there wasn’t 24-hour entertainment available, streamed directly to your computer or TV, on demand whenever you want it. But back in the 1930s and ‘40s, most homes didn’t even have a television, and instead relied on the radio to provide a place for the family to gather at night to hear their favorite comedies.

While those days are long past, there are still many seniors who remember that time fondly, including shows such as Fibber McGee and Molly, My Friend Irma, The Life of Riley, and The Burns and Allen Show. And thanks to the Vintage Radio Players, a group made up of roughly a dozen seniors who perform these radio shows live at AARP meetings, nursing homes, retirement communities and in various churches, audiences can relive these experiences once again.

“It’s really a lovely way to interact with other seniors—they don’t know what to expect at first, but once we start talking, they realize that they know all of the characters,” explained Jeanne Miller, the group’s director. “They’ll start telling stories about what they were doing back when they were young, and sharing their family memories with us. It’s really fun, and everyone leaves in a good mood.”

The Vintage Radio Players, which started as part of the Oasis program for older adults, is now an independently run, volunteer organization. The group meets twice a month to rehearse, and they perform at various venues around town for a donation to the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Pittsburgh, where they practice. “Everyone is very nice, very cordial,” said Thelma Glaze, who has been a member for the past five years. “It’s fun, but we also take our duties seriously and try to be as authentic as we can in presenting the shows. We try to act it out as we remember hearing it when we listened to it on the radio.”

The Vintage Radio Players reenact the programs by reading directly from the original scripts, which they’ve gathered from the Internet, and include commercials, sound effects and music. Longer shows also include a trivia segment that encourages audience interaction.

“That’s really special because it’s so interactive; people like it because they know that someone is really listening to them and responding to what they have to say,” said Miller. “Someone is giving them individualized attention—someone who is on their same wavelength, because we’re all old.”

During a recent rehearsal, the group acted out “The Tax Refund,” a 1946 script from The Bickersons, and “Income Tax Problems,” a skit from The Burns and Allen Show that was originally broadcast in 1950. Music and sound effects were provided by Janice Ortenberg and Paul Porta, with Barbara and Donald Killmeyer, George Stowell, and first-time visitor Carlton Campbell playing various parts along with Ortenberg, Porta and Miller. Other members of the group include Glaze, Jerry and Honey Sapir, Ruth McKee, Carol Wagner, Mary Planiczki and Deana Sherline.

“A lot of times, we’ll try to find scripts that are relevant to the time that we’re performing them,” said Glaze of shows focusing on holidays, or in this case, income tax time for March performances at St. Joan of Arc Church and at Mt. Lebanon Recreation Center. “What makes it nice is when people get the jokes and laugh, or take part when we ask for audience participation. When they enjoy it, it makes us all happy.”  

The Vintage Radio Players are always open to performing for senior groups around Pittsburgh and can be reached by calling Miller at 412-854-1811. Those interested in joining the cast can also call; usual rehearsal dates are the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 1 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church on 6th Street downtown.