“We’re only as young as we allow ourselves to feel,” says 77-year-old Joan Colee before her group of performers takes the stage for a 90-minute show in late 2011. It’s a philosophy that pervades the group, whose members certainly look youthful as they perform, despite that many of them are pushing 80.
Who are they? They’re the Oklahoma Seniors’ Cabaret, a charitable group of singers, dancers and craftspeople from Oklahoma City. Anyone can try out, so long as they’ve got the talent to keep up, and they’re over 55.
The group’s evolution has been swift, accelerated by interest from people who – to paraphrase Gary Parks, a performer with the group – would otherwise have nothing better to do. Beginning in 2008 with three members and $150, by 2009 the Oklahoma Seniors’ Cabaret was staging its first performances with a roster of 20. Now the group stands with a membership hovering around 35. As their membership has grown, so have profits.
“We were bombarded with people,” says Colee, of the group’s beginnings. “It was not at all hard to start. People were jumping at the chance.”
After the group finishes writing its show for the year in March or April, it will begin weekly rehearsals to prepare for their next performances, the proceeds of which are always donated to charity.
“The first year, we raised $3,000 over expenses,” says Colee. “The next year, we doubled that to $6,000.” The earnings went to groups like St. Anthony’s Guardian Angel program, the Edmond Senior Center and the Messiah Lutheran Church, where the group holds auditions and practices. In 2011, it again doubled earnings to $12,000, which went to Meals on Wheels.
“This year, I’m hoping for $20,000,” Colee says.
The shows are colored by eclectic performances and include acts like a man ripping his shirt off in a fit of despair, a turquoise-colored line dance to a Scissor Sisters tune and a bow-tied cowboy cheerfully struggling with his two mistresses.
Gary Parks, a 60-year-old Sinatra-styled crooner who opened the group’s last show, says that in a simple sense the Cabaret is about “senior people getting together and having a good time.” Parks is a born performer, but skills on stage aren’t all that’s necessary for the show. The group also has several members who work entirely behind the scenes as costumers, for instance.
The amateur nature of the group shows, but in many ways it’s a part of the appeal – after all, the group’s founding board specifically avoids recruiting people who would call themselves professionals. The endeavor is clearly more about people having fun on stage, and the fun is infectious and charming, no matter what age you are.
“These people sang or danced in high school or college and then put their talent on the shelf,” says Colee. “These are all people in their 60s and 70s, and we put on ‘Thriller’ as the closer to the first act of our last show. And it was wonderful. They worked so hard, and these were people who didn’t even ballroom dance! So it took a long time, and for them to even attempt it, it was glorious.
“This organization gives those people a chance to bring that talent off the shelf and add spice to their life, lose weight, have fun, and probably make lifelong friends.”