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Senior Citizensí Theater Group in Oscar-Winning Film

By Michael Steinhart

"This is the only country where a Japanese girl can make a film about Jewish senior citizens on the East Side and win an Oscar."

With those words, NYU film student Keiko Ibi accepted an academy award for her documentary, "The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years."

The film won Best Short Documentary this year, and revolves around the lives of several seniors on the Lower East Side. The group belongs to the Alliance Stage Company, a theater troupe based at the Educational Alliance. The film chronicles their preparations for a play called "The Personals," and includes interview footage of each cast member's reflections on love, dating, health and aging.

The chain of events that culminated in Ms. Ibi's pithy Oscar-acceptance speech began in 1996. Ibi was studying film in NYU, and took an acting class with Seth Glassman, then director of the Alliance theater group. At a party in Glassman's home, Ibi met some of the group members and began visiting their rehearsals at the Edgies. She decided her Master's degree thesis would be a documentary on the group, and began filming in 1997.

Harold Gordon, the only group member with previous acting experience, said Keiko brought a camera to one of their rehearsals, "and we hit it off."

"She is charming and highly intelligent," he said.
"The powers that be thought it was a good idea," said Alan Goodman, executive director of the Educational Alliance. "The rehearsals are the highlights of these seniors' week. They provide social interaction, focus and motivation. It's more than artistic - it enriches us and them."

The drama group is part of the Whittaker Senior Center, and has been active for about seven years. The center provides a range of programs and activities for local seniors. Thousands of senior citizens come to the Edgies for meals, social events, dance classes, exercise, and holiday and cultural events, Goodman said. "Our focus is on keeping people active," he added.

The film takes viewers through the daily routines of group members, and approaches the subject honestly and unflinchingly. The seniors talk about their loneliness, or disabilities, or the problems they face looking for companionship after losing their life partners. The frank dialogue and imagery shock some viewers, but the picture presented is not sugar-coated; it's real.

"People weren't expecting this, but it's part of the education we all need to get," Goodman said.

"It opens a window on the emotional needs of seniors, and how one group copes with them," said Marlene Harding, who joined the group after "The Personals" aired. "It deals with the topic in a frank and diplomatic way."

"This is the way we are," Gordon said. "It's accurate."

"We're on in years," said Harold Krinsky, another member of the company. "We've accomplished a lot of good. We've brought honor to ourselves, the community, and the Educational Alliance. This is what's important - that we're together."

"One student saw the film and said it was very sad to see the loneliness," said Selma Wernick, a group member and prominent figure in the film. "But we're alone. Nobody calls on the phone or rings our doorbells."

"We enjoy it as a hobby," said Abram Calderon, another troupe member. "There are two kinds of retirees. Those who use the time to go back to their studies and find new hobbies, and those who need to participate group activities." Calderon plans to go back to college and audit courses in Science and Mathematics now that he has more time on his hands.

The footage of seniors going about their public and private activities is "a part of living that's not understood by everyone," Gordon said. "The situations aren't specific to us. People think seniors are put out to pasture, and that's not so. We want people to know that."

"We put old people on the map," Wernick declared.

According to Shoshanah Goldberg, director of development, marketing and communications at Edgies, Ibi filmed dozens of hours of footage and her original film ran over 70 minutes. "She mailed it to HBO, and Sheila Nevins, a producer there, gave it a shot." Not coincidentally, Nevins' grandparents are from the Lower East Side, and she attended an Educational Alliance camp as a youngster. Nevins saw the potential in the film, took it on and arranged for an extensive musical score and more editing. "The goal was to win an academy award," Goldberg said.

And win it did. The subsequent hype quickly catapulted the group into stardom. Newspaper and television reporters from as far away as Japan flocked to the group's rehearsals and meetings. "The New York Times, and the Forward, and the Jewish Week all came to interview them," said Beth Tobachnick, director of the Whittaker Senior Center. "And there was a huge bash at NYU, and another at HBO when it premiered the film."

"No matter where I go, everybody comes to tell me they saw me on TV or in the paper," said Rose Straub, a member of the troupe. "And now they're coming to see our shows - we've gained respect."

The film was shown at the Educational Alliance's annual fundraising banquet, and the group attended as well. It is hoped that the increased exposure of the program will attract new sources of funding, which at present are scarce.

"There are insufficient resources to fund the excellent causes that we deal with," Goodman said. "The budget is a struggle every day."

In the film, viewers see Seth Glassman informing the group members that his job as director was cut, due to the program's financial woes. Indignance and anger punctuate the group's reactions, but the unfortunate reality is inescapable.

"The theater program wasn't singled out." Goodman said. "We are hoping someone will come forward after seeing the film."

In the meantime, Edgies is sharing a director with the Jewish Association of Services for the Aged's (JASA) Roots and Branches theater program. Deborah Nitzberg now directs both stage groups. Their current project is a musical called "Health's -A-Poppin'," a satirical look at a family's experiences with doctors, home remedies, medicine and the health profession. "It played to a packed house several weeks ago," said Helen Frankel, division director of eldercare services at Edgies. "And the seniors love Deborah."

The organization would like to expand its roster of services for the elderly, Frankel said, but "gaps in funding are a problem." Mental-health services for the homebound are needed, she said, and the division would like to open a Social Adult Day Care Program for seniors who suffer from Alzheimer's Disease. The lack of funding "is like shutting the door on them [seniors] and pretending they don't exist," she said. "Our challenge is to find reliable, consistent funding."

Nitzberg took over the group in September. "This is great for their self-image," she said. "Who would think they'd be in a film seen by the general public?"

Their new production has also been very well received, she added. " 'Health's-A-Poppin' is wonderful," Frankel said. "It was written by Ruth Krinsky (a group member) and the show comes from their own experiences. It deals with health issues in a fun and entertaining way."

"What's remarkable is their absolute commitment to the group," Nitzberg said. "They're all here twice a week, and no one misses a rehearsal."

"The reason the group is so amazing and why the film touches people is because these are senior citizens," Tobachnick explained. "Their support system is diminished, so they've created a family. It's a care network - they check up on each other. This isn't [like] sitting around playing bingo.

"The Oscar put focus on it - but the work has been going on for a long while. It's a part of this community."