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The Baltimore Sun

Age is just a musical number for Bykota on Stage troupe

Walt Graham makes it clear:

The Bykota on Stage performers "still have a lot of snap left in their garters."

Yes, they are old, said 77-year-old Graham, the troupe's general manager.

"Our bodies are giving up, but we try to camouflage it," he said. "We're lively in spirit."

The 29 singers present musical programs for seniors in centers, clubs, veteran's groups, nursing homes and retirement communities.

They are not directly affiliated with the Bykota Senior Center in Towson, but that's where they gather and rehearse — hence their name.

They are all giving Social Security a run for its money.

"The median age is 78," Graham said of the group. "Three … are 85 or older, and there are just a few in their late 60s. We call them 'the babies.' But we laugh a lot and do the best we can to put on a good show."

Singer Dot Trabing, an 82-year-old Towson resident who does the scheduling, is accustomed to the accolades. After a performance for the Bou/Tem/Sci Club at Columbus Gardens, in Nottingham, Betsie Johnson sent the Bykota group a thank you note.

"It was a delightful show and excellent entertainment," she wrote. "Your excitement, enthusiasm and talents are wonderful."

Speaking on behalf of the Towson chapter of the Eastern Star, after a luncheon performance at Pappas' restaurant, Susan Hennighassen said, "We all enjoyed them. They were vibrant, joyful and happy."

They get invited back continuously, Graham said. In many cases they are booked a year in advance.

The suggested donation for their appearance is $175.

"That keeps us afloat," he said. "It pays for rehearsal space and covers other expenses. We are completely self-sustaining."

However, they didn't accept a donation when they played recently for veterans in the VA hospital on Loch Raven Boulevard.

Senior moments

The performers hail from different areas — Towson, Lutherville, Baldwin, Perry Hall, Ellicott City, Parkville and Baltimore City, to name a few.

Graham, a retired electrician, has been singing with the group for 10 years, has lived in Elkton since he and partner Walt Osborne retired years ago and sold their individual houses in the city to move to the country.

"It's just an hour away," he said.

A sampling reveals diverse backgrounds — Leo Ader co-founded the group about 12 years ago with Pat McArt. He's a BGE retiree. She's a retired Johns Hopkins Hospital bio-chemist. Another woman used to work at Social Security. There is also is a retired nurse and a retired accountant.

"We all have memory problems," Graham said. "We have trouble remembering if we had lunch, so we have to rehearse a lot."

Most of them have been singing in choruses all their lives, he said. In his case, he studied voice for 10 years and had been a professional singer.

"But we don't turn anybody down, no matter how badly they sing," he said.

"We've had some real clunkers. One lady had a great low voice, but squeaked on the high notes, so we gave her a back-up group so she didn't sound like a finger scratching on a blackboard."

There's no denying the age is a factor. Ader now performs in a wheelchair, Graham said.

"And (the players) have had all kinds of additional parts added to their bodies: knee replacements, hip replacements, and one lady got a new lung. The rehearsal is like an organ recital," he said.

"I tell them, 'Don't tell me your back hurts; you're just advanced teenagers. You're 19.' "

If members of the troupe aren't taking care of medical problems, they're often taking care of the grandkids, he said. Needless to say, they try to double-cast every role.

They keep singing because they love to sing. None of them, including their general manager, gets paid, except for the accompanist.Right now Osborne is the accompanist and musical director.

"Accompanists are hard to come by," Graham said. "One became ill and another kept dropping the music and didn't know where she was.

"We need an accompanist who can cover when something goes wrong. You know, with us, somebody could have a heart attack, and he would have to play with one hand and do CPR with the other."

Oldies but goodies

They tour three major productions a year, and present 12 to 15 performances. Each performance is 48 minutes long.

Or, "50 minutes if they clap a lot," Graham said.

Members of the group write the shows. The plots are more themes than plots, excuses to string together favorite old songs.

"We try to keep the plots simple," Trabling said. "Our audiences aren't that interested in the dialogue. They want the songs they are familiar with, so they can sing along."

Their current show is "Toy Shop." On Dec. 9, the troupe performed it at the Cockeysville Senior Center. On Monday, Dec. 19, they will be at the Bykota center, performing in a double-header with a staff talent show.

Before "Toy Shop," the show was "Around the World in a Starry Gaze," in which the main characters, Dumb and Dumber, are in a balloon touring European countries.

Graham and Osborne are writing the next show, which is about a former Ziegfeld Follies girl trying to put together a 50-year reunion.

The Follies stars have to come from far and wide "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," the "Chattanooga Choo Choo" "and the trolley from "The Trolley Song" that will forever be associated with Judy Garland.

"We talk it out, just the two of us, " Graham said. "We don't have a committee. It's hard enough for the two of us to agree. We don't want to be like Congress."

Sew entertaining

Graham was elected general manager in June.

"I'm the head squeeze — it's a dubious honor," he said. "I sort of floated to the top. It took 10 years. I float slowly."

"And I have a big enough mouth," he said. "People felt I should run the organization."

It wasn't always that way. "In school in Cecil County I was the kid who was picked on all the time. I was little and I had double vision. I was too skinny for football, too short for basketball and I usually caught the ball with my forehead because of my vision."

He was 12 when he put on roller skates for the first time. "I found it was something I could do. I fell in love with it."

By the time he was 16 he had won regional and national titles. He went on to coaching, owning a rink and producing shows, many with casts of more than 250.

He said skating, along with a stint in the military, honed his leadership skills … and his sewing skills. For the Bykota on Stage troupe, he gets involved in everything, including creating the costumes.

"I love sewing," he said. His mother was conscripted labor when he needed roller skating costumes. When she ran out of time for one show, she taught him how to sew a seam. He took it from there.

Bykota on Stage requires a lot of time and effort for all of the players, he said. But they love it.

"The best part is the fun we have when we go someplace to perform, like the VA, and not just with each other.

"Those vets were sitting there like the weight of the earth was on their shoulders, and to watch their expressions change and see them smile and sing along with us, you knew you were touching their hearts.

"If we can make their declining years just a little bit happier, it's all worthwhile."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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