Showtime at Charlestown: Retirees create their own TV programming

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Moving to Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville typically marks retirement. But for some residents, it has meant the start of a TV mini-career.

Le Roy Baum hosts a show about residents and their pets. Eugenia High does a video travelogue of her trips around the world, and Dawn and John Strumsky peer into the lives of Charlestown residents, staff and notables throughout history on the retirement community's 24-hour TV station, Channel 972.


These senior citizens can experiment with a full studio of editing equipment and software, HD digital broadcast cameras, green screens to transport hosts into professional offices or exotic destinations on camera, and a drone — used for aerial shots of campus events, like memorial services and sporting events.

"Speaking for myself, it helps keep your mind agile as you get older," said retired doctor and former University of Maryland Medical Center CEO Stephen Schimpff, 75. He hosts "Megatrends in Medicine," a 20-minute interview program on health and well-being, and "Aging Gracefully," which presents five-minute health tips. "We need something to keep our mind active and to keep using it in challenging ways."


Charlestown founder John C. Erickson launched the closed-circuit station shortly after the community was opened in 1983, hoping to create a platform that would inform and engage residents, according to community TV manager Tom Moore, 48. But the plan has evolved.

Now the channel broadcasts daily announcements (birthdays, meals of the day and special events), pressing campus news and original programming to Charlestown's 2,100-plus residents with the help of more than a dozen people, said Moore, who has worked at the station for 17 years.

Late last year, the station informed residents about a case of Legionnaires' disease, a potentially deadly illness typically spread through water, that occurred on campus. Community executive director Clara Parker appeared on air to discuss the incident: Legionnaires' bacteria were detected in the water of two buildings, and residents were advised to avoid drinking the tap water and to take baths instead of showers. The affected resident recovered, and the community is no longer on alert, said public affairs manager Mel Tansill.

Among the 19 Erickson Living communities around the country, the Catonsville campus was the first to have its own channel and now serves as "the prototype for the Erickson network," according to Tansill.

About 80 percent of viewers watch the channel at least three times a week, making it an integral part of campus communication, Moore said. The volunteers work with three full-time staff members to create the original programming — easily the most anticipated part of the daily broadcast, said Moore, who manages and supervises residents, teaching them new skills.

"The residents that work with me do anything from working behind the camera to working in front of the camera to shooting to editing and producing shows — whatever it is that they want to do," said Moore, who, along with his two staff members, oversees the filming of broadcasts, assists with recording and editing content, and schedules shows to run throughout the week.

"Our passion is to also be teachers to the residents and to get them involved in something else that they've probably never done in their life before. It gives them the opportunity to experience something, to become a part of the community," he said.

Dawn, 70, and John Strumsky, 76, embarked on their TV career more than five years ago, soon after they moved to Charlestown.


"We started meeting all these people. At dinner, they'd be telling their stories … and so one night, John and I said, 'Wow, so many people have interesting backgrounds. People need to know about them,'" Dawn said.

They host the show "Our Charlestown Neighbors," which has aired more than 100 hourlong episodes about the retirement community's staff and residents. The show has featured interviews with founder Erickson, D-Day veterans and a Charlestown security guard who found $30,000 and returned it to its rightful owner.

John Strumsky, a former Marine with a penchant for writing and history, has also aired more than 140 45-minute episodes of "Looking Back: Eyewitnesses to History," which explores the lives of historical figures as notable as Theodore Roosevelt and as unseemly as Americans who spied against the United States. It's a labor of love that takes at least 20 hours of researching and script writing a week before producers film and edit the show, he said.

Dawn Strumsky, who previously worked in special events for the governor's office — a more structured job — tends to host her shows on a whim.

"John likes to research," said Dawn, with a knowing glance.

"I found — which I've never been until we moved here — that I'm spontaneous. ... I don't have a script per se. I just go and do it," said Dawn, who was previously Charlestown's "Wacky Weekend Weather Woman," an on-air personality who delivered the forecast in elaborate costumes and from various locations — thanks to the green screen. She surfed in the ocean, soared over the Charlestown campus like Mary Poppins and ran at Pimlico Race Course during the Preakness. In reality, she's been pied in the face and had audience members throw rotten fruit at her for laughs.


"People here love it. They wonder what she's going to do next," said John. Dawn has taken a much-needed break from the character, she said. She might revive it this year.

"I stopped it thinking nobody would miss it, but people laugh … especially over in the continuing care. There's a memory group over there, and when I walk through and I happen to be on TV with my stupid wig and my makeup or whatever, I see they might not understand, but I see that they're laughing, and I thought, well, maybe I should continue to do stupid stuff," she said.

Until then, she continues hosting "Through the Keyhole," a monthly 30-minute look inside residents' apartments.

"Since I'm nosy — uh, curious," she corrects herself jokingly, "I like to see how people decorate."

High, a former social worker who has journeyed to all seven continents, has a program that takes viewers on her travels, presenting rich scenery, major landmarks and people — typically focused on diverse tourists and people of color, one of her particular interests as an African-American woman.

She also fills in as a host for other programs as needed. On a recent Monday, High was transported from a simple table in front of a green screen to a professional news desk on camera, where she read the news.


High depends on Channel 972 for her news and entertainment, she said. She watches out for the Strumskys' programs and announcements of the day. She tries to adhere to the daily 9 a.m. fitness segment run by Moore's wife, Sylvia, and she even watches the sister station, Channel 971, which broadcasts church services live.

Baum, 78, who has been a minister, artist, and interior designer, hosts "Paws for Celebration: Celebrating our Pets at Charlestown," which features interviews with residents and their pets: cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, even lizards. He's produced over a dozen episodes within the past few months, often finding his subjects by simply walking around with his energetic dog, Shadow. The show has become a resident favorite, according to Tansill.

But for Baum, it's more than mingling with pets and being in the spotlight. The TV studio has created a family, he said.

"I sort of have to come in here every day just to see the guys, to see what's going on, come and help with something, because you'll never know if [Moore] says" he needs help, Baum said.

"I like to be involved."

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Not all viewers or those working in the studio are senior citizens.


The newest full-time staff member, community television coordinator Michael Woodard Jr., 27, has been working at Charlestown for about two years, an experience that gives him a range of tasks and rewarding interactions with variety of residents, which never dulls, he said.

"It's an adjustment a little bit, because they're not all technical like we are, and that's kind of to be expected, but it's also fun to work with them because they bring different outlooks to things and some of them have a great sense of humor. … It makes every day pretty unique," Woodard said.

JohnStrumskysaid the TV channelhelped changed his mind about the center, allowing him and his wife to highlight some of the staff and residents they've met during their time within the community.

"It's a wonderful place to live. I didn't want to come here, and nowI'msaying that,"he said.