Gilbert David is working on a comeback in show business. This octogenarian wants one more shot at the limelight.
He feels certain some locals might recall him as "Mr. Fitness," a frequent guest on local TV shows 30 or more years ago. His neighbors in Northwest Baltimore still greet him with the stage name used when he chatted it up with Elane Stein and with Oprah Winfrey, when she co-hosted a talk show with Richard Sher on WJZ.
"I know she would give me a reference," he said of the megastar — and produced an undated memo from her.
In case public memory fails, he wears his moniker on his favorite dress shirt. "Gil David Mr. Fitness" is printed on the left side of a pale pink shirt he wore to a performance Thursday at a Pikesville retirement home. But he did not come to work out anything more than his voice and smile.
After years in retirement, at the age of 82, David wants to make one more foray into show business. This time around, he will rely solely on his sonorous voice and the familiar standards he can perform commandingly. He aims to spend his own golden years entertaining, particularly for his peers, with tunes that can spark beautiful memories, he said.
In his 50s, David earned the "Best Natural Physique in America" award from an exercise company. The National Examiner called his "the best body for a man over 50" in a 1983 feature. He remains committed to fitness, exercises regularly at his home in Pimlico and is still willing, upon request, to show off his pecs and abs. He relishes a "guess my age" game and greets everyone with a firm handshake.
"I am really a memory now, but I was big in the news 30 years ago," he said.
David grew up in Northwest Baltimore, attended City College High School and worked in his family paint and wallpaper business for years. But he always preferred the glitzy stage to sales.
The performer once worked the Catskills and Miami club circuits — an opportunity he said he got after being discovered on the beach working as a lifeguard. For years, he emceed at the Chanticleer, once the most popular night spot on North Charles Street. He sang there, too, with a 20-piece orchestra to back him up. Today, he said, he would be content with singing gigs at area community and retirement centers and with a piano man on electronic keyboard for back-up.
"This is the last chance to get my name out, even in the Baltimore area," he said. "I want to sing. I feel happiest, when I sing. I don't just sing a song. I see a song."
And, like many stage veterans, he loves to toot his own horn.
"Once I tell you who I am, you will probably remember me," he said to the audience at North Oaks Retirement Community in Pikesville. But not a soul did.
After several years away from the microphone, David admits he is a little rusty, even unrehearsed. His first performance in about 30 years was in September at a Towson senior center.
At the latest show, he frequently asked his accompanist what was next. If he felt a key was too high, he stopped and began again in a more comfortable range.
"We gotta get our keys together," he said with a shrug. "I have to warm up, too."
He is entirely at ease with his audience, talking with them and singing right to them with an ever-present smile and a slightly crooked, even rakish eyebrow. He would get closer, he said, but "I am limited by the length of the mike cord."
Many in the audience of about a dozen sang along with the lyrics and tapped out the melodies.
"I was not familiar with all the songs, but I enjoyed them," said Reba Sapperstein, who wouldn't give her age but acknowledged she was well over 50. "I like to sing along, too."
David dedicated one song to Mae Stark, 93, who whispered nearly all the lyrics along with him.
"I remember all these songs," she said. "They were from my time. I heard them at all the dances."
David croons the golden oldies familiar to his target audiences, tunes made popular by 20th Century music icons like Sinatra, Crosby and even Al Jolson. He is well versed and confident with a few standards. When he sang "All the Way," he rated himself "better than Sinatra."
He will toss in a few newer tunes, upon request, but eschews rock and roll.
"I have won talent shows as a ballad singer," he said. "But I don't jump up and down with a guitar."
Right now, it is costing him to perform. An hour show pays about $100, but most of that goes to the piano player and travel expenses. He is building up his bookings, though, with several appearances scheduled through the spring. Maybe Mr. Fitness' career makeover will take.
"We all liked him and the whole show," said Mikki Fish, 91. "He has a great male voice and he likes to come right up to people and sing."
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this report.