Senior Citizens Can Kazoo . . . Can You?

Times Staff Writer

Its musicians, according to kazoo authority Barbara Stewart, even have a fan club. The president is known as Kazooperman.

Furthermore, she said by phone from Rochester, N.Y., such is the popularity of the instrument that it has given rise to such variations as "The Student Blintz" and "Rhapsody in Kazoo."

And since the venerable kazoo is something of a senior citizen among instruments, who better to play it than senior citizens themselves?

"Your faces are all scrunched up," Sylvia LaPlace told the eight oldsters seated before her in a semicircle. "Look happy. No visit to any doctor could accomplish what this is doing for you."

The advice having been given, she began conducting her orchestra with vigorous waves of her right hand. Toscanini reincarnated. Except that this maestra had a cigar-shaped device protruding from her lips. The occasion was a class in the fine art of kazoo playing, given free every week at the Freda Mohr Multiservice Center for Seniors, 330 N. Fairfax Ave.

During a rendition of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," one of the eight students, Julia Frishman, dispensed bubbles into the activity room through a soap-filled wand. While leading in the playing of "Grand Old Flag," LaPlace swung an American flag back and forth.

Before the class had begun, LaPlace, herself a senior citizen, was reminiscing. "My dad made violins. When I was as young as 3, and they didn't know where to find me, they would look in his workshop. I could usually be found trying to play one of the unfinished violins."

Years later, as an adult browsing in a Riverside novelty store, she came away with an odd little instrument known as a kazoo. It became her musicaltension reliever during her years as an elementary school teacher, and it is the one she still uses, still teaching, this time in front of students with silver coloring their hair rather than their braces.

She was trying to get her fellow seniors to segue on their kazoos from "Give My Regards to Broadway" to "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" in preparation for a Purim performance at the Jewish Federation Council.

"You don't blow, you hum," she explained. And if the sound from her kazoo was a bit more pleasant, she has a secret: "I put a double sheet of Saran Wrap over the sound hole."

Some people just don't give a toot anymore. But not everyone. In this group, even former opera singer and first-timer Ed Edelman (not the supervisor), was giving it a hearty try. Tapping a foot was a spectator, Besie Adel, 83 years old and his mother.

Heedful of the teacher's admonishment, Ruth Marsh took the instrument away from her lips long enough to point out: "I'm smiling with my eyes."

"I think that's great, senior citizens taking up the kazoo," Barbara Stewart said. "It is one of the great levelers. If a person's voice isn't what it used to be, that doesn't matter. In terms of tone quality, no one sounds any better than anyone else on a kazoo."

Not only has Stewart written "How to Kazoo," which has sold more than 120,000 copies, but she recently was music director aboard a Virgin Atlantic Airlines flight.

She taught the passengers on the transatlantic economy flight how to make seagull and frog sounds, as well as how to play the kazoo with the narrow end stuck in a gin glass. Eat your heart out, Lindbergh.

Here at 163 S. Fairfax Ave., just down the street from the Freda Mohr center, Albert Broder (a former Hula-Hoop entrepreneur) holds forth in his emporium devoted entirely to kazoos. It is he who keeps the center and convalescent homes supplied with free ones.

"When you get on in years, there are many things you can't do," he said. "But there is nothing at all to walking along and playing a kazoo."

For his part, the 63-year-old Broder puts one to good use during the part-time cab driving he does. "When I'm stuck in traffic, I pull out a kazoo. I keep extras on hand in case the passenger seems to be sulking. You can't play a kazoo and be angry at the same time."

Broder even shipped a few off to President Reagan, and proudly displays a reply on White House stationery from an aide: "We appreciate your thinking of us and have had a great deal of fun with them."

Why not? None other than Albert Einstein, according to Stewart, was known to have been a fair kazoo player, relatively speaking.

Meanwhile, in an activity room on Fairfax Avenue, Eva Rubin had breathlessly taken a seat. There was no time, however, to remain breathless.

"I rushed over from my doctor's office because I never miss this class," she explained between ardent efforts on her kazoo. "I am 87 years old, and somehow this does something for me."

As it has for many users, for many years. Its forerunner is thought to be the African mirliton , used as a voice disguiser and weapon of intimidation. In America, according to Stewart, the kazoo made its debut at the Georgia State Fair in 1852 before being sold to a toy manufacturer, who produced it under the name Down South Submarine.

Indeed, inasmuch as more than 8 million of them now are sold annually in the United States, there are those who feel fiercely that it should be the national instrument.

If nothing else, one advantage is that movers have an easier time with it than they do with pianos.

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