The Gray at Play : Solidly Democratic, upscale and healthy, of an average age in the low 70s, Leisure Village's 3,700 residents aren't terribly retiring.


Miriam Hasen could go to a funeral every month, if she wanted to keep up with all the memorial notices for her neighbors in Leisure Village. She doesn't.

Instead, she regularly steps into the neighborhood Recreation Center, social hub of the roughly 3,700 residents who make up Ventura County's largest retirement community. It was there one recent morning that Hasen mounted the stage.

She took a breath. Then she stepped out of her 68-year-old life and into the role of Gigi, an adolescent ingenue in the Paris of 1900.

"The night they invented Champagne . . . " she sang.

Her eyes were framed by reading glasses, but her voice was clear and strong, and she hit the high note at the end. Down in front of the stage, director Joan Johnson looked up from her notes and smiled in noncommittal encouragement.

The Leisure Village Players Guild stages two productions a year, its members overcoming not merely stage fright but also recalcitrant hearing aids, brittle bones and other vagaries of age.

While being made up on opening night two years ago, an actress in "Guys and Dolls" suffered a stroke and had to be rushed to the hospital. Another troupe member stood in for her, and the show went on.

At this audition, which marked the first work on the troupe's production of "Gigi," the performer was less worried about her cardiovascular system than she was about getting into the character who once inspired Maurice Chevalier to sing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."

"I have to put myself into the head of a 17- or 18-year-old girl," said Hasen. "I have to live, breathe, eat and sleep the role. I remember when I was a young girl; it was yesterday."

Leisure Village is full of those yesterdays.

To live there, you must be at least 55. Homeowners association officials estimate that since the village's first buildings went up in 1973, the average age of the residents has crept from the 60s into the low 70s.

The village's general manager, Bob Culatti, said about 100 of the village's 2,136 residences change hands each year, most often because of a death. And in the first half of 1991, Pruner Health Services ambulances answered an average of five emergency calls there every week.

"When you get to this part of life, these things happen," said Hasen, who arrived from Los Angeles with her husband 13 years ago.

Gated, spotless, silent at most hours and guarded by a 24-hour security team, the village streets remind some people of Irvine, but without all the excitement. And even homeowners association officers have heard the place called "seizure village."

Yet beyond those well-tended lawns and tidy lanes (where $25 citations have been issued to residents caught walking in the bike path), the village seethes with leisurized, seniorized vigor.

The village homeowners association president, Bob Atz, counts more than 70 civic and recreational groups there. The golf course and billiards room are busy, and bus trips to Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev., are regularly scheduled. Sandy Linka, 1991 president of the women's club, says it has some 580 members, and that 200 to 300 women turn out for the group's monthly meetings.

In the November, 1991, local elections, when Ventura County's overall turnout was 19%, Leisure Village's was 47%. (Countywide, Republicans outnumber Democrats 47% to 40%; Leisure Village's 3,183 registered voters are 53% Democrat and 40% Republican.)

There are village singing groups, a woodworking group and a dance group called the Happy Hoofers. There is also a speakers bureau, founded and administrated by 85-year-old villager Rube Davis, that sends seniors to share their various fields of expertise with public school students.

"People come here to retire, but we don't let 'em," Davis said recently. He can even quote scientific findings to back up his boosting. After a detailed study of 156 village residents, a team from the UCLA School of Medicine in 1990 speculated that the community's relatively healthy, independent and well-educated seniors may be more resistant to declines in memory and cognitive skills than less healthy peers elsewhere.

Part of the village's distinction is a matter of demographics: Homes there cost roughly $120,000 to $350,000 and residents tend to be upscale and healthy.

Still, nowhere else in Ventura County do so many sing so loudly, vote so reliably and swing so many golf clubs amid so many reminders of mortality. And nowhere in Leisure Village is the battle against time fought more publicly than on the stage of the Players Guild.

The second half of Miriam Hasen's audition was dialogue. Script in hand, she sat on the bare stage and heard her adolescent self be disparaged by Great Aunt Alicia.

"Ah, my dear Gigi," said the woman filling the Alicia part, "you have an impossible nose, a nondescript mouth, and your cheekbones are too high. But we can do something with the rest of you."

Hasen, who wears her hair in a blond perm, nodded and flashed her best smile of youthful innocence. At the card table down in front, the director again nodded, smiled and said "thank you."

Like many of the guild players, Hasen had never been involved with organized theater until her arrival at the village. But after a brief fling with lapidary, she threw herself into singing, acting and dancing. Only when sciatica threatened a few years ago, did she drop the dancing.

"Everybody has a tendency to jump into everything right away. Then you see there's no time to do anything," Hasen said. "The only way to handle all the activities that I do is to cook in large quantities, so that I have food in the refrigerator, because I'm rehearsing six days a week."

The theater company arrived in Leisure Village about the time Hasen did. It started in 1979 as the Village Players and specialized in comedies. A year later, the Variety Guild was founded to present musicals. In January of 1990, after a decade of overlapping membership and competition for the same performance space, the two groups merged.

Now about 330 members pay $3 a year each, and can attend monthly workshops that include brief dramatic, comedic or musical scenes. The core group--those who take the stage or otherwise take a hand in productions--numbers about 75.

The guild's annual full-length comedy is presented in November, the musical in April or May. Admission is $4.50, and since it takes an appointment to get past the village security gates, the audiences are almost exclusively neighbors and family.

"Our audience is attuned to old people playing young parts. They accept it," said Jackie Solway, president of the Players Guild. And to keep faith on the troupe's side, Solway said, those on and off stage do their best to obscure ages by using "imagination . . . and a lot of makeup."

In "Oklahoma!," 62-year-old Don Pearlman played Curly McLain, a cowhand in his late teens. To transform himself, Pearlman shaved his mustache, wore a wig and heavy makeup.

At 63, Hasen played 19-year-old Eliza Doolittle in the much-praised 1986 village version of "My Fair Lady." (The show, which was videotaped like all others, turns up occasionally on the village's closed-circuit television channel.)

To put on "The King and I," the troupe restaged the show to keep almost all of the king's many children unseen. The remaining princes were played by cross-dressing actresses.

"We young 'em up as best we can," said "Gigi" director Johnson, who spent 35 years as a dancer, puppeteer and mimic in vaudeville before her arrival at the village. Johnson, who turns 73 this month, directs all the village musicals and is one of several guild regulars with professional credits.

Pearlman, who directs all comedies as well as sings in some of the musicals, appeared in early "Dragnet" episodes and local theater productions in Los Angeles. Jack Beardsley, the set designer, once worked for films and television. And Helen Gold, 78-year-old leader of the Happy Hoofers and choreographer of the dance sequences that will augment "Gigi," was a vaudeville performer for years.

Then there is Irv Leeds, whose last job before retirement was selling furniture. Leeds was so active in community theater over the years that he calls himself "a professional amateur."

Leeds is 78, wears reading glasses and hearing aids in both ears. He has rebounded from two strokes in the last four years ("No strokes last year! Woo-hoo!"), and he moves with easy grace on stage. His most prominent Leisure Village performance so far has been as Prof. Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady."

On audition day for "Gigi," Leeds did his song and dialogue, then spent the afternoon as messenger and reader of stray lines, jauntily strolling between the stage and the lobby where hopeful performers waited.

For his song, he chose one sung by Honore, the only legitimate old man in the cast of "Gigi" characters. Leeds seemed to be enjoying the words:

How lovely to sit here in the shade

With none of the woes of man or maid

I'm glad I'm not young anymore.

The Players Guild has covered a lot of theatrical ground in recent years, including "My Fair Lady," "The King and I," "Can-Can," "Oklahoma!," "Guys and Dolls," "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "You Can't Take it With You," "Show Boat," "Harvey," "Don't Drink the Water," "Plaza Suite" and "Rumors."

But there's a lot of turf the troupe leaves untrodden. The company produces only comedies and musicals, for instance. Players Guild President Jackie Solway has suggested that "for a straight play, I think we'd have trouble selling tickets."

The guild cleans up language, too, and stays alert to sundry other factors that another company might not consider.

The guild dismissed the idea of doing "West Side Story" because of the arduous dancing. When an actress with two hip replacements won a role that required her to climb stairs every night, her co-stars watched her steps carefully. And in the auditions for "The King and I," a key requirement was that all actors be capable of kneeling, bowing and rising without using their hands to steady themselves.

But other complications can't be predicted, and the village has seen plenty of them. Most troubling was the stroke suffered by villager Sylvia Altes on the 1989 opening night of "Guys and Dolls," (Altes survived that episode but later died.)

More often, the matter is less serious.

During a dance sequence in "Oklahoma!," one of the principal performers fell and broke her wrist. She returned to dance the following night, a cast added to her costume.

During the same production, an actor had to play through the loss of a hearing aid. Later he found it, crushed in the course of action on stage.

And on the closing night of "Can-Can," recalled Solway, "One of the can-can dancers forgot to put on her pantaloons."

If there are any hidden traps for the aged in "Gigi," the director and cast haven't found them yet.

In all, about 15 people tried out for roles in the show, a relatively smallish number but understandable since the show has a cast of just five major characters, three minor characters and a handful of walk-ons.

Irv Leeds was chosen for the role of Gaston, the 28-year-old romantic lead.

"This is going to be three months of concentrated work," he said. "We rehearse four to five times a week, and you've got to put trips on hold. You've got to want to do it."

Miriam Hasen got the part of "Gigi." She has three songs to learn and a lot of lines, since Gigi is on stage for most of the show. Opening night is April 29.

"I have a lot of work ahead of me," said Hasen. "And that's the way I want it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World