Older adults in Philly turn COVID-19 into musical comedy

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Fran Hunter (left) and Bernie Littman (right) at the Watermark hotel. They performed in a virtual musical, “Ain’t Congregatin’” over Zoom. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Fran Hunter (left) and Bernie Littman (right) at the Watermark hotel. They performed in a virtual musical, “Ain’t Congregatin’” over Zoom. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As happened at personal care facilities everywhere, the residents of the Watermark at Logan Square were strictly confined to their apartments for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Boring!” exclaimed Bernie Littman, 96. He normally takes exercise classes, eats meals in the common dining room, and attends lectures in the auditorium. None of that was available to him during the lockdown.

He conceded the lockdown was “necessary and quite effective.” Back in April, the Watermark nursing facility saw a surge of 58 infections and 16 deaths, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. A spokesperson for the Watermark disputes those numbers, saying there were 14 deaths across all of the facility’s 360 occupants, and by August the number of infections dropped to zero.

Littman is a member of the Watermark Players, a group of about 20 that stages musical productions for the other residents, generally twice a year. They are led by Steve Hatzai, a teaching artist with Philly Senior Stage, an organization that works inside senior communities to stage theater productions.

After the lockdown began, the group was forced to shelve a plan for a Roaring ‘20s-themed show. Nevertheless, Hatzai continued their normal Wednesday morning meetings via Zoom.

Tables reserved for viewers of “Ain’t Congregatin’” outside the Watermark at Logan Square in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I wanted to keep together, without putting on a show,” he said. “As we continued our meetings, the idea emerged that as long as we’re getting together, let’s do that.”

Six months later, the Watermark Players staged “Ain’t Congregatin,'” a spoof on the classic Broadway revue “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” The residents altered lyrics to popular songs so they reflect life during the coronavirus pandemic. Like this take on a song from “La Cage aux Folles” — “The Best of Times is Now,” rewritten as “The Worst of Times is Now.”

… So let’s keep far away
We’ll get together on some future day
Right now that’s not OK
Because the worst of times is now.

Littman wrote that version of “ The Best of Times” and performed it from his apartment in the Watermark on Wednesday during a live performance via Zoom.

“Zoom is the greatest invention since sliced bread,” he said. That’s coming from a man who was born before sliced bread.

Zoom, however, does not allow people to sing together — the technology is not precise enough for musical timing. So the Watermark singers traded lines: One person commands the Zoom screen for a stanza, then passes it on to the next.

Between songs, they tell corny jokes.

“Do you know the difference between COVID-19 and `Romeo and Juliet?’” asked resident Marjorie Fitterman. “One is the coronavirus, and the other is the Verona crisis.”

The residents make light of confinement, saying they vacationed this summer in “Puerto Backyarda.”

One of the players appearing in the show, Fran Hunter, had contracted COVID-19 early on, in March. She had to be hospitalized for a few weeks in April.

“It’s a horrible thing. I’ve never been so sick in my life,” she said. “I didn’t have it as serious as some people. I didn’t have to go on the ventilator. And still it’s the most miserable thing I’ve ever had in my life.”

Hunter, 88, was speaking during a distanced interview, seated outside the Watermark building at tables set up for family and friends. Visitors are not allowed inside the building.

“I hope everybody pays attention and puts their little mask on,” said Hunter, through a face mask. “I’ve got this ugly thing on my face, that I hate. I hate it. But it’s what I need to do.”

Hunter said she complies with preventative health measures, like wearing masks and washing her hands frequently. She even joked about it in the performance.

“Soap and water. My body has absorbed so much soap recently, every time I pee, the toilet comes clean,” she says in the show.

Of his players, Hatzai said, “They adapted beautifully. It was one of those things where, ‘OK, this is what is happening, this is what must take place. We’ll live with it.’ They have an ability to look on something which may have a downside, and look at it in a positive light, and with humor.”

Hunter has recovered from the virus, saying she is stronger now than she was a month ago. She even feels strong enough to joke about her own health scare.

“If you don’t laugh, you’re a miserable person,” she said. “I don’t want to be a miserable person.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the numbers of COVID-19 deaths according to Watermark management, which disputes the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s numbers. 

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