Robert Parker’s secret to working the retirement homes: “I entertain. I connect with people, and I make sure they are all having a good time.”
“It’s like no other scene. It’s an audience that’s appreciative,” Peter Marin says, “but, in another way.” Marin, 63, is a jazz singer. He performs at venues throughout San Diego, including senior retirement homes. “For three or four years, I performed at Seacrest Village in Encinitas with a guitarist. It was his mother who was living there.”
Marin says he knows of local musicians who make a career out of performing at retirement homes. He says they hire an abundance of entertainers, the work pays well, is almost always during daylight hours, is less fickle than the nightclub scene, and the rewards are many. But, there’s a catch.
“In a three-year run, you get to know people. You form attachments. And on the days when I went in to perform, and they were gone, as in deceased, well, it can certainly set you off in the wrong way.”
Marin brings a Tony Bennett-ish vibe. He performs the jazz standards out of the venerable American Songbook. “That was this generation’s music. People in Memory Care [a special unit for residents suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s] who couldn’t remember what they’d had for lunch. They sing along with the words to songs that even I sometimes forget.” He chuckles.
“I remember one woman who didn’t talk, ever. They wheeled her in flat on her back on a gurney every time I sang there. They had her wrapped up in blankets. And whenever I sang 'Georgia on my Mind'... uh, hold on a second.”
Marin pauses, takes a little time out, and when he comes back on the line, I can hear his voice breaking. “I’m actually tearing up.” He pauses again.
“She’d yell, ‘Georgia, Georgia!’”
Tina Cetrone is the activities manager at the Montera, a senior residential facility near Lake Murray in La Mesa. “Three times each week, we book live music for our Memory Care group, and we book live music every Friday for our assisted living group. Sometimes we have special events. [On Valentine’s day] we’ll have this accordion duo playing love songs.”
Cetrone books a wide variety of entertainment at the Montera. “Cowboy Jack is a regular. Sometimes, big bands, groups with eight or nine members. There’s even a group that calls themselves the Rhinestone Grannies.”
She describes a kind-of Vegas revue, in sequins and feathers. “They range in age all the way into their 90s.”
The Montera pays “anywhere from $50 to $150 for an hour of entertainment, and sometimes more for a special event. I probably get two or three calls per week from entertainers wanting to get on our calendar. I’ll try them out, and, it’s either thumbs up or thumbs down.”
What’s the deciding factor?
“If the residents are happy, that’s what matters.”
“They usually only want you to play for an hour.” Michael J. Dwyer, a singer/guitarist, works around town as a solo act. “No, I don’t perform at retirement homes regularly, but I do whenever they come up. I learned a lot of songs from the ’40s and the ’50s — Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Sinatra. Stuff they would have heard when they were young. Most of them pay a hundred bucks. Not bad,” he says. “A hundred bucks an hour. But, at the Mt. Miguel Covenant Village, you play for pie.”
Pie, as in dessert.
“I do it because there’s a lot of people there at Covenant Village that I know from Skyline Methodist, back when I was in charge of the music ministry. The residents are really appreciative of you coming out and playing for them. They usually want to hang out and talk after a show. Maybe you played a song they got married to, or a song that was popular when they were dating. Memory is so important when you are a senior citizen. You practically subsist on your memories.”
“In Memory Care, all of a sudden a woman in the audience stood up. She started walking towards me.” Pianist/entertainer Robert Parker performs at retirement homes frequently. He thinks they make up 80 percent of his gigs. “It turns out,” he says, “that she’d once been a concert pianist.”
On the day in question, Parker was playing straight-laced classical music. “It was [Bach's] 'Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,' and the woman remembered having played it too. I sat her next to me on the piano bench. She managed to bang out a few notes. The song,” he says, “triggered memories in her. Music is so powerful.”
Mostly, Parker says he performs themes from the 1930s and the '40s. But, he also admits to a little Elton John, and maybe some Beatles. “And they say, I know that song because my kids listen to that.”
He discovered the senior home circuit by accident. “I’ve been doing this for about five years now. I did it to make ends meet at first, to have a little money coming in while I figured out what to do next.” Parker says the secret to his success is that he is good, but not the best piano player. “I entertain. I connect with people, and I make sure they are all having a good time.”
“Once, when paramedics were summoned and had to come in the room to deal with a medical emergency they asked me to turn my volume down. I did, but I kept the party going. ”
“Convalescent homes? They are amazing,” says Deejha Marie Pope. “Some residents, they’d be so excited to see me. I’d talk to them. I’d go to each and every one of them after a show, and I’d shake their hands. I’d look in their faces. If they wanted a hug, I’d give them one. It was so special to me. Tears are coming up in my eyes now while I’m remembering them.”
Pope, who now lives in Los Angeles, is a familiar voice in the San Diego club scene from Sue Palmer’s Motel Swing Orchestra. “When I was living in San Diego, I was doing a lot more of that kind of work with Doug Buchanan, a sax player. We booked at about four of those homes. And the people in those homes, they will sit there and be attentive and listen.”
Pope remembers working senior centers in El Cajon, “And the Casa de Mañana in La Jolla...even though I was only getting paid $50 dollars a performance, I still felt good. Those people, they just lifted my spirits up. I looked forward to doing it. It’s consistent work, if they like you.”