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  Youthful Lessons

The participants in Peabody Institute's Elderhostel love everything about the program except its title, which they find, well, a little off-putting. Says 66-year-old Gloria Cohen: "We don't consider ourselves elders."

By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
Illustration by Paul Cox
Photos by Mike Ciesielski


"There's a 93-year-old woman at Peabody Institute who has been studying piano. If you stopped her in the hallway and asked her why she's still taking piano lessons at 93, she'd say, 'Because I'm getting better.'"
--Randal Woodfield ('93 DMA),
director of the Elderhostel program
at Hopkins' Peabody Institute

In a small room at Peabody Institute, about 40 people in the graying decades of their lives are watching a brightly hued past.

On a screen runs a clip from the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! It's the ballet dream sequence in which Laurey, played by Shirley Jones, finds herself swept up in a prairie wedding, all yellow grain and white chiffon, only to be stalked by a stiff-gaited suitor, Jud, played by Rod Steiger. When Jud appears, the wedding dream turns into a bordello from Hell, with sneering burlesque dancers, a chandelier of flames, and a staircase that leads nowhere.

That's what nearly everyone in the audience saw when the film was released in 1955. Today the assembled group will learn that ballet dancers replaced most of the actors for the dream sequence, except Steiger, who had been urged to dance himself. Steiger's obvious lack of grace set him apart from the other characters and made Jud seem more menacing.

The group also will study the structure of Oklahoma!, noting there's a leading romantic couple and a contrasting juvenile couple, as well as a maternal figure, a low comic figure, and a melodramatic villain whose function is to disrupt the main couple's courtship. These, after all, are the primary characters in nearly every Rodgers and Hammerstein production (with a nod to Shakespeare). Oh, and at least one main character always dies by the end.

And the group will hear backstage tales about early struggles to finance the 1943 theater show and the debate over the show's title. Who would go to a Broadway musical named after a state, after all, especially a state that evoked all-too-recent images of the Dust Bowl? The solution: The producers added the exclamation point. Oklahoma!, which ran for more than 10 years on Broadway in its original production, became one of the most popular shows on the Great White Way, so much so that an apocryphal story has been passed along. It goes like this:

A woman attending a sold-out performance of Oklahoma! looked next to her and saw an empty seat. "What happened?" she asked a woman sitting on the other side.

"It was my husband's seat," the other woman answered. "He died."

"I'm so sorry. Couldn't any of his friends have come in his place?"

"No," the widow explained. "They are all at the funeral."

That gets a big laugh from the roomful of people who remember being young and in the know in 1943, and who have gathered to reminisce on a chilly Monday in January 2002.

Instructor Bill Messenger is a storyteller. "Nobody likes to be lectured," he says. Known as Elderhostelers, the people in this room have come from all over the country to stay the week at the 50-room Peabody Inn in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. They will eat cafeteria food alongside Peabody music students, attend recitals, and learn about Cole Porter's score to Kiss Me Kate, as well as the making of My Fair Lady. They'll also explore the musical theater of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, from Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music.

Peabody Institute Elderhostel is one of thousands of one- to four-week Elderhostel sites run by universities, parks, and museums around the world. Founded in the United States in 1975, the not-for-profit Elderhostel organization was created to provide travelers age 55 and older with affordable educational destinations, as well as a social network much like the youth hostel scene in Europe. Programs, ranging from "A Taste of Santa Fe: Cuisine and Wine of the Southwest" to "Historic Quebec," are held at 2,000 sites in the United States, Canada, and 90 other countries. Last year Elderhostelers numbered nearly 175,000.

At Peabody, they include people like Lee Spitalny and Jackie Becker from Pennsylvania, retired teachers who remember the spectacular first run of Oklahoma! and other legendary musicals. There's Bert and Ellen Zipkin--Bert says badly performed music causes him physical pain, and Ellen soothes her husband's nerves with her lyrical voice. And there's Renee Protopapas, who trained for a career in opera in Belgium after World War II. "I lived in a small town and they wanted to make a soprano out of me," she says of her childhood music teachers in Ostend. Though she never made it to the stage, studying opera opened her mind to the art: "I have loved opera every since."

At Peabody, they are all brought together by music.

"A few come because they never really had time in their real life, their other life as they describe it, to study music," says Randal Woodfield, who directs the Peabody Institute Elderhostel. "Now they have the time and income and can begin to explore this field. Other people who come to the program have attended symphonies, concerts, and operas since they were children. They have come here to learn more."

Peabody houses one of the most popular Elderhostel programs, a nearly year-round, on-campus "super site" that sometimes has a waiting list. In almost any given week at Peabody, two Elderhostel programs are running simultaneously, for a total of 96 programs a year taught by Peabody faculty and alumni and Baltimore area music experts.

Some Elderhostel attendees ask for time to play a piano in one of Peabody's practice rooms, but most are not performers. They are here at the internationally known Peabody Conservatory and Preparatory to listen and learn. Music buffs can study the vocal styles of jazz divas, better understand the polish and charm of Mozart's chamber music, or follow film scores from silent movies to big studio orchestras. Also among Peabody Elderhostel offerings are programs spun around the celebrity of opera singer Maria Callas or pop queen Barbra Streisand. Streisand is a big draw in this crowd.

Socializing and making friends is a big part of the Elderhostel experience, notes Ellen Zipkin (at right, with fellow hosteler). There are happy hours, bridge games, and outings to such tourist favorites as Harborplace and Fort McHenry. Woodfield, also a lyric baritone and an Elderhostel instructor, took over in 1998 after the former coordinators, Larry and Patricia Springer, retired. The Springers brought the program from a small endeavor in the early 1980s to a substantial player on Peabody's campus. Under their guidance, four 19th-century townhouses along Charles Street were converted in 1993 into the Peabody Inn and classrooms for the Elderhostelers. Program attendees, numbering about 3,500 a year, pay $500 for the week--much of that income goes to Peabody and helps fund such needs as student tuition assistance.

As part of the program, the Elderhostelers also attend two or more Peabody student recitals each night, providing a ready-made audience. Week after week, in fact, the Elderhostelers are an exacting and particular audience. "If a composer is not dead, they don't give him much of a chance," Woodfield says. "If an opera has been written since Puccini's death in 1924, it just doesn't have a prayer."

During the first week in January, about 80 hostelers are attending the two programs being offered. Program two is the Broadway musical-oriented series, and program one is a study of the three B's: Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven.

In the classroom, the livelier bunch is definitely the brash Broadway crowd.

Bill Messenger (MLA '73, MA '76) zips from center stage to the keyboard of a grand piano tucked into the corner.

Messenger, a composer, music critic, and lecturer at Peabody, is here to talk about the making of My Fair Lady. A frequent instructor at Elderhostels around the country, Messenger opens his class this week with discussion of the popularity of minstrel shows in the mid- to late 1800s, and the shows' eventual decline as vaudeville's star ascended. He highlights a song made famous by Bert Williams, a top-of-the-marquee performer of the Ziegfeld Follies and the first big African American entertainment star.

Messenger plays a melodious riff on the piano and begins to sing. Rows of toes tap.

"When life is full of clouds and rain and I'm filled with nothing but pain, who soothes my thumpin' bumpin' brain?"

"Nobody!" the room sings back.

"When all day long things go amiss, and I go home to find some bliss, who hands to me a glowing kiss?"

"Nobody!" everyone joins in.

Messenger then stands up, pretends to whittle his thumb, and sings a cappella: "Last fall when things were going right, I tried to whittle a stick one night. Who cried out, "STOP! That's dynamite!!"

"NOBODY!" the group roars.

Messenger explains that Williams revolutionized humor in American theater, introducing what is now known as situational humor--comedy routines that grow out of characters and the situations they find themselves in. Much of theatrical humor before the 20th century had taken the form of one-liners and slapstick. These changing styles would set the stage for the popular, often comedic, musicals launched in 1927 by Showboat, and followed by such classic productions as My Fair Lady.

Messenger's lecture style centers on storytelling, with a smattering of musical interludes and sing-alongs. "Nobody likes to be lectured," he says. "But everybody likes stories." When describing the origin of a famous lyric, he'll often deliver an anecdote. Take this one:

A down-and-out couple is standing outside Tiffany's in New York, the woman gazing at jewelry in the display window.

"Isn't that diamond a dream?" she sighs.

"Yeah, but the price is a nightmare," her male companion replies. "I can't give you anything but love, baby."

In addition to classes, Elderhostelers attend two or more Peabody student recitals each night, providing a ready-made audience. They are an exacting bunch. Lyricist Dorothy Fields and composer Jimmy McHugh overheard that conversation in the 1920s, Messenger says, and were inspired to write the tune "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby."

"I collect the stories behind the songs. What inspired a song? What made it popular?" says Messenger, who later explains that he has 1,200 such anecdotes written down on 4-by-8-inch index cards. "That's an obsession for me." He's memorized about 400, including the one about the widow at Oklahoma! (The same story has been told about My Fair Lady, he says.)

This sort of insider information is delicious fare to audience members who grew up with this music. Bert Zipkin and his wife, Ellen, came to the Peabody Institute Elderhostel with their friends, Harold and Gloria Cohen. They listen, delighted, to tales of the music trade. "It's an absolute challenge," says Gloria Cohen. "There's a lot I didn't know."

Though the couples live near each other on New York's Long Island, Ellen Zipkin and Gloria Cohen met years ago through the Brandeis University National Women's Committee. The two women are putting together a workshop for that group's members on Rodgers, marking the late composer's 100th birthday in June. During their week at Peabody, they'll pick up insight from experts about Rodgers' life and music. Cohen brought along a tape recorder that she leaves on a chair at the front of the classroom.

The two couples sit down after their classes let out one afternoon to talk about Peabody Institute Elderhostel.

Says Bert Zipkin, 74, "We had heard about Elderhostel some years back but were not ready to join."

"The title is a little off-putting," says Ellen Zipkin, who will celebrate her 63rd birthday this week.

Adds Gloria Cohen, 66: "We don't consider ourselves elders."

This is a group that can play canasta with three decks of cards instead of two.

The Cohens had tried to sign up for the Peabody program once before, but it was full. Peabody's Elderhostel is now running at about 80 percent capacity, partly because of a subdued economy and travel concerns post-September 11, says Woodfield, who adds that several Elderhostelers have told him that the program's music has helped them forget for a while what is going on in the world.

When the foursome found out Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the menu, they decided to try again. Both couples frequently make the trip into Manhattan to see Broadway shows. They, like others attending this program, saw many of these productions during their first run, and later returned to see the revivals, which, they note, are often darker and more sexually explicit. "It just shows how society is changing," says Harold Cohen, 72. He thinks about that a bit, adding, "But they have to make the revivals brand new and fresh."

The Zipkins have attended five Elderhostels, the Cohens three. They are among many repeat attendees. (Elderhostelers count on each other to trade tips on which sites have the best teachers, classes, food, and accommodations.) Bert Zipkin, who says he brought classical music to his marriage while his wife brought popular music, expresses a mild lament at this particular Peabody choice.

"I wanted to go to the Beethoven program," he says. "But we can always come Bach."

Peabody marks Elderhostel number 16 for Renee Protopapas, a distance swimmer who is learning her sixth language. The buzz among Elderhostelers is loud and clear: Being older is not about growing old--or boring. "We went to one Elderhostel where the oldest couple was past 90 and you should have seen them dance," Zipkin says. "It is a pleasure to see people that age saying, 'Don't put me in a rocking chair.'" And "when you hear the educational background of people, it's across the board," Zipkin says. "There are speech pathologists, doctors, and lots of teachers here. When you look at that, all of a sudden your view of all these people changes.

"The nice part," he adds, "is that we meet people from different areas. We have new experiences and we end up with a couple weeks of semi-vacation and semi-learning a year."

And he finds fresh audiences for his jokes. "My wife is going to cheat on me and go see The Full Monty on Broadway," he tells a group eating chicken française at dinner. His face registers mock shock as he delivers a second punch line, one that he seems to enjoy repeating. "She and Gloria just went to see The Vagina Monologues."

During the sing-alongs in Messenger's classroom, Ellen Zipkin's voice soars above the group, a bold and lovely soprano. She says her father loved music, and when she was growing up, that formed the bond between them. "He was Bing Crosby and I was the Andrew Sisters," she says.

Bert Zipkin has heard his wife sing for many years now: "When I'm in a group, I listen for her voice."

In the Peabody cafeteria line at lunch, Lee Spitalny leans over and compliments Ellen Zipkin, noting that she herself can never surpass an off-key monotone. Gloria Cohen quickly assures her, "Everybody can learn to sing." Zipkin, a longtime music teacher, shakes her head. "I used to think that until I met my husband. But he knows it and that's OK. He's proud of it."

"The year after I retired, I planned to jump in my car and head west," says Ruth Page. Her children talked her out of it. "I never should have told them," she says. Socializing and making friends is part of the Elderhostel experience. At Peabody, there is a Happy Hour at 4 p.m. every Monday, this week featuring Franzia chablis, cantaloupe, stuffed potato skins, and fried chicken. When classes let out each day, people gather to play bridge or chat over spaghetti in the cafeteria or steaming blue crabs in downtown Baltimore restaurants. There are also scheduled tours of the Walters Art Museum across Charles Street from Peabody and visits to such tourist favorites as Harborplace and Fort McHenry.

Elderhostelers also are not beyond checking out the opposite sex, even if it's a case of hypothetical dating.

"Look at that man. Isn't he good looking? He's in his 80s," says Jackie Becker, 74, of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, who is sitting in class with Spitalny, her friend from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Becker points her elbow at a man with snowy white, neatly clipped hair who is wearing a tan pullover sweater and a pinstriped shirt. "He's always so well dressed."

Spitalny, 70, asks if the word hunk applies.

"He's not a hunk. I didn't say he was a hunk," replies Becker.

"We went to one Elderhostel where the oldest couple was past 90 and you should have seen them dance," says 74-year- old Bert Zipkin (at right, on an outing at The Walters). Gentlemanly?

"That's right, he's gentlemanly," Becker says.

At lunch, some of the Elderhostelers get together to share advice on how to make the most of their lifestyle. Here is a group of women, mostly widows, whose ages are not for public consumption:

"Do you want to know what my model for living is?" asks Ethel Winters, from Rochester, New York. Like the other women at the table, Winters is taking the Three B's classical program this week. She brings her favorite teacher an apple from the cafeteria. "My greatest fear is that I will not take a risk. I'm afraid if I don't take a risk, I'll miss things."

Says Ruth Page, from Arnold, Maryland: "That's a question of degrees. The year after I retired, I planned to jump in my car and head west. I made the mistake of telling one of my daughters." Her children talked her out of it. "I never should have told them."

Her companions urge her to go ahead and take just such a trip anyway. "The first time I ever did a car trip by myself, it was the nicest thing," says Karla Pearce, from Columbia, Maryland. "When I got lost, there was no one there to tell me, 'You're an idiot.'" The group laughs.

Renee Protopapas knows about being alone. She was widowed more than a decade ago. In the early 1990s, her son read a newspaper story about Elderhostel and sent it to her. "Do you want to see my Elderhostel passport?" she asks. Peabody's program is Protopapas' 16th, the last entry in the blue-gray passport some Elderhostelers keep to enter their destinations. In addition to biking across Denmark, she has been to King Ranch in Texas to learn country-western dancing, to Prince Edward Island to kayak, and to West Virginia's Coolfont Resort to take water aerobics, T'ai Chi, and body sculpting. "Body sculpting!" she says, with a laugh. She lives in Houston, where she had settled in 1980 with her husband, Anthony.

"I have to be careful. I can get depressed," says Protopapas, 73. "I have to look for opportunities to meet people and socialize." Aside from attending Elderhostels, she swims distance events--500 meter, 1500 meter, and the 5K open water--and has medaled in international master's swim team competitions. She speaks five languages, and is now studying her sixth, Spanish. Protopapas explains her philosophy de vivre. "You should continue learning," she says. "It keeps you young."

A good part of staying young means feeling young. And for a few hours this week, listening to music brings back the imagery of youth.

"It's their generation," says Brian Stone, 38, who is teaching the Rodgers and Hammerstein course this week, and who conveyed the behind-the-scenes lore of Oklahoma! "They associate memories with the music and they know all the plays. You don't have to laboriously talk through the plots. They share common knowledge."

Though some attendees ask for time to play a piano in one of Peabody's practice rooms, most are not performers. They come to Peabody--for courses on subjects ranging from Maria Callas to Barbra Streisand--to listen and learn. A few will share tales of their own. Messenger collects some of his anecdotes from daughters and sons and friends of such musical luminaries as composer George Gershwin. A few years ago, Beth Wilcove, the daughter of lyricist Jack Yellen, showed up in one of Messenger's courses. Messenger mentioned Yellen's popular tune "Ain't She Sweet" in class. Wilcove came up after class, crying, to talk about her father.

Spitalny and Becker, the two friends from Pennsylvania, say listening to show tunes from the 1940s and '50s calls up lots of memories. "This music is nostalgic. It's from our young dating years, our growing-up years," says Spitalny.

Adds Becker, "Our happy days."

For Protopapas, the era is vivid: "I love this music. This brings me back to the '50s. I always thought those were the best years of my life. It was when I met my husband and married, and I had my three children, and my parents were still alive, and I lived in my hometown."

One morning midweek, Woodfield plays a melancholy song that was cut from Kiss Me Kate after the weepy cast told the director it was simply too much of a downer. The cast members didn't think they could make it through the rest of the show if it was sung.

"We shall never be younger," goes the melody by the same name. "Soon spring will be tired of singing her song."

The audience at Peabody Institute Elderhostel doesn't miss the symbolism. "That should be our theme song," one woman says. Another voice joins in: "I think the reason they didn't include it was because they knew there would be senior citizens in the audience."

Ellen Zipkin, whose birthday this week emphasized for her the passing of the years, has an idea about the title Elderhostel, and the sensitive age issue it touches: "Maybe we can put an exclamation point at the end of it!"

To obtain an "Elderhostel!" catalog, featuring Peabody's programs and many others, call toll-free 1-800-895-0727 or check the group's Web site at Peabody Institute can be found online at To reach the Peabody Elderhostel directly, call (410) 659-8100, ext. 3085.

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