Arbor Acres theatrical raises $60K for Meals on Wheels

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Arbor Acres staff and residents during a dress rehearsal of "Fun Night at the OK CARral." (Lauren Carroll/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Outlaws, floozies, “crazy weed” — not what you would expect to see at any fine, upstanding retirement community, much less one affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

But there it was at Arbor Acres last week, though of course it was all just in fun — and all for a good cause.

“Fun Night at the OK CARral” was the latest in a decade-long series of theatricals staged by residents and staff at Arbor Acres to benefit Senior Services’ Meals on Wheels. This year’s performances, which were open to members of the Arbor Acres community and invited guests, drew more than 400 spectators and raised about $60,000, a record amount.

The show centers on Sheriff Wide Burp (Les Cranfill, director of building and landscaping arts at Arbor Acres) who has carried a long, unspoken love for saloon owner Miss Kitty (resident Ellis Pardue). To make Miss Kitty fall in love with him, the sheriff tries some “crazy weed” traded by Indian Chief Eatslikeacow (L.D. Burton, director of environmental arts at the home). Things get plenty crazy all right, though of course all is set straight by the show’s end.

The cast included about 40 residents and staff members, and others had roles in music and costume design.

David Piner, the show’s writer and director, also has a small on-stage part – and a real-life role as Arbor Acres’ CEO.

Piner considers the theatricals a “defining ritual” of the Arbor Acres culture.

“It brought life to the place, and I think more than any single thing has shaped the culture of this community,” Piner said. “It’s a very high performance community. There’s a high energy, there’s a great sense of joy and happiness, and I think the theatricals spun out of that. I think they also have increased that.”

Piner said the idea for the fundraiser came from the residents’ council. Arbor Acres already had a long tradition of staging theatricals for entertainment, and many residents had a deep interest in volunteer work for Meals on Wheels. Wouldn’t it make sense to somehow combine two good things?

“We’ve lost nothing because we’ve always had parties for our own enjoyment so if anything, what we’ve gained was a deeper sense of purpose about why we’re having the party,” Piner said. “It’s a perfect coming together of forces, all in the desire on the part of residents to make an impact for seniors who do not have the blessings that are available here.”

The name of the show each year has a “car” reference, a nod to Meals on Wheels. Last year, the theme was CARmelot, in 2011, it was “Car Wars.”

Richard Gottlieb, the CEO of Senior Services, called this year’s fundraising total phenomenal and said it will provide more than 12,000 nutritious meals for homebound elders in the community.

“It’s hard to put into words how much we appreciate the kindness and efforts of the staff and residents for those less fortunate,” Gottlieb said.

“And the play is terrific and so entertaining,” he said. “They really know how to kick up a row out there at Arbor Acres for a good cause!”

Residents and staff members were clearly enjoying themselves at rehearsals last week.

Pardue, a resident who used to work in research and development for Hanes Corp., was handpicked to play the role of Miss Kitty, the saloon owner.

You might say it was something of a challenge: Pardue is a man.

“I’m going to be wearing a bra,” he said matter-of-factly. “That’s a Double E.”

In the end, the bra wasn’t so bad, he said. “The biggest problem I had was putting the fingernail polish on.”

Retired teacher Jean Hole played one of the outlaws. Asked how she liked it, she joked: “Honey, that put me in character. It’s fun.”

Piner said that “fun” has always been a major reason for the show. One of the early shows he was involved in was a parody entitled “Geriatric Park – A Year in the Life of a New Resident.”

No, Piner said, he can’t claim credit for that title – he wouldn’t have dared. The idea actually came from an Arbor Acres resident. And in true show-biz tradition, Geriatric Park was followed by “Geriatric Park II and Geriatric Park III.

“The Geriatric Park series was particularly close to our hearts because the play is a mirror and in this case you’re holding up a mirror to the resident community, to the residents themselves and you’re asking them to see themselves, to laugh at themselves and to find humor in their daily life,” Piner said. “There is nothing in the world more healing than to be able to laugh at yourself.”

Piner said he never expected to be writing and directing theatricals when he started work at Arbor Acres. He studied sociology and anthropoly in college and thought of entering the ministry or perhaps teaching. He never thought of theater.

“Way too insecure, way too insecure,” said Piner, who credits Jean Steelman, a resident and former staffer involved with the theatricals, for bringing out his creative side. “I would never have put myself out there,” Piner said. “I was in my late 50s before I ever auditioned for local theater even.”

“I’ve always had the writing gift, I’ve always had the little theatrical bent probably, but in my wildest imaginings, I never expected to have it surface in my professional life,” he said.

“A retirement community, unlike most businesses, can make use of anything that you happen to have tucked in your portfolio of talents. One of the beauties of working in a setting like this is it will ask of you, call from you really anything and everything you’ve got and are willing to make available.”

He acknowledged that writing and rehearsing the show made for some long work days but said it was never burdensome because of the rewards of theater itself.

And always, there’s the knowledge that the show is for a good cause. Residents of Arbor Acres are cognizant that their retirement years are filled with comforts that so many of their fellow senior citizens lack.

“It’s payback to the community,” said resident Jon Burkhart, who played the role of Deputy Dustin Good.

And residents gain a satisfaction beyond the fun of all the crazy antics of the theatrical.

“Being appreciated and being needed,” Burkhart said. “Which is what life is all about.”

By Jennifer Young/The Winston-Salem Journal