The Late Show

If old entertainers can still pull it off, there’s no reason for the rest of us to feel washed up.
Deborah Paul

Over the last couple of years, I have seen, in person, the following performers: Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Garrison Keillor, Candice Bergen, Bill Cosby, Angela Lansbury, and James Earl Jones. Common among these celebrities is “maturity,” and, pardon the insensitivity, plenty of it. In fact, rough math indicates that their combined age approximates the 700-year-old mummy recently discovered in China.

Why, you ask, would a person of a certain age herself be attracted to late-life acts? I blame my husband, Steve, who likes to dwell in the past. And in the basement, where he holes up to watch old movies. He has seen The Grapes of Wrath so many times he knows exactly when Tom Joad will tell his ma, “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.” His predilection for classics partly explains his desire to see old performers before, well, you know.

Together, we have watched Cosby, Bennett, and the rest push themselves to the brink when, offstage, they probably have trouble bending over to tie their shoes. It can’t be easy trucking from city to city, staying up late, often doing two shows a day, and wearing a smile while most of the audience is Googling them on their mobile devices to find out just how old they are.

Steve especially esteems yesterday’s pop-music groups. This admiration probably stems from his own youth, when he was both the “manager” of a doo-wop quartet called the Delvados and lead singer in a garage band named Stevie and the Studs, or Paul and the Reveres, depending on when the memory is invoked. The former group was a one-hit wonder with the song “Time Marches On” and its ingenious chorus, “Time marches on, on marches time.” His own foursome enjoyed limited acclaim, once playing an event called “Teenville” in a community center. Even though only five or six girls gathered in front of the stage, the experience gave him an appreciation for crooners. I suppose he figures that if some of the old-timers can still sing, there’s hope for him yet.

The only tickets I take credit for were to see Willie Nelson near our vacation spot in Florida. At 79, with those gray braids and deeply etched face, his timeworn look matches the pain in his lyrics. The mellow, nasal tone remains, and when he launched into “Red Headed Stranger,” I went a little crazy, hurling myself into the crowd in an attempt to catch the red bandana he threw from the stage. Likewise, a limber, even-toned Tony Bennett lit up the Palladium in Carmel, singing with the same charm and finger-snapping rhythm he made famous five decades ago.

Both acts included family members, an affectation I find unnecessary, especially when, as with Tony’s daughter, Antonia, they can’t sing. But when you’re pushing 90, there must be consolation in knowing the legend might endure. And if these guys can still pull it off, there’s no reason for the rest of us seniors to feel washed up.

Garrison Keillor performed outward but seemed to live inward, traversing the Clowes Hall stage at Butler University with his eyes closed for most of the set. I can barely recite the preamble to the Constitution, and there he was, same age as I, reeling off stories and songs for 90 straight minutes. Bill Cosby was similarly sharp, and at 75, fell short only with an account of his daughter’s college graduation. By my calculations, his youngest of five children matriculated in the ’90s, meaning he’s woven that yarn for a long time. We scored front-row seats, which was good in that we missed nary a facial expression, but bad in that we could see a stain on his white sweatshirt, which, judging by the hue, was likely tomato-based.

When you’ve lost it, whatever “it” may be, you should excuse yourself. If you haven’t, and people still pay good money for your services, then be my guest.

The elderly stars of The Best Man, a Broadway show about a presidential election, nailed their parts, especially the 81-year-old, clear-spoken James Earl Jones. Candice Bergen wore her collars turned up Ingrid Bergman style, hiding her neck and, thus, her 66 years, which, given her sophisticated performance, was hardly necessary. And the divine Miss Lansbury played a grande dame socialite in a hat with feathers, be-lying her 87 years with perfect diction and proper pomposity.

My only negative reviews go to Jackie Mason and Joan Rivers, who were at best outdated and at worst just plain gross. Eighty-one-year-old men aren’t meant to have yellow hair, and nothing’s more obnoxious than dirty jokes using words that rhyme with “angina” told by an old woman trying to be a young woman and failing, especially at a Purim celebration in front of a Jewish audience that included at least two rabbis. (Rivers has been preserved, I will note, almost as well as the Ming Dynasty mummy mentioned earlier.) Knowing when to leave has its advantages, including not embarrassing yourself.

If old people want to keep on doing what they’ve always done, it’s okay with me, as long as no one is compromised. Once, I was lying on a surgery table, and an attendant reassured me that, between the elderly surgeon and the aged anesthesiologist, I was privy to 100 years of experience. At the time, I didn’t know whether to be grateful or terrified. But we all survived, patient as well as physicians.

Sometimes, the reason for continuing is simply the joy of the act. I’ve penned this column for 30 years and often wonder if my longtime followers can find glasses strong enough to read it—and if my navel-gazing has run its course. But without my monthly ritual, I’d feel like someone else. Giving up can lead to giving out. At least having such late-life trepidation puts me in good company.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue.