It’s been decades since Mary Cislak has listened to the song she danced to on her wedding night.
But for a few minutes on a Thursday morning, Cislak leans back in her wheelchair at the Seniors’ Health Centre at North York General Hospital and remembers.
The original recording of “The Anniversary Waltz” by Al Jolson crackles and pops on a record player and the lyrics — a reminder of her wedding night and the tango she danced with her husband around the kitchen — come unbidden to her mind.
“Once it starts it’s very familiar,” she says, “and although you haven’t heard it for 50 years you still remember.”
The words come slowly at first but by the time the first chorus rolls around, Cislak is singing aloud and her fellow residents are tapping their feet and humming, some singing along with her.
Their visible joy is why Phil James lugs his record player, original records and era-specific artifacts to seniors’ homes around the city for his Music of Your Life program.
James started the program a just over three decades ago, when he was still working as a radio host.
He first started to think about the benefits music could have when a listener called in to thank him for playing a song. The man told James he’d been so overcome with emotion at hearing the music he used to dance to with his wife, who had died of cancer years earlier, that he had to pull off the road.
Once it starts it’s very familiar, and although you haven’t heard it for 50 years you still remember.
“I thought, how emotional do you have to be to pull off the side of the road?” James said.
But he saw that emotion first hand when he played a few tunes for his mother on some original records he’d been collected.
From there, he just kept going, collecting more original records and playing them at seniors’ homes, turning the musical visits into a second career of sorts.
Now, he’s constantly collecting, researching and planning mini “shows,” and his days are mostly filled by driving to a gig, performing, driving home, planning the next.
He’s quick to point out that despite the work he puts into it, he never structures the shows too much.
“I don’t plan a particular program because you can’t. Every day is different,” James said. “I could come this week and then the next week the ones that are actively participating today could be very quiet and may not be feeling well and may have headaches and pains … if I don’t hit on one thing, I have another one in the bag and if I don’t hit on that, I have another one and another one.”
Dance halls of Toronto
But on this warm October morning, most audience members are happy and eager to participate.
The topic of the day is the dance halls of Toronto and the shift from live music to recorded radio performances during the Depression.
James has come equipped with the props that tell the story: there are phonograph cylinders, a windup gramophone, radio tubes and a pile of records. As the needle touches down, the opening of Make Believe Ballroom — a popular radio show from the 1930s — fills the room.
Many of the seniors know him well; he’s been coming to the hospital’s Seniors’ Health Centre for 14 years.
For 30 minutes, James is their storyteller, filling in the gaps of their memories and reminding them of long nights spent dancing and falling in love, his stories punctuated by songs that jog their memories in a way his words alone cannot.
At times it’s a bit like a rapid-fire fill-in-the-blank quiz.
“What was the No. 1 dance hall in Toronto?” James asks between songs.
“Palais Royale,” someone calls out.
“Which dance hall did the men prefer because they could afford dance tickets and still have enough money for a beer?”
There’s a pause, a few guesses, but no right answer.
“Not that one,” James repeats kindly until one man has the right answer.
“Seabreeze,” he calls out and James nods a yes.
The longer he speaks and the more music he plays, the more they remember, the more boisterous they get and the quicker they are to interject with their own memories from the time.
This isn’t unusual. The science of music — specifically the music of someone’s teenage years — is often applied in seniors’ care in varying forms, particularly with dementia patients, coaxing out memories and emotions that the mind, in some cases, can no longer recall.
As James wraps up, Lois Simpson is crying.
“Happy tears,” she reassures Lauren Simpson (no relation), the centre’s activities co-ordinator, who reaches out to comfort her.
The program just resonates, says Lauren Simpson, “it’s heartfelt.” She’s been working at the home for more than two decades and has heard many of James’ performances over the years.
“It’s usually reflective of a simpler life and family and friends,” she says. “It can instill a level of calm in (the residents).”
It does more than that for Karma Macgregor. A former pianist, Macgregor leans back and listens. James’ shows “always, always” bring up memories and they’re mostly happy, always comforting.
“My whole life has been music,” she says simply.
Reprinted with permission – Torstar Syndication Services.
North York General Hospital is a community teaching hospital, affiliated with the University of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada
Seniors’ Health Centre
The Seniors’ Health Centre is the hub of services for seniors at NYGH. It houses both a long-term care home and specialized geriatric services. Learn more about the Seniors’ Health Centre by going to the two links below:
Tel: Specialized Geriatric Services: (416) 756-6050 ext. 8060