Play us a song; you’re the piano man
Don Terra plays songs that help the Sacramento Valley’s oldest citzens feel young again.
Hilda swung her walker around, kicked out her small feet and, from her stooped position, rotated her rump in an all-over rhythm that inspired giddy applause. “You made my day,” Terra told her.
George, who looked like an engineer—tall and wearing glasses with dark frames—jumped up and, with both arms in the air, conducted his neighbors through an entire version of “Jingle Bells.”
Downtown Auburn seemed slightly dreary in early December. Fake pine wreaths and a few plastic snowflakes were lit up with white lights, but the grand historic courthouse had not one red bow on its doors. It was the season of holiday cheer all right, but there was an air of bah humbug about the place.
Down the street, the Oakwood Village retirement home was trying to beat back the blues. Retirement homes, where even the liveliest personalities eventually bend under physical pain and loneliness, could top the list of depressing places during the holidays. But Don Terra, a debonair piano player with a grown-out Beatles haircut and a bright red turtleneck, knew there was still a lot of fun-loving spirit in the residents at Oakwood Village, and he had decided to tease it out.
In a parlor room gussied up in red and green, Terra stood by the upright piano and watched his audience ditch their walkers and choose their seats.
Beth, the perky activities director, led an old barbershop-quartet singer with a yellowing mustache by the hand.
“Right here by Katie,” Beth said to Bill in her warm, girlish soprano.
“Oh, you’re cold,” Katie cried, as Bill grabbed her hands to say hello.
Bill looked at his offending palms. “I must have died,” he said jovially, and then he turned his attention to the piano player.
Terra, standing tall and full of energy, clapped his hands. “Beth hired me today,” he said, “to get you into the Christmas spirit.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Now, I know you’re all anxious to get to the bars for a cocktail,” he teased.
“Ohhhh,” scoffed the widowed ladies in the audience, “oh, ho, ho.”
Terra launched into his fancy opening piece, a medley of “Carol of the Bells” and “We Three Kings.” As if making typos, he occasionally flubbed a couple notes. His audience never acknowledged it.
In the front row, Beth, who seemed like everybody’s default granddaughter, turned many of the old favorites into duets, singing along with Terra in what he called, “the voice of an angel.” Not a confident singer, Terra tended to alternate between something just above a whisper and nothing at all.
Beth looked over her shoulder and sang directly to Bill, her pretty little mouth stretched into perfectly enunciated syllables.
Bill gave her a little tease. “Yingle bells, yingle bells,” he sang, holding up his hands and jiggling them as if snapping a pair of reigns.
“Olé!” he called at the end.
Terra called an enthusiastic welcome to a gentleman with a solemn face who’d just sunk into a couch. The gentleman raised his hands in response and began to play air piano to the bouncy, snappy “Walking My Baby Back Home.” Ladies with their wedding bands and diamonds, their recently painted nails and swollen knuckles, bounced their stiff hands on their knees. On “Silent Night,” a lady with closed eyes gave a wistful smile and then let out a crackling “sleep in heavenly peace.”
Between songs, Terra worked in a little Christmas humor.
“What would happen if we’d had three wise women instead of three wise men,” he asked the crowd, talking loud enough for a room five times the size. “Ya ever think o’ that?”
“Ohhh, oh, ho, ho,” the ladies chortled.
“They would have asked for directions,” said Terra, with emphasis. “They would have arrived on time … and they would have made reservations at the inn waaayy in advance!”
Terra finished his performance with “White Christmas” and then stood and bowed one final majestic bow before circling the room, taking up hands and wishing people a happy holiday.
“I’m a bowler,” said one man. “Let’s play a game some time.”
“You play the piano with your whole body,” said a lady.
“I’m dying for a cigarette,” said Bill, who took his cane and shuffled off.
Terra gave a sigh and sat in the corner of one of the chairs, crossing his long legs. The performer’s exaggerated smile and squeaky-clean presentation melted away, and, in an interview that was regularly interrupted by folks who wanted to thank him again, Terra suddenly appeared a confident older man who’d fit in anywhere you dropped him, though he doesn’t necessarily believe that. For years, he’d had to pop three or four Advil before every performance to calm himself down.
Terra spent 15 years playing weddings and New Year’s Eve gigs with his own Sacramento dance band in the 1970s and 1980s. Known by various names, including the Ebbtides and the Universals, the band never found fame doing disco covers and Mexican ballads, but the occasional bookings kept Terra and his young musicians in pocket money.
His current gig is equally lucrative. In various retirement homes around the Sacramento area, Terra mixes his favorite boogie-woogie numbers with the peppy piano tunes that popularized the Charleston. At Christmas, he adds in a dozen carols and some holiday jokes and tops it off with a homemade magic trick. In December alone, he had more than 20 gigs. What other local musician is getting that kind of work?
The funny thing is that Terra had simply wanted to be charitable.
After an early retirement, Terra read stories about local homes that were exceptionally good to their residents. They inspired him to donate his musical talents to perking up the wheelchair-and-walker set. But, surprisingly, no one would book him if he offered to play for free. He finally got wise, he said. He visited 12 local homes one day, offered to play for a price and was hired by eight of them on the spot.
While Terra talked at Oakwood Village, busying himself with accepting thanks and packing up, Virginia, an 86-year-old resident who still looked competent enough to hold a job, took a seat nearby and started reminiscing about her time overseas during World War II. She’d gone overseas with the Red Cross as an entertainment coordinator herself and had been stationed in hospitals in both Japan and Germany.
“How young they were,” said Virginia, thinking about the injured boys she’d known. “How bewildered they were to find themselves where they were.”
Terra listened politely to the end of her story, seemingly sizing up the lady’s gray curls, her prim smile. Then, he did something odd. He seemed to verbally distance himself from her, as if her age removed her from his lifetime altogether. Ignoring her memories, he asked her about her health instead, complementing her in a slightly condescending tone on how well she got around. Virginia took no offense and acknowledged that she was stiff and achy and had stashed her walker in another room. The pair of them traded a few stories about ailing family members before the conversation died away.
Terra, a 65-year-old, was a young boy when all the spirited songs of the 1940s became popular. So, World War II was hardly “his” war, but the songs stayed with him from childhood, and they never fail to bring up memories for his audiences.
Once, a gentleman passed Terra a copy of his life story, the first chapter of which explained in stark storytelling style what it was like to be a boy living with his two parents at Wheeler Field in Hawaii and running outside after seeing the first bomb fall on Pearl Harbor.
“The rear gunner started firing at us with the bullets tearing up the grass where they hit,” the man had written. “Fortunately, he missed us. In the confusion, the three of us separated. I started running away from the base toward Schofield Barracks. As I started across an open field, a dive-bomber was banking to make a strafing and bombing run and, fortunately, I made it across the field before he could strafe me.”
These are the memories of an earlier generation, of men Terra’s father’s age, though Terra said neither he nor his father ever fought in the military. Terra married a high-school prom queen at 19 and had raised a family right away, which made him an unlikely draft pick, and he wasn’t the volunteering type, he said.
Now, he is married to his third wife, Margaret. He has seven children and lots of grandchildren, and he occasionally has gigs at his father’s retirement home. He remembers being afraid of embarrassing the gentleman, but it appears to Terra that his father is held in high esteem for having such a popular performer for a son.
“He’s a prince of a guy,” said Terra, looking away into the distance, reminded of how his father can’t really hear well enough to request a particular song, unlike his in-laws, who always want to hear “My Way” and “I’ll Never Smile Again” when he performs in their community.
“But once,” said Terra, “he said that he really liked Hawaiian music.”
Terra’s favorite retirement home used to be the Hilltop Estates in Grass Valley, where there once were so many elderly dancers shimmying and gliding around that they blocked Terra and his piano from view. The management even had to step in and clear the floor so that the seated residents could see the show.
The place has a shiny, black baby grand, and on a recent visit there, Terra shoved it into the middle of the cavernous room as if it weighed no more than a shopping cart.
“Are all these presents for me?” Terra asked, as he spotted the Christmas tree.
“Yep,” said the first couple of ladies, teasing him back.
“Feels like there’s something in them,” said Terra, rattling one.
“It’s probably rotten,” said one of the ladies.
On this particular visit, there was a little bed head here and there in the audience, and a number of the ladies twisted hankies nervously with their hands. Those who sat in front still nodded with the music, but there were no angel voices to keep them going, and the dancers that Terra remembered had fallen away.
That’s one of the hardest parts of performing as Terra does. Eventually, his favorite people move on to homes with greater levels of care, or they simply pass out of the world.
Terra had just resigned himself to a low-key set when little Marguerite—her pretty, white hair twisted and held at the back of her head; a little bounce in her step; and a smile straight out of a Colgate commercial—wheeled her walker in and took a seat behind the piano. When the music got to her, she got up, leaned heavily on her walker and sort of bounce-stepped her way in circles around the room. Her neighbors watched her swing her wide hips and point her tiny feet and then glide out between the pillars and disappear into the lobby of the place. A minute later, she reappeared under a different arch before spinning around and landing exhausted in her seat, her arms outstretched.
Terra has to resort to clichés when he tries to explain why he loves performing for people like Marguerite. “It brings a smile to my face to put a smile on their faces,” he’d say.
What Terra can’t stand is playing for those with Alzheimer’s. “Maybe when I get older,” he said with his head lowered, “I’ll play at those places.”
There is one exception. At one Sacramento home, Terra continues to perform even though one little lady with raw, pink skin and bright white curls causes all kinds of disruptions.
Last year, Minnie spent much of Terra’s performance yelling the same lines over and over again: “My four brothers were Marines! They were the first to go!” Often laughing like the spoiled little sister she still imagined herself to be, Minnie could not control her outbursts.
“I’ll be good,” Minnie would say, but she could never keep her promise.
At one point, when she’d become eerily quiet, the buxom redheaded activities director saw that her face had taken on a haunted look. Minnie stared out the window, transfixed, as if an active battle raged on the other side.
The director came to her side, put her hands on Minnie’s head and kissed her there. “Think happy thoughts,” the director whispered.
That was the kind of thing Terra couldn’t handle.
At places like Hilltop Estates, all he had to deal with were stiff joints and other aches and pains. He relied on his humor.
Looking back at Marguerite, who had collapsed again after a series of ever-shorter turns about the room, Terra called out in good humor, “You want Santa Claus to bring you a new pair of lungs?”
Terra said in interviews that he didn’t fear growing older. That’s remarkable coming from a 65-year-old man whose in-laws and father are in retirement homes and who has a couple hundred old folks as his constant companions. But Terra does seem to have held on to his youth. His wife, Margaret, is nearly a decade younger than he is, and she looks younger still. Terra himself is trim and healthy, though he admitted that he and his friends talk about their aches and pains just as much as any nursing-home resident does. Maybe the contact he has had with retirement communities, even if it has been shallow, has offered more of an inspiration than a warning.
By visiting for an hour or two, Terra gets to see residents at their best. He is a salve for their grief and a partner in their merriment. If they are sad or lonely at night, he isn’t there to see it. The residents, who readily admit that living in such communities is hard and confining, show Terra their very best faces, and he does the same for them. It’s a gift they all give each other.
At Crosswood Oaks in Sacramento, Terra entered a huge game room with multiple game tables pushed aside so that 50 or so excited residents could take seats facing the old upright piano. With its worn, brown sheen and rough carving, the thing resembled something out of an old saloon. Terra played it hard enough to shake the floor, and the people responded like guests at an old-fashioned sing-along. They not only knew all the words to “Silent Night,” “White Christmas” and “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” but also recited ’Twas the Night Before Christmas with him, as well. Terra decided to try his magic trick on them. It went like this:
Terra held the handle of what appeared to be a hand mirror with the glass missing from the middle. A longish red velvet bag hung down from the rim.
Terra told the audience that when Santa got home year before last, he told Mrs. Claus that he was feeling a little depressed because some of the houses had undecorated trees.
Mrs. Claus knew just what to do, Terra said. She sent Santa with a second sack full of decorations.
So, last year, Santa and a few elves went off with this new Santa pack, and, when they got to the second-to-last house, they found the father asleep on the couch and the mother asleep on the loveseat. You see, Terra told the audience, they’d worked all day, fed the kids, put them to bed and then stayed up all night putting together trains and bicycles. They’d fallen asleep before they could decorate the tree.
The elves reminded Santa, who was prone to senior moments, said Terra, about the second Santa pack. Terra rummaged down through the mirror’s face, into the sack and further down until his hand came out the bottom. Terra wiggled his fingers, shocked, and his audience let out girlish titters.
Santa had forgotten to zip the sack, said Terra. Now those ornaments were out there orbiting Jupiter.
Wave the red hankie over the sack, the elves told Santa. Terra waved the hankie over the mirror—waved it in and out and in and out, and then … he paused. As if by magic, Terra reached into the sack and pulled out foot after foot of garland, throwing it high in the air and letting it fall glittering to the floor.
Just as with every other performance, the audience let out great gusts of laughter, but no matter how much they applauded, no one ever asked Terra how he did it.
Terra sat back at the piano and told everyone to get up and dance. “It’s OK to strut your stuff here,” he said. “Who’s going to remember tomorrow anyway?”
“Ohhh, oh, ho, ho,” the ladies chortled.
Though nobody got up and danced, they obviously appreciated the invitation.
“This is the way to go,” said a lady named Gloria after Terra gave his final bows. She’d been talking about her new singing group when, without warning, she changed the subject. “When you’re so lonesome, and you’ve lost your mate,” she said, “you have to do things.”
The temperature in the room seemed to drop.
“I just lost my mate,” she said. “Sixty years together. … We fell more in love in those last 15 years than in all the others combined.”
Modest about his own playing and almost guilty about charging for it, Terra has a little problem with playing for former musicians. He is sensitive about those few flubbed notes and becomes nervous like a newcomer when he goes to places like Creekside Village, a Sacramento apartment complex for seniors where a few serious piano players have taken up residence.
On December 12, Howard Tymony was improvising on the communal piano, playing an artful and jazzy version of “Sentimental Journey.”
Perhaps knowing that he made Terra nervous, Tim, as he liked to be called, stood up and left the piano just minutes before Terra arrived, taking a seat off to the side where he’d be out of Terra’s sightlines.
Tim had played piano in the military, and when Truman decided it was time to integrate the remaining armed forces, Tim’s military band was split in half, and Tim joined the half that went up to Anchorage, Alaska. When it finally seemed ridiculous to have an all-black band and an all-white band on base, Tim was one of the first to help form a single, integrated military band.
Occasionally, Terra would think about Tim sitting there behind him, a big talented piano man in a fleece jacket and ball cap who didn’t look old enough to have served in World War II and sure didn’t play with stiff fingers. If Terra thought about it too hard, it would cause him to flub a few notes, so instead, he concentrated on the enthusiasm in front of him, oblivious to the fact that Tim was sucking on a candy cane and looked just as delighted as everyone else.
One lady took Terra at his word when he made another crack about dancing. She swung her walker around in front of him until her little stooped frame, all dressed in layers of pink and red, had some freedom to boogie. She kicked out her small feet and, from her stooped position, started rotating her rump and bouncing it a little up and down until she’d managed an all-over rhythm that inspired giddy applause.
“You made my day,” Terra told Hilda.
Hilda had come from New Orleans, she said in a petite Southern drawl, and she’d always loved to dance. A couple of the ladies in the audience said she was nearly 90 years old and that she could do the hula also, but Hilda insisted they had mistaken her for someone else.
As Terra went through his jokes, magic, carols and war songs, it soon became obvious that the crowd was paying particular attention to a gentleman in the front row who seemed to watch Terra breathlessly at the introduction of each new number.
“Jingle Bells,” said Tim in a whisper. “Just watch him.”
Terra finally stopped teasing the poor man with versions of “Jingle Bell Rock” and other related tunes and ended his set with George’s favorite song.
George, who looked like an engineer, tall with dark glasses frames, jumped up and, with both arms in the air, conducted his neighbors through an entire version of “Jingle Bells.” Terra even let them do it twice.
It had been a tradition since the summer. Each time a performer asked for requests, George yelled out “Jingle Bells!” He’d gotten tired of everyone else listening passively and acting like old folks. When the performers launched into the cheery number, George regularly woke up the room by standing before them and leading them through it in his game, good-natured way. Terra had just given him the first opportunity to do his shtick in the right season, and it tickled his neighbors to no end.
Like Tim and Gloria, George was no stranger to making music. He brought down a picture of his old kazoo band riding a float in a parade. He and his neighbors had turned everything they could find into kazoos, and there he was, right in the middle of the picture, playing a bright blue toilet brush and holder.
If there were one place even more game than Creekside Village, it might have been the Bret Harte Retirement Inn in Grass Valley, where the proprietress, Dorothy Mitchell, inspired independence.
Terra walked into the lobby of the converted 1917 hotel, past the enormous mural of naked nymphs frolicking near a stream and into a large but cozy sitting room. The residents were dressed as if for a cocktail party. Outside, children dressed like Tiny Tim were playing their horns and their violins for the annual Cornish Christmas fair. Inside, Mitchell was hosting her usual “Nip and Nibble.”
While Mitchell served white wine and eggnog, Terra sat at the upright piano facing the wall. Magic, in this case, was out of the question, and jokes were to be kept to a minimum. At Bret Harte, Terra was the floor show, a sophisticated man playing the piano for a sophisticated audience.
Behind Terra, two couples cozied up on a couch. The first gentleman, Pete, was in gray wool, topped by an expensive-looking cap. Beside him sat a resident, also named Dorothy, one of the most striking women in this room or any other. She wore her gray hair softly swept back in waves. She was tall and slender and wore a short, black, velvet dress and a pair of black-and-white pumps that could have stepped right out of a Hollywood movie set in the 1940s. Slightly fragile in the face, she held herself as if she and Pete were graciously hosting the entire affair in their own living room, and, in a way, they were.
Beside them on the couch sat a cheeky woman in a Christmas sweatshirt. Her name was Charlotte, said Mitchell, and she’d come to them weighing less than 100 pounds and carrying a chronic sadness. Now, with her new companion at her side, she shimmied and did a version of the twist while seated.
Behind their couch, friends and acquaintances joked and gossiped like any other guests at a cocktail party.
There were still walkers parked next to furniture, and one woman’s oxygen machine was out of synch with the piano, but the room had a glow about it. There was no hand holding, no kisses on the head and no duets. Mitchell preferred to watch and learn. She kept a journal on her desk where she logged the antics of her residents.
“Mac,” said Terra, once he’d made his way through “Carol of the Bells” again and a couple more Christmas favorites, “you better get a dancing partner because I’m going to swing!”
Mac had to be told twice, but, from the back of the room, the good-looking gentleman stood with difficulty and executed a graceful turn in front of a couch full of ladies. He held his hand out to a woman in a glittering gray sweater, and the two of them, color-coordinated, went dancing down the aisle between chairs and couches, only occasionally having to be gently pressed by sitting residents who didn’t want the couple falling over an arm rest and into their laps.
Mac wore a slightly wolfish grin as he kept his eyes locked on his partner’s, and soon Terra’s face took on a similar romantic cast as he watched them. It was as if he and Mac were wooing in tandem, and, for the first time during a performance, Terra looked like the dangerous, suave musician that every girl’s mother warns her away from.
“He always drinks too much,” one lady whispered, looking at Mac, “but he likes to dance.”
Mitchell called for “Tangerine,” and Terra picked up the pace, heading into the boogie-woogie that his boss always insisted on.
A fun-lover herself, Mitchell delights in stories in which her residents beat the world’s expectations and act like youngsters. “You can always tell who’s doing what,” she said slyly, “by the walker tracks.” She pointed at the way the walkers left snaking trails in the grain of the carpet.
One of her residents had met her second love while living at the Bret Harte Inn, said Mitchell. The lady was engaged at the age of 102 but had the engagement ring returned to J.C. Penney because the diamond was neither large enough nor bright enough. Still, she went ahead and married her beloved at the age of 103 and lived long enough to ask for a divorce at 104.
And then there was Pete. He had once fallen during one of Terra’s concerts but refused to be moved before Terra finished his set. Pete’s daughter sat with him through the last songs and then got him to the hospital, where they learned that Pete had sat there the whole time with a broken hip.
For Terra’s Christmas performance, Pete seemed to feel just fine, clinking his glass against Dorothy’s. Though the pair might take the prize for elegance, they had stiffer competition in the romance department.
One evening, Mitchell explained, her husband John saw one resident’s help light flashing. He went up to the room and found the door slightly ajar. “Are you all right?” he asked. The man said he was just fine—that it was a false alarm. John said he was coming in to make sure and, over the protests of the resident, stepped in to find the man standing in the middle of the room naked. At the same time, John heard something in the bathroom. But when he went to push on that door, someone used both her hands to push it shut again. Finally, he understood the situation. The lady had apparently mistaken the help button for the light and then had gotten out of sight as soon as possible.
This was confirmed in the morning, when the gentleman came downstairs as usual but took up two coffee cups instead of only one.
While Terra performed the last song of the night, what the proprietress liked to call “traveling music,” the residents slowly rose, collected their walkers and began to head for the dining room, where the tables were already set with salads.
Charlotte, who cleaned up as if she were a family friend of the establishment, followed her beau into the dining room, leaving only Dorothy and Pete, the elegant couple from another era, who sat until the end. As Terra stood and gave them his final bow, he warned them that dinner was beginning and said they surely wouldn’t want to miss that. Dorothy gave him a disarming smile, patted his hand and said, as if he would understand better when he were older, “We don’t want to miss this either.”