Putting the ‘heart’ in community theater

Heart of the Hills Players fulfills lifelong dreams for local seniors

By: Jennie Miller | C&G Newspapers | Published February 16, 2011

 Members of the Heart of the Hills Players performed “Carousel” in the spring of 2010 at the Warren Community Center.

Members of the Heart of the Hills Players performed “Carousel” in the spring of 2010 at the Warren Community Center.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

It’s a special group, the Heart of the Hills Players. There is one major qualification for taking part: You’ve got to love making people smile.

You also have to be over the age of 50. The organization is the largest community theater group in the region comprised solely of seniors.

Melanie Lee of Warren, who said she’s a “very vigorous 78-year-old,” feels that joining the group over a decade ago was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” she said. “I had no idea it would be such a joy for me to do.”

The Heart of the Hills Players, comprising 135 members from all over the tri-county area, perform two large productions every year, as well as numerous mini-shows at senior centers throughout the region.

They’ll be performing a variety show called “Seniors Have Talent” at 2 p.m. Feb. 16-18 at the Shelby Senior Center. Tickets are $8. Their spring Broadway musical, “Brigadoon,” is set for 2 p.m. May 18-19, and at 7 p.m. May 20-21 at the Warren Community Center. Tickets are $14.

For 27 years, Heart of the Hills has been wowing audiences with its impressive talent, bold sets and costumes, and lively shows.

“As you can imagine, 90 percent of our audience (is) seniors,” said John Hante, 72, of Rochester Hills, president of the organization and producer for the shows. “For them to come to hear a lot of the old songs they grew up with back in the ’40s and the ’50s and the ’60s — also they were around when a lot of these major Broadway shows such as ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Hello, Dolly!’ were the major shows in New York, and we’ve brought that back. Fourteen dollars is a lot of value to see a Broadway show. And our audience is just amazed. Our average age is 74, and you’ve got all these people up there dancing and everything.”

While there are currently 135 members of the group, 50 of whom are active, the Heart of the Hills Players are looking for some new blood.

“We’re working now as an organization to replace ourselves because we’re all getting older, so we need to bring in some younger folks,” said Bill Fry, 74, of Bloomfield Hills. “We’d really like to get them because I know there’s a lot of great talent out there, and to be able to find that talent and enable them to fulfill something that may be their dream as well is just very gratifying.”

Performing center stage was a longtime dream of Fry’s, who joined the Heart of the Hills almost five years ago.

“I’ve always loved to sing, right from the time I was a little kid and afraid of the dark, I used to sing myself to sleep,” Fry said. “My mother used to play the piano by ear and my father and sisters would sing. I would lie on the floor and listen to them. Singing has always been a part of my life. I used to always sing around the house, in the car, in the shower or wherever. I’ve always loved to sing and my (late) wife got me involved with karaoke, and I started to enjoy that.”

A friend of Fry’s was involved with Heart of the Hills and suggested he check it out.

“I came out and overcame my fears of performing a little bit, and that was how it started,” he said. “I’ve been a part of this organization and enjoyed it ever since. It’s been part of my dream to perform on stage for people and I’m kind of living that dream. I like the fact that I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do and never took the time to do before.”

What Lee loves about the group is how welcoming it is, and how the members have a great spirit for life. It’s a commitment, and it’s challenging, but the rewards are plenty.

“It really challenges the mind — whether you’re learning new songs or dance steps,” she said. “And there is also the social aspect of it. When we go to the senior homes, you know, music is very healing, and to be a part of something that is helping people smile, helping to brighten their day, having them leave the room or the theater singing or having a lively step that they might not have had when they came in, in a way you’re being of service, and that’s how I look at it.”

Hante, whose forte is comedy in the mini-shows, finds the work incredibly fulfilling.

“It’s just a great thrill to make people laugh, because we all need a little laughter in our lives,” he said.

“The idea is to connect with the people,” Lee added. “We get in there early and we stay after the show. We mingle with the people, just to let them know that they are so important, not only to us, but just because they’re on the planet.”

For more information about the Heart of the Hills Players, to book a show or to get involved, visit the website www.hohplayers.org or call (248) 608-9008.