From left, Tom Roberts, Harry Burkey and Diane McCormack are among the team that worked on writer/director Burkey’s film series, “Life in the Slowe Lane,” which will be screened July 20 at Services for Older Citizens in Grosse Pointe Farms.

From left, Tom Roberts, Harry Burkey and Diane McCormack are among the team that worked on writer/director Burkey’s film series, “Life in the Slowe Lane,” which will be screened July 20 at Services for Older Citizens in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

Seniors enjoy life’s second act by appearing in short film series

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published July 10, 2018

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Even in today’s fractured television universe, with more channels and online options than ever catering to different audiences, TV remains a youth-driven medium.

That’s one of the elements that makes Grosse Pointe Woods writer/director Harry Burkey’s latest project welcome. Alongside a cast of acting newcomers, he made a series of short comic films that resemble a sitcom that focuses on the lives of a small group of senior friends.

The all-volunteer effort will culminate in a screening of some of the episodes from the series — called “Life in the Slowe Lane” — from 6 to 9 p.m. July 20 at Services for Older Citizens. Food and beverages will be served during this event, and attendees are asked to bring a donation of any amount, with money raised going to the nonprofit SOC.

Burkey, who wrote the scripts for what he’s calling a miniseries while he was vacationing in Florida in February 2017, captures the playful bickering between the long-married pair Eddie — played by Tom Roberts, of Grosse Pointe Park — and Olivia — played by Diane McCormack, of Grosse Pointe Farms. Viewers also get to see the interaction of the couple with their respective friends, along with scenes involving a grandson and other family members.

Other actors in the cast include William J. Giovan of Grosse Pointe Farms, Ann Collins of St. Clair Shores, Mary Stelmark of Grosse Pointe Farms, Joe Stelmark of Grosse Pointe Farms, Shawn Henry of Grosse Pointe Park, Whittier Henry of Grosse Pointe Park and Burkey’s wife, Janie Burkey. The music is by Michael Burkey of Sterling Heights.

All but Giovan — who has done previous theatrical productions — were students in a class Burkey taught in acting for the camera at SOC last year. None of the students in Burkey’s class had prior acting experience.

Burkey, a retired middle school teacher who has acted for the stage and the screen, had previously taught an acting for the camera class for kids at the Assumption Cultural Center in St. Clair Shores. He had been volunteering for SOC by teaching poker and leading poker tournaments when he was approached by an SOC programming specialist about teaching an acting class there as well.

As a stage veteran, he knew the challenges posed by plays, from memorizing lines to covering up flubs by a fellow performer. For film, though, there’s always a chance for a second take, which would be an advantage with a group of new actors. Some agreed to participate with more enthusiasm than others, but all ended up learning and growing together.

“I thought this was something I might want to do in retirement, and I found out it wasn’t,” said Roberts, 75, who retired in 2001 as a service manager for a computer manufacturer. “It has nothing to do with Harry — (acting) is time consuming. You have to be all in.”

McCormack, 75, a retired fully licensed psychologist, likewise isn’t making plans to move to Hollywood and get an agent, but she said this was “a good learning experience.” She’s also proud to have inspired her 7-year-old granddaughter to try out for a production of “Cinderella” at her school in Coral Gables, Florida. McCormack said her granddaughter landed the plum role of the Wicked Stepmother, and Grandma flew in for the opening.

Burkey said the series was inspired by the comic strip “Pickles,” by Brian Crane, which follows the interactions between an older husband and wife. Burkey even offers a nod to those characters in his series. In “Pickles,” the spouses are named Earl and Opal; Burkey went with Eddie and Olivia.

“This isn’t a Hollywood production,” McCormack said. “This is a small town (show). … The humor is good, healthy humor that probably wouldn’t make it with 20-somethings because they haven’t lived it.”

Filming took place last summer on the third floor of the SOC building. The actors worked in front of a green screen, with Burkey later editing in locations such as a park bench or a kitchen table. To make sure the actors were in the right spot, Burkey said he filmed his own home for the interior scenes and then mapped out the locations of walls, furniture and the like.

“We tried not to walk into walls,” McCormack said.

Burkey encouraged his actors to ad-lib.

“In many cases, they came up with things that were much more natural,” he said.

Roberts and McCormack said they could relate to the characters in “Slowe Lane.”

“They were fun people,” McCormack said.

They said they can tell which scenes they shot early in the process and which ones were shot later.

“I was more interested in memorizing my lines than getting into character and just being the character,” said Roberts of his early scenes.

McCormack agreed that they gradually all became more comfortable in front of the camera.

“It got to the point where it really felt natural,” she said. “We were really stiff in the first few scenes. But very quickly, we became a cohesive little band, and you have to give Harry credit for that.”

Burkey, in turn, said the whole cast aided in various aspects of the production. The actors and Burkey — who also painstakingly edited the episodes — became a close-knit group, not unlike the longtime friends they portray on the screen.

“My mantra was, ‘What would Jane Fonda do?’” McCormack said. “We did have a lot of fun.”

Burkey hopes his series concept is a success, not because he hopes to get rich from it — quite the opposite, given the amount of his own money he has spent on equipment — but because he believes this format is something other senior centers could adopt for their patrons, so that “seniors could tell their stories.” He was exploring options for possibly making “Life in the Slowe Lane” available for viewing online as well, although nothing definitive had been decided at press time.

During the upcoming screening, Burkey plans to briefly explain the process of making the films before screening about five of the 10 episodes. Each episode is roughly five minutes long, he said.

SOC is located inside the Boll House at 158 Ridge Road in Grosse Pointe Farms. Reservations are requested and can be made by calling SOC at (313) 882-9600. For other information about the project, contact Burkey at (313) 407-6225.