Join Richard Rosenthal as he explores the issues that face the senior citizen members of community. From housing, to transportation, to town services - Richard explores the issues that matter most.
"They Want Their Senior TV"
by Daniel Bubbeo, Newsday
When Richard Rosenthal of East Hampton discovered that a local movie theater wasn't complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act, he didn't just get mad. He got a TV show.
Rosenthal, who lost much of his hearing during World War II, was angry in 1992 that the East Hampton Cinema didn't have an assisted-listening device for the hearing-impaired. The theater also didn't accommodate the needs of patrons in wheelchairs.
After about seven months of stonewalling from the theater, Rosenthal rallied locals to boycott the movie house. Not only did he succeed in getting the theater to change its policies, but he stirred interest in the needs of the disabled in East Hampton.
A show is born
Out of that incident, he approached Local TV Inc., a public-access cable studio in Wainscott, about doing a show on the needs of the disabled. In 1994, Rosenthal's show "Access" premiered and it's still going strong with airings twice a week. "We cover everything from sex to death and what's in between," said Rosenthal, 82.
Rosenthal's program and a number of others like it elsewhere in Nassau and Suffolk are filling a need for seniors, many of whom are retired, to find new avenues to be creative and to express their viewpoints, says LTV executive director Seth Redlus.
"Richard saw a need within the community to communicate to a specific group of people, and created a show with that goal in mind," Redlus said. "Public access was designed to make the medium approachable by the common man."
They also give seniors the opportunity to deal with issues and interests that strike a common bond with others in their age groups. Chuck McMellon, a marketing professor at Hofstra who has done research on seniors and technology, sees public access as a way for seniors to reach out to new friends. "As you get older, you physically deteriorate and your world starts to close in on you," he said. "Friends move, friends die. Because of that, seniors are looking for ways to re-extend or reidentify themselves."
A lighter touch
Bonnie D. Graham has made her share of new friends since experiencing "Senior Moments," the chatfest she created and has produced and hosted since 2000 from PATC Studios in Great Neck. The tone of "Senior Moments" is decidedly lighter than that of "Access."
"We're finding seniors who've made humongous contributions," said Graham, 59, who works as a marketing communications and launch manager for a global communications company when she isn't trying to be the next Ellen DeGeneres. "It's not about the sad stuff, like being forgetful or having Alzheimer's."
Especially not with guests who have included amateur opera singers, the winner of the Miss Senior America pageant and Irving Drake, a Great Neck composer who penned the Engelbert Humperdinck hit "Cuando, Cuando, Cuando."
"Not only did he come on, but he wrote a song for us and had the Five Towns Choir sing it," Graham said. "We've also had 37 members of one of the Long Island harmonica clubs. [The late] Renate Wallasch was esteemed around the world, and we had her Goddesses Bas Harem troupe of belly dancers on. She gave a belly dancing lesson to my mom."
Mom is Ruth Dolgow, and, Graham would be the first to insist, the real star of the show. And at 91, Dolgow, a retired nurse, may likely be the world's oldest talk-show co-host. Graham, who has hosted three other public-access programs besides "Senior Moments," originally conceived of the show as an outlet for a friend, who was running for office in Great Neck, to get his message to seniors. "One day I started to cry real tears out of the blue and I realized I didn't create the show for my friend, Bob, but for my mom," Graham said.
So she called her mom and asked her to be a guest along with some of her mom's friends and had them talk about how they keep busy. "The next week, Bonnie called me on the phone and said, 'How would you like to be my co-host? I like the way you present yourself and deal with the camera,'" Dolgow recalled. "So I said, 'Why not?' "
The pair tapes about 26 shows a year, during the six months when Dolgow isn't living in Boca Raton, Fla. Besides her co-hosting duties, Dolgow schmoozes with the guests and helps them relax before the camera rolls.
"The questions are free-form. I ask people to e-mail me a bio or bring it. I ask guests to talk about their lives. Then Mom and I participate in a Q&A with them," Graham said. "I tell my guests it's just like being in a living room with your two new best friends."
Hygienist to host
They'd probably get along well with Nancy Massaro, who chats it up with guests on her show, "Nancy's Corner," from Four Village Studios in Floral Park. Unlike Graham, this is Massaro's first show, which came about 10 years ago after she saw an ad in the local newspaper that Cablevision was offering studio facilities in the village hall.
"It said if anyone was interested in doing anything on TV to come on down," Massaro said. "I went to the meeting and there must have been about 50 people. They went around the room and asked what you're interested in -- camera, audio, control room -- and I was the only one who said host. So I thought 'Wow, I'm really going to get this job.'"
Before Massaro, a retired dental hygienist who used to work for her husband of 49 years, could start her talkfest, she first had to take a nine-hour technical course on running the camera and operating the audio controls. To date, she has yet to do any of the tech work.
"They don't even want me to do it. I'm technically inept," Massaro said. "But I talk well. I'm comfortable on camera. And my guests are comfortable. I always tell my guests that the show is 28 minutes and the tape will run unless one of us dies. Most of my guests are fairly relaxed. I do not discuss beforehand what I'm going to ask them. I like fresh, crisp answers. I don't rehearse and I rarely work from notes. ... If I have an author. I go through his book."
For her first show, Massaro lined up friends from Theatre Box of Floral Park, a community theater group to which she belongs. She's since played host to, among others, a stand-up comic from Floral Park; her husband's barbershop choir; a butcher who gave lessons in cutting up a chicken, and 11- and 12-year-old cancer survivors.
The last episode is one of her favorites, but she hasn't loved them all. "Once I had on an insurance man, who talked about long-term care," she said. "I thought it was the most boring show I ever did, but afterward people told me it was the best show I ever did and that they got the best information from it."
Providing information and generating lively discussion are what drives Rosenthal and "Access." Rosenthal, who's also a writer (his novel, "The Dandelion War," came out in 2006), has dealt with such hot issues as local health care, affordable housing, nutrition and the war in Iraq. Rosenthal must adhere to LTV's guidelines, meaning no foul language or indecent material, though he said the studio has never interfered with any of his shows.
"We encourage seniors to come on with different political views. We've had members from the Right to Life party and Socialist party workers," Rosenthal said. "I find a topic of interest, and they present it. The great thing about public access in East Hampton is the complete lack of censorship. There has never been any attempt to pull the program because of content."
LTV has also been very welcoming of seniors, a majority of whom are producers, directors and camera operators, Redlus said. "The technology is easy to understand and operate, and we guide them through every step of the way. We encourage interested individuals to stop by the station, sit in on a show and see firsthand how it all works," he said. "Producer's courses are also available to learn production end-to-end with other individuals. Most people find it surprisingly simple and a fun way to spend an afternoon."
The 'kid' is in her 60s
One would be hard-pressed to find a more senior technical crew than the one that works on "Access." "My crew is Victor Teich on camera. He is 91 and he's wonderful. Another camera person is Silvia Tennenbaum. She's 80. My director Jody Simon is 75 or 76. Another cameraperson, Margaret de Rouleaux, she's a kid, probably in her 60s," Rosenthal said.
Graham, who said her tech people are sometimes as young as 16, also credits her crew with giving her show a professional look. "We all aspire to high quality," she said. "We go out of our way to make the set look very attractive with a tea service, colorful beads, a poster goes behind us on an easel. We've worked very hard ... to bring strong production values to the shows and do good interviews. ... They're putting into production my vision of how the show should look. It's a challenge to a director to visualize what will convey information and entertainment the best."
Though no one interviewed had any ratings for their shows, Graham dreams of someday having a nationwide audience on a talk show with a band and all the trimmings. For now, her greatest joy is the local fame it's given to her mom.
"It's really enhanced our relationship. It's made my mom sort of a celebrity. I told her how I'd go to the supermarket and people would come up to me and say 'Hey, you're the TV lady.' That happens to my mother now and I got to share that little piece of celebrity with her, and she gets a real kick out of that."