On first glance one might not see that the finest continuing care retirement community located on the shores of Sarasota Bay stands like a sister next to the internationally renowned Sarasota Music Festival.  Of course, Plymouth Harbor residents number a good many of those enjoying the concerts performed by famed classical musicians and the extraordinary students who come from all over the world to vie for the limited opportunities at this all-scholarship chamber music festival.  But there is really more to it than that.

It all starts with the visionary individual, the Reverend Dr. John Whitney MacNeil.  In the same year that he negotiated the fundamentally essential financial support of the United Church of Christ for the establishment of Sarasota’s New College, he set his congregation on course to build “a retirement community of distinction.”  It was 1961.

By 1966, the first New College students were in their junior year of studies when the community gathered to dedicate the beautiful new building on the bay front.  Just a few months before, Dr. John Elmendorf had been installed as the New College’s second president.  According to his widow, Dr. Mary Elmendorf, herself a pioneering anthropologist, when her husband was interviewing for the position at New College, he was asked if he would support the concept of a new chamber music festival that was in the making.  “Not only did he say he would support it, he told them that he wouldn’t take the job UNLESS they started this music festival!” shares Mary with obvious pride.

The New College Music Festival held its first concerts in 1965 during Dr. Elmendorf’s first year in office and within two years was a three week festival drawing exceptional students from across the United States.   In 1984, renamed the Sarasota Music Festival, it was transferred to the administration of the Florida West Coast Symphony. 

What the visionary leaders of Sarasota set in motion 50 years ago is still enriching the community.  Dr. Mary Elmendorf, a Plymouth Harbor resident since 2001, is joined by many of her fellow residents as subscribers, regular concert attendees and financial supporters of this longtime musical gem.  For three weeks every June, music fills the air and Plymouth Harbor reaps the benefits.

Music came so easily to Ted Rehl when he was a child that he almost took it for granted. Able to play nearly anything by ear at an early age on his family’s parlor piano, he was encouraged with lessons. His talent on the piano was a given, or so it would seem by the matter-of-fact way he describes his musical training. While Ted enjoyed it enough, there were always other things that captivated his interest and challenged his mind, such as math and more “logical” pursuits.

Nevertheless, the young boy from Galion, Ohio attended Oberlin College Conservatory of Music on a full scholarship. It was here on this quintessential Midwest liberal arts college campus that he met Fran, a gifted cellist from Seattle. They were soon married and Ted stayed on to earn his graduate degree in music at Oberlin. After one year in working in New York City, Ted joined the faculty at Washington State University, Pullman before finally settling at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Fran taught music for many years before deciding to take on the different challenges of real estate with a good bit of success. Meanwhile in addition to his faculty responsibilities, Ted was an active soloist, accompanist, and chamber music player; in the 60s he was member of a duo-piano team that had a New York manager and played programs all over the United States.

When offered an early retirement package after 34 years at Lawrence University, Ted took it. He played his last concert with conservatory colleagues in a final hurrah. Perhaps only he knew that this was the definitive end of a chapter when he closed the lid on the keyboard after that concert.

Ted didn’t touch another piano for 18 ½ years. There was no tragedy or drama involved. It wasn’t that he disliked the piano, he was just finished with that and wanted to do other things. He sold his piano, disposed of all of his music, and pursued his other hobbies.

In addition to bridge, puzzles, and volunteer work, Ted turned his curiosity and mathematical logic to the world of computers. It was never dull and he was never aware of any void left by the absence of the piano in his life.

When Fran and Ted moved to Plymouth Harbor, they enjoyed living in and being surrounded by a community rich in the performing arts and music. The intimate Pilgrim Hall struck them both as a perfect recital and chamber music venue.

In 2010 they spoke to Harry Hobson about their desire to provide a fine, recital-quality grand piano to be used by visiting artists in Pilgrim Hall performances. It started simply enough, searching listings of used pianos as well as talking to the regional Steinway dealers, they began to narrow their search. Each time a prospective instrument was presented to them, Ted declined to try it out himself. Listening to the dealer’s playing was enough to test the sound for them.

Until one day, it simply wasn’t enough. They scouted out a dealer who had a Steinway grand piano in a small showroom near Venice. There was something Ted heard that caught his attention. It touched his heart, in fact. No one was more surprised than his wife Fran when Ted agreed to try it out. He spent the next two hours playing, listening, and falling in love with a piano for the first time in his life.

This might sound odd, but Ted had just never met the right piano before. This little Steinway had an alluring sound and touch that inspired a new joy of expression. With the piano soon settled into its new home on the stage of Pilgrim Hall, Ted began to look forward to his time making music with it.

“At first I had no technique whatsoever,” says Ted, “and it was slow getting it back.” He practiced at least 3 hours a day for weeks, even months before he felt comfortable. Urged to set a date for the dedication of the piano with a recital, Ted practiced steadily. Not until about a week before the April 1, 2011 date did he feel confident that he could make it through the program without embarrassing himself.

He was a smash hit and each successive concert since (5 so far) is greeted with a full house and standing ovations. While making his fellow Plymouth Harbor residents happy with his performance, Fran realizes that he’s happier than he had been in years.

Ted just knows that his goal now is to keep practicing. It’s exhilarating to have his technique at the previous professional level, and, he believes, even better than before. His plan is to keep presenting programs that his friends enjoy. He takes requests and slips in some music that he’s always wanted to perform. Fran’s considerable musical judgment is called upon to make sure the programs have the right mix of music to be entertaining for all.

His last program, The Romantic Piano, was recorded. For a donation of any amount given to benefit the arts at Plymouth Harbor, a CD of the program is being given as a token of gratitude. (For more information, contact Becky Pazkowski,The Plymouth Harbor Foundation.)

Ted’s next concert, an all-Russian program, is scheduled for October 18 and will include Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in its original form for solo piano. Stay tuned for more on that.

Well, no one can ever claim that Plymouth Harbor residents don’t know how to have a good time and aren’t extremely talented at entertaining themselves! This spring saw the third “Plymouth Harbor’s Got Talent” evening with master of ceremonies George Heitler welcoming a parade of performers to the stage of Pilgrim Hall.

This tradition started in 2006 when George thought he’d present something along the lines of Major Bowe’s Amateur Hour. But, in reading the biographies on file, he discovered so much talent that he switched it to a Talent Show. That successful show then led to another in 2010 and 2013, now under the name referencing the British and American reality-talent shows popular today.

So, certainly you are wondering, “Who’s got talent, anyway?” Well this evening, the audience heard from 16 brave talents.

The show opened with Joan Sheil on the organ, playing “Side By Side,” written in 1927 and sung by many popular stars. Ater playing it once, the audience was invited to join in a chorus led by George Heitler.

Monologues, story-telling, jokes, and skits were very popular. We heard monologues from Naomi Wittenberg and Bill Brackett, both familiar to us from their involvement in the annual Plymouth Harbor Players productions. Joanne Hastings and Serge Oliel told humorous stories. Al Balaban brought to life the story told in the song, “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long.” LuVerne Conway, in costume, ended her story with the song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Dancers Jim Griffith and Bobi Sanderson chose not to attempt their talent on the small Pilgrim Hall stage, but shared a video of their performance at a previous dance competition.

The only non-resident performers were the intrepid duo Becky and Paul Pazkowski. Becky is our Vice President of Philanthropy, but she forgot to send the hat around after she sang. Or maybe she thought twice about it.

Rev. Rosemary Gremban not only sang her lovely spiritual songs a capella, but composed them herself. Peggy and Don Wallace did the same thing, but the message was a little, shall we say, irreverent. Peggy sang a series of not-so familiar college alma maters and fight songs to her favorite schools – East Overshoe U, Puberty Normal, and Missouri College of Mines, among others. You had to laugh and it wasn’t because of Don’s piano playing!

Finally, Florence and George Heitler tested their thespian skills by portraying a dear older couple that hated, despised, and loathed each other in poetic recitation.

It was all great fun, particularly when the entire cast was called upon impromptu to sing the final song, “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Plymouth Harbor’s Got Talent       PART 2

If you missed this show watch these videos, or a DVD of the entire evening can be found in the Library on the Mezzanine. And if you are wondering, yes, there will be other opportunities to perform, so dust off the tap shoes, tune the guitar strings, and get to work so we can applaud you in the next “Plymouth Harbor’s Got Talent!”

 Jay Scott Pike is an artist and has been a professional artist almost since the day he was 16 and enrolled in the Art Students League in Manhattan. His connection to Sarasota is early, too.  He finished his art school training at the Ringling School of Art before going back to the northeast for the remainder of his career as a professional artist.

Retired now and living at Plymouth Harbor in Sarasota, Florida, where he had first arrived as a student in 1948, Scott still paints every day. He has a studio in his apartment, which he shares with his wife of well over 50 years, Margie, and also keeps an easel at the ready in the Plymouth Harbor art studio open to all residents.

Scott’s professional work spanned from commercial art for big name brands to comic books and pin-up art. While in the Marines at the end of WWII he even took commissions to paint lovely ladies on the sides of bomber aircraft. For fun, you might enjoy learning more about his career on Wikipedia where the page on Jay Scott Pike reveals even more.

But now he has a new series he has been working on for almost 6 years.

Scott Pike has painted portraits of his neighbors in Plymouth Harbor, but they are not the standard portrait you may imagine. Each individual is portrayed as a character that either plays off an actual trait or runs directly counter to the individual’s real personality. Whatever it is, Scott just saw the right way to capture his friends and we’ve all been delighted by the results.

His first was to capture the ebullient and musically talented George Heitler as a deadly serious gunslinger in Gary Cooper High Noon style.

Retired physician Dr. Jim Griffith was portrayed as a sea captain during a terrible storm.

For some, the portraits were created only shortly before their passing and have remained as a cheerful reminder of dear friends and the qualities that all loved. 

The list goes on. Not only do his portraits remain the “talk of the tower” at Plymouth Harbor, but also have become a meaningful gift and moments in the lives of those he has portrayed.

Gunslinger – George Heitler
Drill Sarge – John Knox Hess*
Riverboat Gambler – Dr. Richard Kessler*
Sea Captain – Dr. Jim Griffith
Coach – Marlow Cook
Spanish Dancer – Jill Wilson
Aviatrix – Wendy Underwood
Showgirl – Francie Jones
Seer – Marty Buenneke
Plymouth Harbor Gothic – Jean Lions and George Doty
Truck Driver – Larry Coffey

* deceased

A Zest for Life Profile

Lest you ever suspect that selling your home and moving to a retirement community like Plymouth Harbor means that life is slowing down, have a chat with Peggy and Don Wallace. A report on their daily activities and active work in the community would leave a 50-year old youngster breathless.  And that’s exactly what happened when I joined them for lunch recently in the Mayflower Dining Room.

From the moment we sat down, they were bubbling with all the reasons they cherish living in the Plymouth Harbor community. But first things first, Peggy and I ordered the seafood wrap while Don ordered a cheeseburger with gusto before we all bolted for the salad bar, one of the best in Sarasota.

We sat down with salad plates heaping and I quickly learned that Peggy and Don had not intended to move into Plymouth Harbor when they did.

“We put our name on a waiting list saying we wouldn’t be ready for another 2-3 years,” said Don.  But when they got a call three months later with the news that a southwest facing apartment on the 12th floor of the tower was available immediately, they put their home on the market and packed their things.  Although it took a year to sell their house just when the marketing dipped, he beamed, “We never regretted it and never looked back.”

In fact, they never missed a beat keeping up with their outside circle of friends and find themselves even more involved in activities than when they had their home on Siesta Key. They keep physically fit by working with Michael in the gym at least twice a week.  Peggy serves on the Library Committee and is getting ready to participate in the project of redecorating their colony common area.  Don is active with the Programming Committee.

“There is so much to do at Plymouth Harbor,” Peggy points out. “If you aren’t active, then you must not want to be!”

Together they are a power couple providing a real professional touch to the annual Plymouth Harbor Players theatrical production. Don is still an active member of the Directors and Writers guilds of America, but doesn’t get paid scale for writing the play for this group of amateur resident thespians.  For the past three years he has written and directed the production.  Peggy had been his stage manager until this most recent production when she was cast in a leading role.

Zest for Life at Plymouth HarborNearly two months of rehearsals for this annual production are an all-consuming business, especially with pros like Don and Peggy at the helm. That professional polish is the result of a life spent in the entertainment business in LA and New York.  Don wrote, directed and produced soap operas such as “The Edge of Night,” “One Life to Live” and “All My Children.”  He was nominated for three Emmy awards for three different episodes of “One Life to Live” and won a Writer’s Guild of America award for an episode of “One Life to Live.”

Both Don and Peggy are musicians; she’s a singer and he’s a horn player.  They sing in the choir at the First Congregational Church and attend the Sarasota Orchestra concerts regularly.  It was great fun to talk about his experiences conducting choirs and our respective views on whether to sing Brahms’ German Requiem in English or the original German.  We could have talked the rest of the afternoon, but not with their busy schedules!

One of their sons lives here in Sarasota, another visited just last month and their granddaughter had just left the day before our meeting after a week’s visit.  Their family enjoys staying at the Lido Beach Resort where Plymouth Harbor residents benefit from a discount rate even during the height of season.

Peggy says that one of the most important factors that make her busy life manageable is the care and attention of all the staff at Plymouth Harbor.  “They take away the little hassles of living,” she shared.  Well, when you are as busy as Don and Peggy involved in activities that feed mind, body and soul, you need every minute you can get for yourself!