Jack Schnepp and Dora B. Morrow, two of the members of the Young @ Heart Chorus, based in Northampton, Massachusetts.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

Golden Glory For This Dynamic Duo, aka the Septuagenarian-Octogenarian Singing Sensations

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

April 13, 2008


They've been singing for a long time and they've been around, that's for sure.  But they look as young as ever, and last month they were in town to talk about their appearance in "Young@Heart", which opened earlier last week in New York and Los Angeles and arrives in San Francisco and other U.S. cities on April 18.

These scintillating seniors are anything but camera-shy, as they revealed.

"There's no pressure!  Whether he's filming -- that don't bother us, we're gonna do what we're gonna do.  Without the film or with the film, whatever we do," said Dora Morrow, the 84-year-old who sings "I Feel Good", the James Brown classic, as she spoke about Stephen Walker, the director of the new film distributed in the U.S. by Fox Searchlight Pictures, which is nothing if not a crowd-pleaser.  Jack Schnepp, a fellow Chorus member, sits next to Ms. Morrow in this lavish suite at the Ritz Carlton, and he chimes in about being used to cameras rolling while singing some of the classic hit songs of yesterday and yesteryear.   "Overseas, we usually have a day where the TV comes in from the area, and they're on stage for a couple of numbers and we kind of accommodate them, so we're kind of used to them wandering around with their camera.  (The television news magazine program) 20/20 did a piece on us and they followed us to England one year.  And it never did air, but you know, you get kind of used to it."

Ms. Morrow (who will say several times during this conversation that her interviewer reminds her of her Chicago son-in-law Melvin,) has been in the Young@Heart Chorus for almost six years and Mr. Schnepp has been a member of the Northampton, Massachusetts-based singing group of seventy, eighty and ninety-somethings for just over three.  Bob Cilman, who has directed the Chorus for almost 30 years, chooses the songs that his cadre of seniors sing.  Ms. Morrow, a sprightly and sweetly endearing figure with vigor and great spirits, had an answer to the question of whether there were songs she had wanted to choose to sing.  Reiterating that the choice was not hers, she said about the songs assigned the Chorus: "You won't complain about it, you'll just get out there and learn it . . . I never would have sung James Brown.  It's just like I told Bob, 'James Brown's a man, I'm not no man!  That's a man's song!'"  She then bursts out into laughter, which instantly becomes contagious.

It is worthwhile noting that Ms. Morrow knew the Godfather of Soul (who passed away on Christmas Day 2006) through a mutual friend.

Ms. Morrow and Mr. Schnepp, who himself is a cheery, easy-going gentleman with a professorial and equally avuncular manner, have their musical tastes, most of which are in contrast to the songs (from rock groups like Talking Heads, Coldplay and others) that they sing.  "Well see, when I was growing up, I grew up with spiritual and gospel music.  And it was hard for me to go down and to learn the songs that we learned there.  And I guess if I didn't have my son-in-law (another son-in-law who is a drummer in the Chorus) I probably couldn't have never got the beat (of James Brown) right."  Her musical son-in-law was a significant help in making sure that Ms. Morrow got the beats of the legendary soul song correct.  Mr. Schnepp is a fan of "My Way", which is sung during the show the Chorus performs.  "Now whether it's Sinatra or the way it's structured, I don't know, but it tells a story and has a strength to it, especially in the chorus," he said. 

Inevitably, the elder of the Chorus members is asked the $64,000 question about energy and vitality: what is the secret -- if any -- what is it that keeps her going so impressively at this stage of her life? 

"I think it (energy) just keep me doing things I love to do, and just in my mind I'm not gonna just sit around and just goof away.  And I enjoy doing what I'm doing.  And even when I'm at home I enjoy what I do at home," said Ms. Morrow, who begun to sing at age 17, even though she didn't really want to.  She would sing gospels and spirituals.  "I love gardening.  I love outdoors.  I'm a really outdoors person.  And I love outdoors, doing outdoors work.  And I love traveling.  And when I'm not with the Chorus, I'm going somewhere to see some of my children.  And so I'm never just hunkered down in one place.  And my kids aren't going to let me sit down in one place."  She then talks about how the kids query her on when she will be leaving for her next destination whether it's Indiana, Florida or another country, adding that she typically rests for eight to fifteen days before going back on the road with the Chorus.  Her eldest daughter is an opera singer, and both of her daughters still sing in churches.  Ms. Morrow lights up when Mahalia Jackson is mentioned.  "That's my favorite singer!"

Mr. Schnepp, who also has grandchildren, is in his mid-seventies and he, like Ms. Morrow continues to have a sharp mind and great wit.  In a country which treats its elderly population with disdain or (some would even say) contempt, when contrast with continents like Africa and Asia, Mr. Schnepp talked about the perceptions that both continued to have thrown at them even with their fame and success as they sung around the world to standing-room only audiences, populated ironically with mostly 20, 30 or 40 year-olds, and notes some surprises.  "Well, whenever we perform overseas we get a, a really fantastic reception from the people and we talk with them afterwards and they say, 'we never thought that people your age could be doing this -- we wish our parents would be out there, we wish our grandparents would be out there.'  And looking at the film now and listening to the audience in the theater we're getting the same result from the theater goers as we do when we go overseas.  Which to me is unusual.  When you do something live, you build your show from the energy you get from the audience.  In this case they're just picking it up and traveling with it.  It's an amazing thing -- unexpected as far as I'm concerned," said Mr. Schnepp, who as he spoke was clearly impressed by younger audiences' enthusiasm.

They are both asked about their director Bob Cilman, who works tirelessly with them to get the songs sung just right.  Ms. Morrow, who in the film has some stumbling blocks to hurdle with Mr. Brown's legendary song, said that "I take Bob just as day to day. . . Bob is a really wonderful person.  He is.  He's a good person . . . I wouldn't want anyone else directing me.  If anybody else would be directing me as Bob do, I'd probably hit them," she said, prompting laughter from all in the room.  "I probably would hit 'em!"  After the half-joking though, Ms. Morrow added that "if it wasn't for Bob we (the Chorus) wouldn't actually be here where we are right now.  Bob is good.  He is."  Ms. Morrow also mentions Diane, the assistant to Mr. Cilman.  "She is really good.  If she didn't keep up on everything we wouldn't be here."  Mr. Schnepp added that "Bob is a very energetic, very passionate guy about music and he's able to transfer that feeling about it to us.  He expects a lot out of us.  He'll give us a sheet music and a week later he expects us to know it."  After a brief pause, Mr. Schnepp in a kidding-on-the-square kind of way says, "Apparently we don't have another life, but . . ." 

At this point Ms. Morrow laughs, perhaps knowingly if not out of discomfort, as Mr. Schnepp continues.  "But we come back and we work at it and it works.  He gives us some leeway.  But every once in a while he's had his fill and it just isn't working."

One thing that is working is the film itself.  "Young@Heart" has blazed a trail and is already moving and rousing audiences in the U.S., with Channel Four of England picking the film up as a partial financier and producer in conjunction with Fox Searchlight, the American film distributor.  The same distributor which brought Stateside "The Full Monty", the 1997 Oscar-winning hit film about middle-aged and senior men from Sheffield, England who "take their kit off", as the English cockney expression goes, revealing all, hopes to garner similar success with "Young".

For all the uplifting stories and moments of joy, Ms. Morrow cited the despair of the recent passing of two fellow Chorus members while the group toured and how they handled it.  "That was kind of hard because everyone in the chorus knew those two members and they really played a big part in this chorus, because they were in the chorus before I was," she said.  Still, the sadness of the loss left her, Mr. Schnepp and the rest of the members undeterred when it came to the job at hand.  "But then you know you have a job to do, and you have to do it, regardless to how bad you feel, you just have to kind of push the feeling back and do what you're supposed to do, and just get on out there and do it.  That sadness is still there but you have the strength and the knowledge to know that they're gone on to rest.  And so you just have to let them rest in peace and keep going," Ms. Morrow said. 

What moved Mr. Schnepp in particular was the visit of the Chorus to a prison, where inmates were treated to the Chorus singing of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young", which he observed had really affected them.  "And I think they're in retrospect thinking about their parents, grandparents and what used to be, and comparing to where they are now.  And that to me was very touching.  It just showed that they were really involved in what we were saying in that song.  And we usually close our show with that song, and the audience gets the same effect.  They're thinking about these old people up there telling them that this is what you should do with your life to get to where we are, enjoy it.  So that to me is a very touching scene."

"Young@Heart" opens in San Francisco and other additional cities across the U.S. on April 18.  The film opened on April 9 in New York City and Los Angeles.

Audio: Dora Morrow and Jack Schnepp talk to Omar P.L. Moore of The Popcorn Reel (19 minutes)

Bob Cilman, Northampton Chorus Director of the Young@Heart chorus, talks to The Popcorn Reel about his experiences on the film

Stephen Walker, director of the documentary feature film "Young @ Heart"

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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