Vintage TV

Seniors take to cable with a simple message: Old is grand

The elderly women high-kicking like Rockettes in skimpy, sequined outfits and fishnet hose likely were enough to open the eyes of any Saturday-morning cable wanderers who recently happened to stumble across Dallas public access channel 13 B.

Senior Moments, Dallas' own Oprah for older people, is quite a departure from the church-affiliated and other institutional fare dominating Dallas Community Television. Like many DCTV programs, Senior Moments, broadcast 10 a.m. Saturdays, is in talk-show format, the set revolving around an omnipresent coffee table from the prop room. But unlike the majority of both cable and noncable programming, senior citizens are the stars.

You'd hardly know it by watching them, though. The old people rarely act like stereotypical old people on Senior Moments, and that's the point, says 73-year-old host Gobie Johns, who is working to change the attitude toward seniors in America.

"In other countries, the older they get the more they are revered," she says. "After a person reaches 65 [here], they are relegated to obscurity more or less. 'Go away and sit in your rocking chair or retirement center, and I'll come and see you every once in a while.'...We want to raise awareness that we not only demand attention but respect as well as we age."

When Johns first made the transition from apparel-industry retiree and stepgrandma to community-access talk-show host, her goal was simply to inspire seniors to live full, active lives. Future Senior Moments story ideas include features on a local retiree pursuing his dream of being a classical pianist, an 80-year-old man actively training and riding horses daily and a woman who is reinventing herself as a cabaret singer.

Last month's show featured Frances Dempsey, the 64-year-old director and founder of The Dallas Tap Dazzlers, a local jazz-tap dance troupe for women 45 and older, accompanied by the troupe's oldest member, 81-year-old Anne Bailey. The Dazzlers perform about 100 times a year all over the country, which apparently couldn't suit Dempsey better.

"I've always wanted to be on the 50-yard line prissing my little rear end all over the place. I was just born that way," she says.

Incidentally, a number of the Dallas Mavericks' GrannyAAcs, those crazy grandmas bumping and grinding in silver Daisy Dukes to hip-hop at the basketball games, are also Dallas Tap Dazzlers.

Senior Moments is celebrating its one-year anniversary, no small feat at nonprofit, largely TCI Cablevision-funded DCTV, where most shows don't last more than a few months, assistant programming manager Mark Walsh says.

"We've got a lot of people who find out it's a lot more work than they thought," he says. "They'll be here for a little while and then move on to their next hobby."

Instead of fading away, Senior Moments' mission has expanded from simply inspiring seniors to providing an informative, educational and entertaining medium for and about Dallas' swelling older population. (About one in four Dallas residents will be older than 64 by 2025, demographers estimate.) Hence plans for future shows on senior homelessness, the hospice movement in Dallas, a survey of services available to seniors in Dallas, the meaning of aging in America, other cultures' views on aging and the global perspectives of World War II veterans.

Although Senior Moments focuses on senior citizens, its messages often apply to a broad audience, says Dr. Ruth E. Lee Doyle, who appeared on the show a couple of months ago to discuss sexuality and depression. Her blunt take on emotional responses and how laughter and pleasure and the development of a sense of humor are learned as opposed to other human abilities could definitely appeal to a younger audience.

"Everybody, when they're born, pees, shits, farts, vomits and cries, and crying is the only response out of those that we're told to stop," the 68-year-old marriage and family therapist explains.

This month's show, about films for the senior audience, is comparatively tepid. After more than an hour of trying to get DCTV's studio B to resemble a Hollywood production set, not to mention a long, successful crack at making hair higher, cheeks brighter and lips redder, the crew is almost ready for countdown. Johns and her guests Anne Buckley, a movie reviewer for Park Cities People, and Benjamin Dane, a young North Texas actor and producer, take their seats behind the coffee table. A couple of sound checks later, the three digital cameras are rolling, and the opening graphic, a giant hourglass à la Days of Our Lives, flashes onto the studio monitor. Then the audio: "Senior Moments is a program about aging in America, about seniors who have achieved a unique perspective on life, people who have overcome adversity and are enjoying their senior years to the fullest...The golden years can truly be the best years of your life. Find out how with your host of Senior Moments, Gobie Johns."

Johns had a brief TV career about half a century ago in her hometown of Atlanta, where she worked for the local CBS affiliate on a talk show called Memo For Me Lady. She describes the experience as a lot of standing on street corners in a short skirt and fishnet hose asking people questions about various issues, with the show's Scottie dog mascot by her side.

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