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Music, energy and lots of smiles

Lassies have been entertaining audiences for past 27 years.

    The Lassies, a group of women in their late 80s and early 90s, are literally bubbling over with excitement and fun as they entertain the elderly residents in a nursing home with music and songs to which the residents can relate. Their animated performance gets the residents to smiling as they’re toe tapping and finger dancing to the music that’s so fondly remembered. There’s a little bit of vaudeville mixed in, and while they may not be Broadway stars, they’re stars as far as their audience is concerned, and they’re loved by everyone who’s lucky enough to catch one of their shows. “You have to be just a little crazy,” said Irene Wallin of Willmar, who has been with the Lassies since 2007. She said they get together and entertain the older generation not only at nursing homes but at senior centers and churches. “We’re seniors alright, that’s our claim to fame, and we have a good time doing it.” When they show up at the Rice Care Center in Willmar, which is where this writer caught their show, they were greeted with enthusiasm plus. “When the activities person there told them who was coming to entertain she told them, ‘oh, you know, the crazy ladies.’ Oh ya, then they knew right away who we were.” And they definitely are a bit crazy, as they’re entertaining, singing, playing, changing hats, jewelry and scarves for every song as they’re inviting the audience to sing along. Eighty-eight-year-old Pauline Leason is an original member of this fantastic group of entertainers. “Myrtle Johnson really is the one that started us,” she said, “and now everyone that was in our group is gone except for me.” Leason has been with the group for 27 years. “Myrt just thought it would be fun to have a group. We didn’t have hats or anything, we just sang and she played the piano.” She said they entertained all over the place. Leason said she enjoys singing and that was the main reason she joined the group. “We’ve never heard anything bad (about their group), but I don’t know what they say behind our back,” she said with a chuckle. It’s really a fun group, she said, and they enjoy so much when they can entertain and brighten someone’s day. Audrey Buzze,o of rural Spicer, joined the club at Leason’s invitation. Joining this group was great, she said, noting she lives in Florida in the winter, and they put on shows like this down there as well, pretty much using the same type of songs they do here. “We have a lot of camaraderie here. It’s very nice, very pleasant.” She thoroughly enjoys what she’s doing. “These people we entertain, that is the only entertainment they get. Of course they’re all sitting there in wheelchairs; they’re kind of a captive audience.” The Lassies may not be professionals, she said, but at least they’re providing something different from the everyday routine. Marge Swanson, who is 90 years old, is having the time of her life with this group. “I feel like I’m really doing things for the Lord because I’m going and entertaining these people that have it worse than I do.” She said her sons tell everybody ‘my mother goes and entertains the old people,’ and then they laugh.” This is Swanson’s 12th year with the Lassies. “I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed anything so much, and the old people, when we get there, they just light up, and if we can do that for them I’m very proud.” Swanson said she loves to sing, and she always hoped this group would ask her to join them and one day they did. “It’s been the most wonderful thing in my life, and I think it’s kept me young; I really do.” Rosie Nelson, of New London, said she doesn’t remember when she joined this group, but she loves being with them and enjoys singing. “I especially like the people. I think we have nice fellowship here, and of course, Irene keeps us all going. She cracks the whip.” She said they couldn’t do this without Irene. “She does everything. She picks out the costumes, the jewelry, everything.” Ella Mae Dengerud, who has been with the group about eight years, said she enjoys what they’re doing because they’re cheering up people in nursing homes. “When we come and sing, they sing with us. It gives you a lift to know they do remember the songs.” At Rice Care Center, she said, they get very excited when they’re told the Lassies are coming. “They’re sitting there waiting and waiting, and when you walk in the door they’re waving, they’re so glad to see you.” And, she said, their hands are moving like maybe some of them were piano players at one time or other; they’re keeping time to the music. “It just gives them a lift…it lifts their spirits up.” Shirley Lohse has been a member of this group since 2000. They used to be called the Merry Widows, she said, but when a member of the group got married they had to change their name because they were no longer all widows. When Myrtle Johnson, who was the pianist, quit, Lohse took over playing piano for the group. They’ve actually had a lot of different names, she said, noting at one time they were called the Kitchen Band. “I had a washtub that I had a little pillar in. I had screws on top and on the bottom and a frying pan behind that; I’d snap the bungee cords, which had different tightnesses so you’d get different tones from striking that frying pan, and I had two little lids made of two different metals, so if you tipped one against the other, depending on where you zinged it against, you’d get a different tone.” That, she said, is what she played. “I wore a really floppy cotton hat. I looked like a hillbilly because I had a real raggedy shirt.” They didn’t all dress alike back then, she said, they wore whatever they wanted. Some played the kazoo, some the tambourine. “We did all that goofy stuff and didn’t sing a lot. I had a bicycle bell on top of my instrument and a cowbell on my side. We had a lot of fun doing that.” Their audience would clap along, she said, they loved it. “One time I’m beating these two lids together and one of them slipped out of my hand and went rolling all the way down the aisle of the senior center, and I had to go get it.” They all commented on the fun they have and how much their audience enjoys what they do. “If you emphasize the mistake you made, they laugh that much more,” said Buzzeo. Wallin said every once in a while someone will put their hat on backwards or something, and the audience just loves it. “You’re so busy changing, and it just makes it that much more fun if you make a few mistakes.” Wallin said they’ve played at several churches as well. They have to know the program they’re getting is for fun, she said, and they usually try to put a gospel song in there someplace. They have done complete programs on gospel a couple of times, and people liked that, she said, but they hear a lot of that music at the nursing homes, and what they like to hear is the old songs they can sing along with. “We’ve had people actually sing along. I’ve been on my own some places – in the memory care unit where they don’t know anyone, but they do know the words, and they sing. That’s why it’s so satisfying. It brings back their memories.” She said sometimes you can hardly look out at them as you’re singing because certain songs bring back memories, and they’ll have tears running down their cheeks. “The whole idea is to bring them back so they remember some things.” One of the residents was married at the Little Brown Church in the Vale, she said, so they sing that song. “She loved that song, and we would hear that story every time, and of course, it was just as great every time we heard it because of who it came from.” That Little Brown Church in the Vale is located in Iowa, she said. When it comes right down to it, Wallin said, the Lassies are probably doing this for selfish reasons. “It’s really for ourselves because we have so much fun. We don’t have any message to bring really except fun.” When it comes to the name of their little band, she said, they’ve been called many names. “We’ve been called Sassy Lassies, and even Senior Hussies, and that was actually a church that had listed them in their bulletin as the Senior Hussies.” Wallin said she wrote a song for their opening number, using the name Senior Lassies, but has been tempted at times to change it to Senior Hussies just “for the heck of it.” “Their opening song is We are the Senior Lassies, How Dee Do Dee Do. We’re here to sing and have some fun and play a song or two. So won’t you come and join us in a happy song. And if you’re feeling groovy just join and sing along. We are the Senior Lassies so how Dee Do Dee Do. We’re here to sing and have some fun and play a song or two.” The songs are all the oldies, she said, such as I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, Abba Dabba Honeymoon,  Ain’t She Sweet, Ma, He’s Making Eyes at me, all oldies but goodies. You have to be just a little crazy to be part of the band, she said. Buzzeo said she was surprised when she first started at how many people would come up to thank them for the entertainment. “We’re not Broadway stuff, but we have fun with it, and I think because we have so much fun, they see that we’re having fun and they smile.” One of Lassies said as they were entertaining at Rice Care Center, she happened to look over at the rest of the band members when they had their sombreros on and she completely lost it. “It was so ridiculous and so cute, and I started to laugh, and I couldn’t stop.” They just put them on their heads any old way, Buzzeo said. “Some are this way, some are that way and some are on backwards.” It’s hilarious. The very last song in their performance is Show Me the Way to Go Home. The residents are always sad to see them go, and welcome them back with open arms every time they come to perform. And the Lassies love it because they totally enjoy what they’re doing, and it keeps them young at heart.

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