Introducing the laughing stock of the Kittay House


Betty Gumanow, 83, strode toward the edge of the crowd and lunged forward, pretending to thrust a spear into a shark.

“It’s my favorite,” she told tenants perched on lawn chairs in the courtyard of the Kittay House independent senior living community on Webb Ave. “I love shark wrestling.”

Steve Van Ooteghem, 36, and Jonathan Goldberg, 41, of Cherub Improv, egged Ms. Gumanow on by pretending to bring “Grandma her favorite hook and spear gun” and shouting, “Go get him grandma.”

Laughter erupted among the more than 30 Kittay House tenants gathered near the eight-person improv workshop panel Sunday. The Cherub Improv performances have drawn big crowds at Kittay House since the non-profit performance troupe began simultaneously devising and acting out comedy routines for the seniors three years ago. Cherub, which gives free improv shows in homeless shelters, hospitals and retirement communities across the tri-state area, began offering workshops at the Kittay House last year. Since then, Kittay House tenants have begun watching the four-senior-and-four-Cherub-performer workshop panel winging it through skits, jokes, and word games once a month.

Mr. Goldberg, a Cherub Improv co-founder, welcomed the crowd to its first garden-side show Sunday, saying, “We’re also all very good looking, so you should not be afraid to move forward.” As landscaping sounds interrupted his explanation of the first exercise, Mr. Goldberg assured the audience, “I paid that guy money to mow during our show just in case it wasn’t funny.”

Once the courtyard quieted down, the improv panel launched into its opening free association exercise. Panelists lined up and took turns shouting out the first word that popped in their minds after listening to the previous word. The initial “apple” shot up and down the panel and wound up as “divorced.”

The workshop then moved into physical exercises with a game of “hey, watcha’ doin.’” Ms. Gumanow cupped her hands around her eyes and peered up at the sky. When asked, ‘Hey, watcha’ doin,’” Ms. Gumanow said she was doing laundry, prompting the next performer to mimic washing clothes while thinking of another description for his actions.

Rozanne Zweig, 83, pretended to run a comb through her hair while telling the audience she was gardening. Mr. Goldberg spun around the panelist on fictional rollerblades, shrugging his shoulders and humming “Stayin’ Alive” while announcing he was “cooking dinner for the president.” The “hey, watcha’ doin’” finale required Mr. Van Ooteghem to break dance, which elicited whistles from the audience.

Kittay tenants like Mollie Nogue helped direct skits by shouting out the initial sentence that panelists responded to. Ms. Nogue said she regularly watched the improv workshops and thought they were “very, very good.”

On the other side of the courtyard, Ms. Gumanow and other Kittay House performers said the improv workshops help keep their minds fresh.

“I’m legally blind, so I can’t read anything. This gives me an opportunity to stretch my brains, have fun, and reach out and communicate with others,” said Ms. Gumanow, who has lived at Kittay for three years. “You have got to be ready for whatever comes out.”

Edna Nelkin, 91, sometimes gets stumped, but says it’s fun to “overcome” that initial bump.

“You just have to think by the minute and just do it,” said Ms. Nelkin, who has lived at Kittay for five years. “I like the word association best. It’s fun to see what they come up with.”

Ms. Nelkin said she suggested that Cherub start the workshop at Kittay House because the improv group’s initial performances seemed “sophisticated” and “too young” for tenants. Since Cherub got seniors front and center, Ms. Nelkin said the monthly workshop panels have “really caught on.”

Mr. Goldberg said his Cherub Improv crew has developed “a great relationship” with Kittay. A friend who worked at a Jewish hospice service told him about the senior community three years ago. The residents are always “very enthusiastic,” according to Mr. Goldberg.

Mr. Goldberg, a Manhattan attorney at SNR Denton, Mr. Van Ooteghem, a medical resident, and Joy Purver, 37, a Manhattan freelance producer, got the idea to start Cherub when they met in an improv class.

“We all have a sort of volunteering or philanthropic spirit and we thought it would be awesome to combine our love of performing with charity,” said Mr. Goldberg.