King of the Senior Prom
Michael Vitez | Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine | March 1996
EVEN GOD RESTED ON the seventh day. Not Jim Malloy.
On a recent Sunday night, up at Cannstatter, a restaurant and club in Northeast Philadelphia, he danced with more women than King Ramses had in his harem. He fox-trotted with Peg. Jitterbugged with Mary. Waltzed with Irene. He even wandered into the ballroom next door, where employees from Hecht’s department store were having a private party, and dragged a woman from the furniture department back into the lounge for a swing. The woman was young, only 61. “Three of ’em were standing around,” chuckled Jim. “I just wanted to give the gals something to talk about. “
Jim Malloy, 77, a widower with an artificial right hip, often dances seven nights a week. He rarely quits before midnight, and never sits down. On any given night, he might dance with 20 women. “He is a widow’s dream,” explained one of his dance partners. Another, Deanna Dvorak, a widow and regular at the VFW Hall in Ardsley, where Jim dances every Monday night, said, simply, “He’s a god here. “
But Jim is not the only god or goddess on Philadelphia’s senior dance circuit. Thousands of senior citizens dance one, three, five, even seven nights a week in firehouses, senior centers, VFW halls, and ballrooms around the region. The majority are widows and widowers, who, like Jim, simply love to dance. But they also come out at night to escape the loneliness, to be with people, to be held in another’s arms. So many retiree activities take place during the day, but most dances are at night. “It’s the nights that are the loneliest,” said Teresa Reardon, 66, another of Jim’s partners. “So that’s when we need the dances. “
Almost all of these dancers have seen death up close, know it could visit at any time, and will be damned if they will sit home and wait for it. For these oldsters, dancing is therapy at its best, mentally and physically. “Dancing keeps your body in a pleasant mood,” says Jim.
The senior dance circuit is paradise for a healthy man. Not only has nature left older men in shorter supply, and thus higher demand, but women of this generation do not feel comfortable asking a man to dance. So the men have it made. A few are selective to the point of rudeness, walking past a row of women seated patiently in folding chairs before finding one that suits him – like picking grapefruits at the Acme. Many men, like Jim, feel a civic responsibility to dance with as many women as possible – a burden he bears all too happily. The burden is slightly less enjoyable for Jim’s girlfriend – Dottie. Jim met Dottie Byrne, a widow in her 70s, at a dance five years ago. “When I first started to go out with Jim,” Dottie explained, “I didn’t like it. My husband never left my side. But gradually, I learned Jim loves people. I let him go his own way – and he always comes back. “
Jim Malloy has been dancing nearly every night for six years, since his wife, May, died of lung cancer. He is a dashing figure with his silver hair, his Wanamakers suits and tassled loafers. His tie remains tight well past midnight, his matching handkerchief still perfectly positioned in his lapel pocket. Not only is he light on his feet, but his personality is levitating as well. In a world of lost husbands and loneliness, Jim Malloy is the song-and-dance man.
ON A RECENT SUNDAY NIGHT, JIM and Dottie drove over to Cannstatter around 8. Jim parked his 1987 Chrysler New Yorker in a handicapped spot.
Handicapped? To go dancing?
Jim saw no irony in this at all.
“Whaddaya mean?” he crackled. “I’m entitled like everybody else. “
Then Jim got out of the car – an ordeal that explained everything.
First, he opened the car door. Then he reclined his seat, so he was leaning back as if on a hospital bed. He slowly swung his left leg around until his foot was on the ground. And then his right leg. Then he raised his seat back to a vertical position, lifting himself along with it, so he was sitting up. Then he pulled himself out of the car. Because of the artificial hip, he has lost some flexibility. He can swing for hours, but he can’t bend over to tie his shoes – hence the loafers.
On his feet, Jim was himself again. He bounced into Cannstatter and saw several cronies seated on a bench outside the lounge. “Boys!” he beamed, sticking out his hand, “how are yas? ” He was off and running. Many here and in other dance halls refer to him as “Mayor. ” Some call him “Senator. ” Others, “Judge. ” He circled the room like a politician, kissing the ladies and shaking hands with the boys, stopping at every table and barstool. Dottie just grabbed a seat and made little effort to keep up. This was a frat party for the geriatric set. They didn’t gator and mosh and leap from the mantle, but they still carried on pretty well.
“That guy, every day a dancer,” said Sergei Zubry, 70, a friend of Jim’s. “When the snow falls, he gets a snowshoe – and still he dances. “
The Sunday night group is mostly widows and widowers who belong to an organization called TLA – which stands for, depending on whom you ask, To Live Again, To Love Again, To Laugh Again or, as one woman said, They’re Loose Again!
The music on Sunday nights is provided by Jerry Morris, an accordion player and one-man band. Morris commonly relinquishes the microphone to Jim – ever the Irishman. This night, he crooned “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral. ” The lounge at Cannstatter has no real dance floor, but that didn’t stop Jim or the others. He danced in the hallway and next to the cigarette machine, in front of bathrooms, wherever he found a gal and whenever the accordion player struck a tune.
“I think he takes double Geritol,” said Pat Piotrowski, 62, a widow and dance partner. “I really do. “
During the January blizzard, when every dance for a week was canceled, Jim went particularly stir-crazy. “Jim called me five or six times a day,” said Dottie. “And when he got tired of me, he called everybody else. All his girlfriends. “
“He’s called me at 2 a.m.,” offered one woman, eavesdropping on the conversation.
“You couldn’t print it,” she said.
JIM DIDN’T GET OUT OF BED MONDAY morning until 10:30. The usual time.
“I’m a 2-to-2 man,” he joked.
Jim always makes himself a nice breakfast – after all that dancing, he has an appetite – bacon, eggs, scrapple, cereal, toast and coffee.
Jim lives in Torresdale and worked as a tool-and-dye man for 30 years. He’d come home in his filthy workclothes, shower, put on a jacket and tie and do the family food shopping, says his daughter, Pat Bigley, who lives in Haddonfield. He was always a sharp dresser, so it hardly surprises her he’s so well-appointed now. Jim was a longtime Democratic committeeman in the 57th Ward (the neighborhood polling place is still in his basement) and considers his greatest achievement getting a traffic island with trees built in the middle of Holme Avenue, across from his rowhouse.
At age 50, Jim used his political connections to get a job as a court crier – “All rise!” – in Common Pleas Court at City Hall. He loved the job and the people, retiring only five years ago. At a dance the other night, he cupped his hand behind his back, as if he were taking a payoff, and joked, “I’ve got arthritis now from doing this for so long. “
Jim is entirely self-sufficient. He cooks big dinners and does all his own shopping. Two dozen neatly ironed shirts hang in his basement. He favors stripes. Don’t think Dottie irons for him. No way. “I don’t spoil him,” she says. “I’ve got enough ironing of my own to do. ” Jim redecorated his rowhouse last year. The walls are freshly painted. He installed a new mint-green carpet and bought new furniture. The house looks like an Ethan Allen showroom.
Even with his bum hip, Jim has no trouble marching up and down the two flights of stairs. He received his new hip 10 years ago after falling off a ladder while visiting his son in Los Angeles. The surgery was not successful, and two years later he went through it again, back in Philadelphia. “It’s fine,” he quips, “as long as I keep changing the motor oil! “
If not for the hip replacement, Jim knows he would be wheelchair-bound or dead. Certainly not on the dance floor.
On Monday after breakfast, Jim threw in a load of wash. Then he drove to Caldor to exchange a suitcase and wandered over to Rickle just to putter about and see what was on sale. Then he headed to the Acme for a few groceries and stopped by his favorite newsstand to play the lottery. “I put my numbers in every day,” he said. “I play $5 or $6 a day. ” He got home around 5, and cooked himself a big dinner: chicken, broccoli, mashed potatoes. Then he put on his gray suit, used an extra-long shoe horn to slip on those tassled loafers, knotted his tie, and he was ready. The silver hair was slicked back. The dentures in tight.
ON MONDAY AND WEDNESDAY NIGHTS, Dottie lets Jim go dancing without her. She visits one of her five children and some of her 12 grandchildren. Jim hitched a ride that Monday evening with Teresa Reardon, a neighbor whom he met at dances. After her husband first died, Teresa danced six or seven nights a week. A widow three years now, she has scaled back to three or four. And she is very honest about why she goes out. “I like to be held,” she said on the drive over. “My husband and I were cuddlers. If the only way I can have a man’s arm around me is on the dance floor, well, I’ll take it. It’s perfectly safe, and it doesn’t lead to anything. “
The lights at the VFW Hall in Ardsley went low precisely at 9, and Richie Moore and his band struck up a slow dance. Jim, a gentleman, danced first with Teresa, and he had her laughing the entire time. Next he found a woman in red high heels with a skirt above the knee for a bossa nova. Then a woman in a blue dress for a waltz. The amazing thing about the waltz was this: In a room filled with 75 couples, everyone seemed to move together, like a wave. Baby boomers wouldn’t have had a clue.
When Jim dances, he’s chatty. The girls laugh and float in his arms. They are young and cheerful. He flirts madly. “Do you still love me?” he asked Dolores Serianni, 63, of nearby Jenkintown. “What color negligee are you wearing?” he asked another. And to still another, he said, “I was dreaming about you the other night,” to which she replied: “I hope you didn’t fall out of bed. ” This is all in fun. Roosters need to crow. Most of the women enjoy Jim’s banter. They know Jim is a gentleman. As the night went on, he waltzed and jitterbugged. He even rocked to “Proud Mary” and, incredibly, twisted to Chubby Checker. All with a bum hip. And all the while his jacket stayed buttoned, his tie knotted tight.
Twice that Monday night, the bandleader called for a mixer, in which women and men line up on opposite sides of the dance floor. The first in each line pair off, and dance across the room, and then go to the end of their respective lines. The band keeps playing until everyone in the women’s line – typically the longer – has had three dances down the floor. Virtually every dance night includes a mixer or two because otherwise some women might not dance at all. Teresa enjoyed several dances Monday night, but in all honesty, had more men asked, she would have enjoyed even more. Jim did not sit down the entire night.
“He just puts his hand out,” Teresa said. “They all come. “
Jim put his hand out for Pat Wolfgang, 58, a widow from Skippack Township, and they had a lovely dance. But even when she’s sitting out, she’s just happy to be at the dance, away from her four walls.
“I have to get out of the house,” said Pat. “I see the oxygen tank and the tubes. . . . When you have to stay with somebody and see him rot away, that is scary, frightening. And so painful. . . . I deserve to go out. This is a nice crowd. “
JIM’S VITALITY AT AGE 77 SHOULD not be surprising. Contrary to public perception, most old people do not just curl up and await death.
“The vast majority of older people, unless they have Alzheimer’s or are in the last stages of cancer, remain incredibly involved with life,” said Robert Butler, director of the International Longevity Center in New York and one of the nation’s leading authorities on old people.
Mentally and physically, experts say, few things are better for old people than dancing – be it a line dance, a waltz or a square dance, all of which are extremely popular these days. “It’s a therapy in the best sense,” said Butler.
Physically, dancing keeps an old person active, reducing the chances of a grab bag of nightmares, from heart disease to frailty to osteoporosis to obesity.
“You’re utilizing large muscle groups, in rhythmic fashion,” said Kathleen Bradley, director of Active Life, an exercise and rehabilitation program at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center. “And that really strengthens the heart. “
Emotionally, feelings of loneliness, emptiness, a need for companionship, and a need to be touched are normal and common, according to experts. And dancing may be the best antidote to depression.
“It’s clearly essential,” said David Greenspan, director of geriatric psychiatry at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. “One of the challenges in late life is the isolation and how to overcome it. ” He said the best defense against depression is an intimate relationship. Not necessarily sexual at all. Perhaps just a good friend, someone to be with.
“Touching, the physical contact, is very important,” he said. “Who gives you a hug when your spouse is dead? When your kids are grown and gone? These dances are the great places to have that chemistry. “
ON TUESDAY NIGHT, JIM AND Dottie drove up to Levittown, to the Paso Doble ballroom, a former A&P grocery store that 12 years ago was converted into the largest ballroom floor in the East. You can just imagine couples like Jim and Dottie, cheek-to-cheek, doing a tango down the produce aisle. There is no lettuce in sight now, just glittering balls and strobe lights, though a few of the dancers do show a little cheesecake. The dance floor now looks like an aircraft carrier deck, all hardwood with cork beneath it for cushioning, and when Jim arrives he is ready for takeoff.
Tuesdays at the Paso Doble aren’t very crowded. The ballroom is rented out by the Single Parents Society, to which Jim and Dottie belong. On Friday and Saturday nights the ballroom is open to the public – $6 admission and $1.75 for a setup: ice, mixer and glasses. Dancers may bring their own booze. Jim and Dottie these days drink strictly cranberry juice. Jim’s been on the wagon for six months, since an acid buildup in his esophagus caused an ulcer. He’s taking medication. The ulcer has affected his diet, but hardly his routine.
Dottie loves the Paso Doble and its lavish decorations. (In the lobby is a knight in armor bearing a nameplate: Sir Dancealot. ) Ordinarily, she would dance most of the night with Jim, but this particular week she was recovering from a cataract operation, and her doctor told her to avoid unnecessary movement. So aside from one slow dance “with my sweetie,” she listened to the Don Mayo Band and answered a question about marriage.
Dottie and Jim have discussed marriage. She was very frank. “I told him I can’t dance seven nights a week,” she said. “I told him if we get married, he’s got to give up a couple of nights.
“Well,” she continued, “we’re still talking. “
Dottie and Jim live separately. And she will not move in with him. “If others want to do it, fine,” she said. “I don’t judge other people. But if I’m not worth marrying -” she let the sentence go unfinished. Dottie will, on occasion, spend the night at Jim’s house. When this happens, Jim will call his daughter and cook up some explanation. “He’ll say, `It was snowing too hard to drive her home, . . .’ ” explained his daughter Pat Bigley. “I say, `Dad, come on, you’re acting like a teenager. ‘ “
ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, JIM drove over to the Associated Polish Home of Philadelphia on Academy Road, around the corner from his house, for another weekly dance open to the public.
On the way over, I asked him about marriage to Dot.
“I don’t know how far that’s going to go,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe marriage and all. I don’t know. But I know I like to go out and all. Maybe in three or five years, who knows? Don’t you think by then I might be willing to slow down? “
Slow down? Jim?
Does he ever think about slowing down, becoming disabled, dying?
“I honestly don’t worry,” he said. “Have the best time you can. When you go down, you go down. “
He parked the car, slowly got out, and then shuffled into the dance hall.
“Hi, gals!” he greeted a throng. “How are yas? “
He danced with all sorts of women.
But one he couldn’t dance with was Rose. She had hit the jackpot.
For eight years, Rose Favoroso, 70, a widow, was on the circuit. One night, four months ago, Harry Layman, 78, asked her to dance at the Polish Home. His daughter had died of breast cancer after a horrible illness, and months after that, his wife was found to have cancer and died. “The first night I go out in four years,” Harry said, “and I meet Rose. ” He proposed on Christmas Eve. “I knew right away,” he said. “Why wait? “
They now dance five nights a week, including Thursdays at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. In a week, they would be off to Florida, where they were planning to just drift about.
“We’ll find places to dance,” said Harry, “don’t worry. “
Over the years, many singles have paired off and now run in groups of three or four couples who go out together dancing night after night. One such group of eight was sitting at a table near the band.
“We’re recycled teenagers,” said Helen Brenner, 75. She started to elaborate when the Nick Nichols combo broke into the electric slide, a line dance. She was up and gone. One of the men at the table, Bob Henry, 78, of Somerton, leaned over and offered this assessment of the evening. “Where else can you go for $6 and hold a woman in your arms? “
Bob said he lost his wife six years ago, and six months after that he started coming to dances. Now he’s paired up with Evelyn McGeehan, 75, of Northeast Philadelphia, who was also out doing the electric slide. “I found happiness here,” Bob said.
After the electric slide, the band jumped into “In the Mood,” and Helen and Evelyn grabbed their men. Helen’s man is Joe Fulton, 73. He dances well, but Helen can shake it big time. When she returned to the table, she was perspiring like a teenager at a June sock hop, adding credence to her earlier theory. Helen and Joe have been living together for two years. He visited her house one night because his pacemaker seemed to be short-circuiting. He found comfort in her arms and never left. “He just stayed,” she said. Joe recently sold his house, and the two of them are off to the Panama Canal for a holiday. But they don’t plan to marry.
“Stay lovers,” Joe said.
“That’s better,” Helen agreed.
Another of Jim’s regular partners, Peg McGuire, 74, had an interesting story to tell that night. A newcomer, cocky – you could tell just by the way he carried himself – had pulled Peg onto the dance floor for a cha-cha.
“Do you think you could make love to a good Irishman?” he asked her.
“Damn right!” she replied. “But not to you! “
JIM SAYS HE BELIEVES THE RATIO of women to men is 11-1 on the dance floor, but that is purely his impression and not scientific. According to Butler, at the International Longevity Center, women after age 65 outnumber men 3-2. After age 85, that ratio is 5-2. It may just feel like 11-1.
Jim also says that widowers are quicker to hit the dancing circuit than widows after the loss of a spouse. Greenspan, at the Institute, says research bears this out.
“In general, men are much more inclined to just pick up sooner with another woman,” said Greenspan, “while women tend to be much more reflective after the death of a spouse. “
For men, he agreed, because of their scarcity, finding a mate might be easier than for women. But, he stressed, “men change less than women. Men restructure life back to the way it was with a new woman. Women tend to be much slower in finding a new partner. They change. Get involved with the side of the world they had always left to the men. “
And a year later, he said, it often turns out “women have adapted much better. And men are still struggling. “
While some older folks may remarry, like Harry and Rose, others do not, like Joe and Helen. (With Jim and Dottie, we will have to wait and see. ) Couples offer a variety of explanations. Some say marriage would simply be too confusing to children and grandchildren and create problems on holidays, when each partner wants to visit with his or her own children.
Others – women, in particular – say their late husbands’ pensions are simply too good to throw away by getting remarried. Why not just live together and keep the benefits? One woman said that after watching her husband endure a slow, painful death, she could never make a commitment to another man. “I could never,” she said, “live through that experience again. “
ON THURSDAY NIGHT, JIM AND Dottie headed up to a dance at the Hungarian Club in Trevose, where they dance every other week. And on Friday, they skipped a night at the Paso Doble – an extremely rare occasion – to attend a birthday party for Jim’s granddaughter in Haddonfield.
The first thing, as Jim always does when he visits his daughter, is to inquire discreetly about the widow next door.
“That’s all I need,” moaned his daughter.
Jim’s son-in-law, Frank Bigley, joked that Jim has a woman in every port. That of course is an exaggeration. But there is one in Los Angeles, whom Jim sees at dances when he visits his son, usually twice a year. “She says she likes me,” Jim said. “She sends me Christmas presents. What can I say? She says I’m one of the best dancers she’s ever danced with. “
Jim recently spent a few days with his son and two grandsons in Vegas. Four Malloy boys up to no good.
“I called my brother’s wife,” recalled Pat. “I said if you get a call from the Vegas police saying they’re all locked up, I don’t want to hear about it. “
She never heard a word.
EVERY NOW AND THEN, SOMEONE will pass away right on the dance floor, perhaps during a polka or cha-cha. This happened about two years ago at the VFW in Ardsley. The music stopped. The room went silent. The ambulance came. But after a while, the band began playing again, the people started dancing.
Death is always sad. But what a way to go.
Pat Bigley said she hopes, when his time comes, her dad will go the same way.
“Our biggest prayer is that he goes on the dance floor,” she said. “If he ever has to sit by a window, it’ll kill him.”
Writer bio: Michael Vitez writes human interest stories for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1997 for a series of stories titled Final Choices. Vitez, a native of Virginia, lives in Haddonfield, New Jersey. He joined the Inky in 1985.