There were numerous shows and performances at the 14-day Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival – held at Loch Haven Park during May – but at the end of it, The Downtowners were the ones presented with the festival’s Beth Marshall Spirit Of The Fringe award.
The award was completely unexpected but is likely a testament to the type of show they do, Jeanne Asher, the group’s manager and a member, said.
“It’s exciting and enlivening and the come-on to our show is that we sing the unexpected,” she said, “like Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ and Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball.’ The Fringe has the perfect audience for edgy music.”
The Downtowners is a 24-member choral group mostly composed of seniors who live at Orlando Lutheran Towers. Their ages range from 65 to 99.
Michael Marinaccio, the festival’s producer, said The Downtowners perfectly exemplify what The Fringe is all about.
“Our show is un-juried…we are open to everyone. At The Fringe, you can go to a completely polished, professional show and then you can go to an amateur performance like The Downtowners,” Marinaccio said. “I am more emotionally affected by their show because of the absolute joy they bring to it. When you see Gin-Gin (Strong) sing ‘Forever Young’ you can’t help but be moved. It is what this festival is all about.”
Gin-Gin is the group’s most senior member at age 99, and will have her 100th birthday on October 24. The Fringe Festival organization has promised to sponsor her birthday party.
Marinaccio said the Spirit Award is one of the festival’s most prestigious and is named for the producer who held the job for eight years before he took over three years ago.
“Beth Marshall guided this festival for eight years and always has a say on who gets the award. She was in complete agreement that it should go to The Downtowners. We adore them,” Marinaccio said.
Tim Hanes, the group’s artistic director and keyboardist, said he is always humbled and inspired by the spirit the group’s members display.
“I think there’s a misconception that everyone in a singing group has a musical background. That’s not true. But the members have a willingness to try to step out of their comfort zone and do something fun. The original goal was to come together, have a good time, and do some crazy songs. But the group has continued to evolve as a choir,” Hanes said.
The Downtowners was formed about six years ago after a group of Towers residents attended a showing of the movie Young At Heart at the Enzian Theatre, Asher said.
“We got back on the bus to head home and immediately screamed at our Activities Director that we wanted to form a group like the one in the movie,” she said with a laugh.
There has been no looking back since then. After securing Hanes as the artistic director, they set to work. There are no auditions to join the group. Anyone who wants to can become a member – whether they have a good voice or not.
“I am probably the worst voice in the group but I just love to sing,” Asher said. “I probably had to start a group in order to get into one! But, we just have a wonderful time together. Everyone always shows up for rehearsals unless they are flat on their backs.”
Hanes, who is also the choir director and organist at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, in Longwood, said this group is like no other he has worked with.
“This is the only group I direct where no one wants to take time off. They complain if we cancel a rehearsal. We rehearsed on Memorial Day and that says a lot about the spirit of the group,” he said. “To know what members of the group are going through with their own health, or that they just lost a husband or wife, and to see them set that aside and step onstage and perform…I find that amazing. It makes me know there is more to life. It’s inspirational.”