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Jewish Journal

Singer Packs Seniors With Old School Hits

by Uriel Heilman

April 3, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Thousands of screaming girls. Packed nightclubs. Love-crazy fans. Ron Gartner has seen it all.

That is, on television, of course.

In real life, Gartner is an up-and-coming singer who, while not exactly drawing the sorts of crowds that come to Eminem shows, is packing the social halls of senior centers across the nation singing the tunes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and other big-band and Motown standards. His fans may be closer in age to Bob Hope than Britney Spears, but Gartner is quickly becoming the newest big thing in the senior-home entertainment circuit.

Originally a denizen of what he calls the shmatte business -- the garment industry -- Gartner, 58, is building a second career by singing big-band favorites in nursing homes, senior centers and gated retirement communities all over the country. Now, on the eve of the release of his first CD, "Someone Like You," Gartner is bringing his show to Southern California for two performances, on April 10 at Leisure World, a gated community in Laguna Woods, and on April 13 at the Indian Ridge Country Club in Palm Desert, where Gartner is playing the Desert Cancer Fund Dinner Dance.

"I am as close to Las Vegas as a lot of these seniors are going to get," said Gartner, who croons the oldies solo, along with backup music recorded on a state-of-the-art, karaoke-style machine and sound system he brings with him to performances. "I really give them a hell of a show for an hour."

Gartner's debonair performance includes the hip-swinging tunes of the likes of Sinatra, Perry Como and Steve Lawrence. Though not all audience members are actually able to swing their hips -- real or plastic -- seniors are flocking to Gartner's lounge-style act, if advance bookings are any indication.

Gartner launched his new career about two and a half years ago, when his wife, Fran Heller, told him she was tired of following him to piano bars late at night to hear him indulge a hobby she knew was close to his heart but far from his livelihood. At the time, Gartner was working full time in the textile business at a company he owned called BiCoastal Textiles. Until then, the only time his garment-industry work enabled him to use his voice was when he did a few radio spots for the Fabric Warehouse, a chain of retail stores in Los Angeles owned by Gartner and his father.

"Ronnie's been singing for a long time," Heller said. "He had his own band in college, and over the years he would go to karaoke bars and piano bars."

When his wife stopped going with him to the piano bars, Gartner knew he had to find another outlet for his singing. He offered his services free of charge to a ballroom dance class at a senior center in Flushing, Queens, and within weeks he was getting inquiries from senior centers all over the New York area. He began charging $50 to $75 for his gigs, and within months, the combination of word-of-mouth promotion and his wife's advertising savvy -- she's an executive at the Young & Rubicam advertising agency -- propelled him into the top tier of the senior entertainment circuit.

"It was almost beshert," Gartner said. "I offered to do the ballroom dance class at the senior center in Flushing. I got a standing ovation. Then they said they have monthly birthday parties, and I said I'd perform for that."

It wasn't long before Gartner moved up from senior centers to assisted-living and independent-living residences. Now he's making his entrée into gated communities, the holy grail of the Borscht Belt, as Gartner sees it.

The son of a Holocaust survivor and Jewish boy from the Bronx, Gartner got his start in synagogue choirs in his native Los Angeles. One of his first paid gigs was at a Jewish cemetery, where he was part of a choir singing at an annual memorial service. 

"My Hebrew school teachers were foaming at the mouth for me to be a cantor, but it just wasn't for me," he said. Gartner gave up synagogue songs after his bar mitzvah, and by the time he graduated from Fairfax High in 1962, a singing career was looking less and less likely. "I was going to be the first white recording artist for Motown, and when that didn't happen, my dad had always been in the fabric business, so I went with that."

He moved to New York from Los Angeles about eight years ago, met his wife through matchmaker-to-the-rich Janis Spindel, and grew increasingly restive in textiles. Now that he's playing two to three shows a week at $1,500 a pop, fabrics have taken a back seat to Gartner's singing career. The Friars Club has taken an interest in Gartner, and the fledgling musician is trying to break into easy-listening radio stations. But his favorite audiences, he says, are Jewish ones.

"I really love performing for a Jewish crowd, because it gives me a chance to be a little looser," he said, peppering his conversation with Henny Youngman-style one-liners. "I'll throw Yiddishisms into my show. I never want to forget my roots."

For more information about the Desert Cancer Fund Dinner Dance, call (760) 773-6554, 8 a.m.-12 p.m.  

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