After a successful eight-and-a-half month run off-Broadway in 2009, “Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” a musical-comedy revue aimed at encouraging the older generation to live life to the fullest, has recently opened at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. The mix of monologues, songs and blackout sketches features four show-business veterans with impressive Broadway and television credits, including Marcia Rodd (“Last of the Red Hot Lovers”), Barbara Minkus (“The Education of Hyman Kaplan”), Ronnie Schell (“Gomer Pyle”) and John Shull (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” etc.).
The show was created by the venerable television writer-producer Saul Ilson, one half of Ilson/Chambers, the production team responsible for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and innumerable TV specials headlined by such stars as Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, among a host of others.
Ilson, who wrote, produced and directed “Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” recalled getting the idea for a senior-oriented revue when he was in Branson, Mo., writing a show for country singer Mel Tillis.
“There were a lot of theaters there — Andy Williams was there, and the Lawrence Welk family was there. I noticed that there are hundreds and thousands of seniors, vibrant, spending money, coming to town. The theaters were holding 2,000 seats, and they were selling out. And I realized that this is the audience that television didn’t want anymore.
“So, I said, ‘I’m going to tap into this audience.’ ”
Ilson pointed out that the show has had many incarnations since he wrote it in 1996. It was first titled “Senior Class” and played at the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs for four winter seasons. Ilson kept rewriting and building the script and ultimately changed the title to “Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” by which he means that, since people are living longer and staying healthier, they should spend some of what they have on themselves.
“I’m saying, ‘Enjoy your life. Get out there. You’re vibrant. Take advantage of it,’ ” Ilson explained.
“The secondary theme,” he added, “was to tell the baby boomers what they have to look forward to as they come into the senior ranks. And as far as younger people are concerned, I’m telling them to come and pay attention. You know these people. They’re your uncles, your aunts, your cousins. You know all of them, and if you pay attention, and if you’re lucky, one day you’ll get to be one of us.”
But, Ilson stressed, “We want to make it clear, we’re not telling you kids that you’re not getting anything. We’re not telling your parents not to leave you anything. We don’t want you picketing the theater.”
As a matter of fact, Ilson discovered during the New York run that the show appeals to younger audiences, as well as to seniors.
And Minkus, who was in the New York production, said she was amazed to see so many people bringing their children and grandchildren, who loved the show. She feels the revue deals with issues beyond the theme of older people enjoying life.
“It’s a show about family, multi generations of families, and how memories can be a positive aspect to our lives, how dealing with life’s problems can also be handled in a positive (way). I was very taken by all the different topics regarding retirement, getting older, being married for a long time. It’s just a charming, fun show, and Saul’s lyrics are terrific.”
Ilson, who is Jewish and was raised in an Orthodox home, says the revue has a decidedly Jewish bent.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a cloud of Jewishness over this whole show,” he said. “It has a Jewish flavor to it; you’ll see. That’s what we found out in New York. A lot of stuff I learned from my grandmother. There’s a song called ‘Looking Back,’ when one of the characters discovers her granddaughter is getting married. It’s got that feeling in it. It’s definitely a show that will appeal to Jewish people.”
He added that his work has been greatly influenced by his early exposure to Yiddish theater.
“I saw every great performer you can think of. I was living in Montreal. It was called the Circuit — they played the Circuit — Maurice Schwartz, Menasha Skulnik, the Adlers, Molly Picon. I saw them all. I knew then that that’s what I wanted to do because I used to make up shows. That was a great, great influence on me,” he said.
“I saw people smiling. I saw people having a good time.”
Minkus, who is very active in AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), also remembered her introduction to Jewish comedy. “When I was starting out in New York, all the comedians would drive me up to the Catskills. How old was I — 18, 17. And, my God! What an education I got from them!
“There’s just something so — there’s so much pathos in Jewish humor.”
She continued, “But, for me, I think these characters are universal. I think I’m the only Jewish person in the show. But it really doesn’t matter. The issues are universal.”
Minkus hopes audiences will leave the theater feeling good about themselves and about life. “I don’t know what’s in the next life, but I just know that it’s today, and it’s not a dress rehearsal,” she said. “It’s today. And that is what I think people get from this show, a real kick in the pants to enjoy life.”
“Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Performances are Sundays at 2 p.m., Jan. 26 through March 30. (Dark Feb. 9 and 16). Call (800) 838-3006. For groups of 10 or more, call (818) 986-2908.