It wasn’t hard for Audrey Weiner to find topnotch individuals over age 80 for the “Eight Over Eighty” benefit for The New Jewish Home (formerly Jewish Home Lifecare). Weiner, president and CEO of the eldercare network, said that in 15 years 30 percent of the nation’s population will be over 80. She had plenty of candidates.
Her choice of honorees at the third annual event last month at the Oriental Mandarin in Manhattan included longtime celebrity columnist Liz Smith, 93; Broadway superstar Chita Rivera, 83; Jacques d’Amboise, 81, choreographer and principal dancer with the New York City Ballet; the legendary Harry Belafonte, 89, who came with wife Pamela Frank; financier Robert Appel, board chairman of Jazz at Lincoln Center where the Appel Room is named for his generosity; adman Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide who penned “You deserve a break today” for McDonald’s; philanthropist Joy Henshel; and Caroll Spinney, 81, the Muppeteer behind Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
“If you represent what aging like a New Yorker is all about,” Weiner said, “sign me up!”
Video vignettes were shown to highlight the careers of the honorees. Songstress Rivera said she loves performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room. “And I love wearing red. It makes you feel sexy. Men love a red Porsche.”
Spinney recalled doing puppet shows in the family barn. “As a youngster I performed for 15 people who paid two cents each. I made 30 cents that day. That was big money in 1942.”
Henshel described the high life with her late husband, Harry Bulova Henshel, grandson of the founder of Bulova Watch Co. She proudly recalled how President Lyndon Johnson picked her out at a White House party for a twirl on the dance floor.
“I always used to say I’m going to die on my 96th birthday falling off a horse,” Henshel said. “That was the kind of life I was living. I was a kid. Did I know you can’t get on a horse at 96?”
One of the guests, Todd Strasser, author of more than 140 books for young adults, told how he overcame a crisis when the time came to move his 93-year-old mother Sheila from an independent living facility on Long Island to The New Jewish Home’s Westchester campus, the Sarah Neuman Center in Mamaroneck.
Thanks to the rehabilitation Mom is walking with a walker again. She even likes the food. “And at 93, she flirts with younger men,” Strasser said.
At first Mom was very unhappy to be moved away from her friends. “I reminded her,” Strasser said, “that when I was little she made me go to the doctor for those terrible booster shots because they were in my best interest.”
“So this is your revenge?” she exclaimed.
The 430 guests at the dinner raised $1.2 million for The New Jewish Home’s skilled nursing programs.
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. At the same time he has been a columnist for The New York Jewish Week for 36 years, and editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com for 17 years. He is the author of Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame, interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.