For the Swingin' Saints, singing to the old keeps them young

Before taking the stage, the members of The Swingin' Saints "good time band" donned their holiday-themed uniforms, formed a circle, placed their hands in the center and recited their well-versed pre-show chant. They were about to begin what they estimate to be their 920th performance, a medley of Broadway and film-based tunes complete with comedy, dancing and heavy shtick.

The group of 15 women numbered just 11 on this day, as four members got lost on their way to the venue. But the show must go on, and so they did.

You maybe haven't heard of the Swingin' Saints, but they're among the most dedicated of bands in Atlanta. They practice every other week and perform four times a month year-round. And they do it all for free for a simple reason: they love their fans, even when they pay no attention, talk, cry or maybe even shout during their shows.

They perform for a pretty exclusive audience: nursing homes, senior centers and assisted living facilities. And they wouldn't have it any other way.

“They need it desperately. They need that 30 minutes of fun and a chance to smile," said frontwoman Sharon Karazulas, who founded the group in 1987. “Very often there is no response from them, but when we leave, they’ll say ‘That was wonderful.' We just kind of know what we’re doing is a blessing.”

Then and still a volunteer with the St. Joseph's Hospital Auxiliary, Karazulas started Swingin' Saints after seeing a similar act in Savannah in the late 1980s. But with no performance background herself, the stay-at-home-mother thought she'd help organize the St. Joseph's-sponsored group and then move on.

Little did she know she'd still be the band's Groucho-Marx-mask-wearing leader more than two decades later. The group first performed in the summer of 1988 at the Roswell United Methodist Church, she said. Karazulas recalls thinking they gave a super a cappella show.

“Everyone else said it was awful," she recalled. "We’ve been back several times trying to make amends.”

But 20-some years of practice makes perfect, or, makes them at least pretty good. They used to have a pianist, but now use an old-school boom box with cassette tape. Few of the women -- with the exception of vocalist Helen McClure -- consider themselves to be "singers," but they each have carved out a specialty act, such as tap dancing, puppeteering, kazoo-playing or joke-telling.

And they've figured out what tunes really stir the seniors, such as "Music! Music! Music!" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now!"

"A lot of the times the songs we sing bring back the memories and you can see the tears in their eyes," said member Betty King, known on the circuit as Bodacious Bula. "I think people forget about the elderly. The older I get, the more I realize that."

On a recent visit to the A.G. Rhodes Home in Grant Park, their rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" prompted many in the audience to join in.

“I used to sing these when I was young – that’s why I knew many of the songs,” said 96-year-old Hattie Grace, who sang along with the group from her wheelchair.

That's the best-case scenario, but even with no response, the Swingin' Saints don't get discouraged.

“A lot of the times, if you look really close, you’ll see a patient move a toe, or a finger, but never smile," Karazulas said. "But they’ll move that toe or finger, and you know you made their day."

And sometimes they get the overly-enthused fans, like a man in a Cumming-based nursing home who dropped his pants mid-performance.

"That was eventful," Karazulas recalls. "We talked about it later and kind of think it was staged."

But a funny thing happened through their years on the road; the line distinguishing them from their fans began to blur. The audience is getting younger than the Swingin' Saints themselves. Five members are older than 80 and the rest are in their 70s. "Except for one chick who is 60," added Karazulas, who is 72.

The bandleader acknowledges her group's own mature appearance throughout the shows, such as when tap-dancer Anita Beckman takes the floor during "Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue." "Wasn't that great? Now she'll have to rest for a week," Karazulas cracks.

The Swingin' Saints have seen some of their own become their audience. They've suffered the blows of bandmates who have passed on, and in rare occasions, make the heartbreaking decision to approach members no longer able to handle the job.

"We had to ask one lady not to sing with us anymore. She had [multiple sclerosis] and she was falling asleep during our shows," Karazulas recalled. "It just breaks your heart... she's in a nursing home now and we see her every so often."

Through it all, they've endured their own aches and pains and illnesses because they love what they do. They hope to continue as long as their morale and bodies allow, or at least until they reach their 1,000th show, Karazulas said.

"I never thought we'd be together this long," said King, 83. "I think we often get more out of it than we give."