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A "Reality Orientation Board" hangs on a wall at the Cardinal Ritter Senior Services Adult Day Care center. The board is designed to ground the center's clients the hollow-eyed Alzheimer's patient, the man with Down syndrome, a feeble grandmother in the here and now. On this day it reads: "Today is Monday, January 29, 2007. The season is winter. The weather is cold and cloudy. The next holiday is Groundhog Day."
Nan Boelloeni, the activities director at the Shrewsbury facility, informs a group of octogenarians that it's National Puzzle Day. Among the residents listening to this announcement are a gentleman who used to be friendly with Charles Lindbergh, a Cuban immigrant who salutes visitors as if he's a general-in-exile, and a former Arthur Murray dance instructor and one-time professional magician.
Ron Reichard is uneasy about the whole puzzle-day affair. With a Martin acoustic guitar in tow, he's just arrived from his south-city home and is here to perform a selection of golden oldies that he hopes will coax memories of vital youth. As always, he demands an attentive audience. It's what he likes best about the elder-care circuit: no booze to make them chatty, no secondhand smoke to irritate his throat. Most certainly, he doesn't want the house doing puzzles.
"This is kind of a disaster," Reichard complains. The crowd's already thin due to a cold spell and now they're going to be distracted with the darn puzzles. He brightens, though, when Boelloeni qualifies her announcement.
"Ron Reichard's here to sing for us," she says. "We can turn it into National Puzzle Week we can do that, can't we? so we can watch Ron perform?"
Reichard (pronounced "Richard"), who's been strumming tunes for appreciative seniors at Cardinal Ritter for the past six years, arranges his gear: a collapsible bench, a suitcase-size Fender amp, a microphone and stand. Overstuffed recliners, each with a handmade afghan draping its back, line two walls.
He begins his set with a song made popular by Dean Martin. "You're nobody 'til somebody loves you," he sings, his rich, dynamic baritone filling the room. The sunshiny hits of yesteryear are what this group craves melodies of hopeful, happier days. And that's exactly what this St. Louis crooner delivers: "Pennies from Heaven," "A Dreamer's Holiday," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." It could be the reason why he's fully booked for the year. In fact, the 66-year-old Reichard is fresh off a run that would impress even Bruce Springsteen sixteen shows in twenty days.
Reichard is winding up his 45-minute act when a man named Stanley, who's been slumped in a chair the entire show, says he wants to hear "Take Me Out to the Cardinals."
Reichard pauses. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame?" he asks. Thinking that maybe Stanley didn't familiarize himself with the reality board, Reichard explains, "We can't do that one yet. We're still in hockey season." The man, who's donning a red Cardinals T-shirt, repeats his request. Ron listens and nods, but doesn't budge. "It's January," he says, and spring training hasn't even started. "We've got one more month until March. Then I'll play it."
With that, Ron Reichard launches into "Glow Worm," an old Mills Brothers hit written by Johnny Mercer. As the song ends, Reichard gives a benediction, the same one he always uses: "Unless you've got something good to say about me, don't say anything at all." And with that, he waves goodbye, loads up his gear and hits the road.
Delmar Gardens West, Altenheim, McKnight Places II and III. Ron Reichard's played them all. Cardinal Ritter, Annie Malone, Alexian Brothers, Parc Provence. Been there, done that. Reichard's performed for people on their deathbeds, sang to spry ladies more than a century old and watched men lose their dance partners to fatal disease.
"They all vary a little bit. They're all different," says Reichard, racing his beat-up Celebrity out to the Chesterfield Villas retirement community. He's running late to his 2 o'clock gig.
He's concerned because it's Super Bowl Sunday, and he might be competing with a pre-game party. But he needn't worry. A woman named Jean usually sits at the front table and chats with him between songs, and there's the fellow who always dances, which gets the crowd in the mood. What's best about the Villas, though, is that most residents here actually know what day it is.
At some of places, says Reichard, "the people are a little more challenged. The point is you never know what you're in for. Sometimes when you're expecting the best, it turns out the worst, and when you're expecting the best it turns out the worst and then becomes the best. "
The same might be said about his career.
Reichard didn't begin earning money from his musical talents until the late 1990s, when he was a few years shy of retirement from his job at an appliance store. His plan was to stick it out until it was time to draw on Social Security and savings. But management changed at the store, and he didn't like the new direction rewarding salesmen who overcharged for appliances, giving the high earners better parking spaces and earlier hours.