89-year-olds fourth adolescence takes a rhythmic turn

Stan Winston sits on a stool in a dimly-lighted English pub in San Rafael, thrumming a bordhan, a traditional Irish drum, during a weekly jam session. He wears black leather gloves to help him coax certain sounds from his goatskin drum.

“I’ve gone through at least three adolescences,” says Winston, an 89-year old resident of Drake Terrace retirement community in San Rafael who has no intention of slowing down. “I wanted to reform people during those times. One was in the 1930s through politics, another was in the 1960s through love, and in the 1990s it was through acting.”

Alas, he acknowledges with the wisdom of hindsight: “None worked.”

He smiles and his eyes twinkle as if he’s reached some deeper understanding about people and life. He rests the bordhan and grabs a doumbek, a traditional North African drum.

“Maybe I’m into a fourth adolescence,” speculates the man who was born in Brooklyn a few months before the end of the World War I in 1918.

“Maybe the rhythm of the universe will save the world.”

The rhythm of the universe certainly adds a percussive beat to Winston’s life, one he has invented and reinvented several times since he became an adult. Trained as a lawyer, Winston has also been a clown, raconteur, mime and actor.

“I was in ‘Tony and Tina’s Wedding’ off-Broadway for six years,” he said. “I did 1,700 performances as Uncle Luigi and 200 performances as an Irish priest.” Winston readily acknowledges his affinity for Irish culture, which was fueled by his first six public school teachers in New York, all of them Irish immigrants. “I even had a brogue in junior high and later was known as an Irish actor.”

Prior to becoming a full-time performer with a yen for ethnic roles, Winston was a corporate lawyer in New York for nearly 30 years. He also ran a factory that manufactured an early form of a digital computer in the late 1950s. He went to mime school in the early 1960s and later studied acting.

“My first commercial was for the Volunteers of America. I was a bum lying in the street, surrounded by real bums,” Winston says. “Fake snow, mainly cornflakes, was falling to the ground. Someone from the company where I was in-house counsel saw it and later said to me, ‘Look, Stan has options.'”

He has done dozens of plays in New York and California and appeared in scores of print and TV commercials, his most famous one for Entenmann’s cakes, an East Coast culinary legend and staple.

But Winston ramped up his creative output by converting his life-long love of drumming at parties to what he terms an enterprise. “My wife used to live at Aegis in San Rafael and I was called to be a drummer there in a Halloween band. I was a hit. So I went out a bought my own drum sticks and drum books.”

And then Winston took his percussion show on the road, performing and leading groups at other senior facilities, mostly the Rafael Convalescent Hospital, where his wife, suffering from severe dementia, now resides.

“I discovered that drums could talk,” said Winston. “This whole enterprise cuts through dementia and ailments of memory, such as Alzheimer’s. People who have forgotten words or how to speak will remember music. Through rhythm you can reach people who were not otherwise reachable.”

Winston definitely reaches people as he leads percussion and music listening groups at Drake Terrace. In addition to the standard percussion instruments, he uses homemade ones: shakers made from old Gatorade bottles filled with seeds, old chair legs, purple electrical conduits that sound like clacking clamshells and oyster jars filled with pebbles.

Winston shifts in his seat as one of the other jam session participants pulls out his Irish bagpipes, taking a moment to talk about his own heritage. “I feel a very strong connection to my Jewish heritage,” he said. “I was the president of our Reform synagogue in New York, and my daughter is a Lubavitcher. I also adhere very strongly, though, to secular humanism.”

It doesn’t take long, however, before the subject drifts back to music, and how it all works in the context of his 89 years. “I have found a new life in rhythm,” he said. “Percussion touches people on a primitive level.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.