SUN CITY CENTER — The PTA at Emery Brown's sixth-grade school in Massachusetts gave him his first big break.
They were putting on a show, and he played a detective because they needed someone tall.
"I was going to be able to wear a felt hat," said Brown, now 94 and a resident at Freedom Plaza in Sun City Center. "I was the big cheese."
He is wearing a hat on stage again, this time a plastic Viking helmet with blonde pigtails, to play Brunhilda the barkeep in the Freedom Plaza production of The Best Little Horse Town in Texas, Monday through Wednesday.
This is the 21st year of Freedom Frolics, the annual fundraising show benefiting the Freedom Plaza Scholarship Fund. Last year, the 20th anniversary show raised about $5,000.
When Freedom Frolics first started in 1992, it was a talent show put on by the residents, said Peggy Burgess, resident programs assistant. In 2000, they started putting on scripted shows.
It is always light and funny, a farce or a parody. In the past they've done Camel Lot and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Atrium. Burgess writes the scripts, tailoring them to the cast and audience. She has about eight that she cycles through and updates with new current events references.
This year's show takes place in the Poison Pit Saloon. A large wooden snake with a goofy face hangs over the swinging double doors in the back of the stage. A bar made out of old library shelves sits stage right. Before the first curtain, a painting of Brunhilda — naked except for the horn helmet and pigtails covering her — will hang over the bar.
Before a rehearsal last week Burgess pulled out pieces of the costumes for Miss Kitty and her Kittens, the dancers who live above the saloon.
"These are the hose for the kitties," she said, giving them to a stage hand. "If they need a pair of fish net hose, I have plenty."
The man playing Sheriff Shirley showed fellow cast mates his long blond wig, in a Halloween costume-style bag labeled "Seduction."
"It's basically a vaudeville show with these shticks, these little jokes," Burgess said.
Participation is open to any resident who wants to be in it. There are no auditions.
"If they want to be in it, I find a way to get them in it," Burgess said. "It may not be long, it may not be a big part, but they will be on stage."
Each show has a special part for residents who use walkers. Last year, they were the dames of Camel Lot, selling dragon burgers at the jousting tournament.
This year they'll be a crime-fighting posse, with crafted horse heads fixed to their walkers, passing out "Wanted" posters for Dangerous Dave and his Desperadoes — the maintenance staff posing with angry faces, hammers and screwdrivers.
Resident Nora Wilhide, along with Barbara Lauer and Mimi Korfhage, have worked on the costumes for several shows. Last year they made more than 40 togas, each of them tailored to fit.
The show is fun and it's for a good cause, said Wilhide, 85, so all the work they put into the costumes (this year about four or five straight weeks) doesn't feel like work. She's made some interesting things, she said, like a Jolly Green Giant costume with curly-toed shoes and a stuffed fish.
"We've made some pretty costumes, too," she said. This year they're using a lot of sequins for the saloon dancers' dresses.
Barbara McBride has been in six of the shows. She had her first role playing Tonto, a side kick with a literal side kick—because of her dance experience. This year she is Billy the Kid. She hadn't done much theater before, but did ballroom dance.
"That's why it's so much fun," said McBride, 81. "You don't have to be an actor. You just react and overact."
Brown has been in all 21 shows. He has played a woman on stage so frequently, he said, he thinks his wife might be starting to wonder.
"Somebody asked me, what's your role?" he said. "Making fun of myself for a good cause and loving every minute of it."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2453.