For most of his career, Newburyport resident Paul Wayne played the comedy club circuit in Boston and New York City as a traditional entertainer. He’s been the opening act at North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Massachusetts, Mohegan Sun and Lowell Memorial Auditorium.
Yet these days if you want to see his act at its best, you have to visit a local nursing home or adult day program. In front of audiences of just a couple dozen people in wheelchairs, some with their chins dropped to their chests and eyes closed, Wayne has found his calling. “These populations really, really need entertainment,” Wayne said. “They really appreciate it.”
At community Family Health Center, last week, the clients, who have a variety of physical and mental disabilities, assembled in the low-ceilinged room.
When Wayne walked in the door, some were listening to a staff member read the latest news on the Red Sox from a newspaper. Others were lost in their own worlds, staring off into space.
“How many of you remember me from last time?” Wayne said, warming up his guitar. There were some murmurs in the crowd.
“How many of you don’t give a damn?” he asked. A roar of laughter filled the room.
Wayne rode the wave of audience reaction into his first sing-along song, “Doodle-ee-do,” followed quickly by the “Sha-la-la-la-la” chorus of “Brown-Eyed Girl.”
A woman in the front row with white hair and white sneakers sang along with gusto. A younger lady reclining in a wheelchair smiled to herself and mouthed the words. A man in the back cast his eyes toward the floor as if he wasn’t paying attention, but his body rocked in time to the music.
Wayne, 63, took the energy in the room even higher with his rendition of the 1920s song “Bye-Bye Blackbird.”
“Now I’m going to change the words,” he said. “Don’t tell the staff.”
Then he sang: “I have lost my underwear, I don’t care, I’ll go bare. Bye-bye long johns.”
The dimples in Wayne’s cheeks deepened and crinkles formed at the corners of his eyes as he basked in the raucous laughter.
For the rest of the hour, Wayne took requests and kept the crowd going.
One man in the back of the room requested “That’s Amore,” then grinned and nodded as Wayne played it. As the song finished, the man stood, belted out the lyrics and shook his open palms up toward the ceiling.
At another point, a slender man in the front row asked another client to dance. They swayed together like a junior high couple. At the end of the song, he shook her hand and walked back to his seat. She brought her hand to her flushed face and glanced around to see who was watching.
“He sees them with nothing wrong,” sai the Facility Director. “They’re like you and I. Paul’s not condescending. He’s just regular like we are. I think the clients feed off that. Of all the entertainment, when he’s coming, everybody is just in La La Land.”
Inspired by Dad
Wayne started working nursing homes about seven or eight years ago as a tribute to his father, who used to give volunteer performances with his harmonica to lift resident’s spirits.
Around the same time, Wayne began using his comedy connections to start a popular stand-up comedy program at Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem, Massachusetts. He found it so rewarding that performing for this type of audience has become an increasingly larger part of his professional work.
“It’s almost like I’ve been preparing to do this all my life,” said Wayne, who still performs his traditional gigs North of Boston as well. Performing for this crowd is a specialized skill, Wayne said, “You have to know just how far you can push people to get them engaged without making them uncomfortable. You can’t stand back and do a show and just be a performer and look at them and sing at them because they’re going to look at you like they’re watching television. You also have to be able to see the real person behind the mask of their illness and not be intimidated by appearances.”
At one nursing home on the North Shore where the residents have severe disabilities, Wayne starts the way he would any other gig: playing his guitar, making eye contact and teasing the residents he knows well.
“One person wakes up, then another wakes up and somebody starts clapping their hands and somebody’s eyes open,” he said. “It just kind of happens.”
Making a connection
Wayne has also been surprised by how people connect with music, even when they have lost most of their memory to Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s amazing to me,” he said. “They might forget a lot of things, but one of the last things they forget is the music and the lyrics. The music connects them with a lot of memories and things that, when we get older, we try to hold onto. Music sticks people to those memories. It does a lot on a whole lot of levels for a person.”
At a nursing home in North Andover recently, Wayne said, he approached a woman as he sang a slow love song. Her hands were shaking violently and her face was contorted. On impulse, he clasped both her hands in one of his and looked her in the eye.
“She stopped shaking, took my hand to her lips and kissed it,” he said. “Oh my God!”
Sometimes, he goes out of his way to make a special connection. At a nursing home in Gloucester, Wayne met a man who used to sing and play guitar for his family when he was younger. He was too ill to come to the common area for the show. Instead, Wayne brought the music to him.
When the man was sent home with hospice care, Wayne visited him and found the old guitar he used to play for his children. He restrung it and treated the man to some songs on his personal instrument.
These audiences may not be as high-profile as a comedy club in Manhattan, but for Wayne, they are far more rewarding.
“I consider it to be something that gives my life a lot of purpose,” he said. “I’ve been entertaining all my life. What I’m doing now in the assisted living and the nursing homes gives me more purpose and a lot more joy in doing it.”