By Ken Trainor
Some eras end in a bang, some with a whimper. This one ends with an encore.
One more time, for old time's sake, the Mills Senior Orchestra will present a concert, their fond farewell, at 1 p.m. on May 28 at the Oak Park Arms ballroom.
The full orchestra — well, what's left of it — is down to violin, flute, cello, sax, drums and clarinet. Everyone is first chair.
They had a pianist until last December when George Rico, 94, a renowned Chicago-area organist and legendary music chair at Lane Tech High School for many decades, finally decided he wasn't up to it anymore. But he still lives upstairs at The Arms and the remaining members are hoping he'll join them one last time on the 28th, even if it's just to listen.
It wasn't always this way, of course, says Neva Millonas, the orchestra's manager, archivist and historian. She has a folder full of past press clippings about the orchestra, which was founded in 1974 by several musicians, including Maurice Crew, then of River Forest. Everett Cluxton served as its first conductor when they began jamming at Pleasant Home in Mills Park — hence the name. Cluxton, who died in 2000 at the age of 89, was succeeded by JoAnn Rehkopf, a former District 97 and Grace Lutheran music teacher, who swang the downbeat and kept things upbeat for 12 years, followed by John Olivo, a retired Chicago Public School music instructor, who landed another job. The orchestra has been self-conducted since then.
In 1990, when the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest moved into Pleasant Home, the orchestra moved to its present location in The Arms. Over the years, time has taken its toll.
"So many died," recalls Neva, "and we couldn't get anyone to join us." So they're saying goodbye.
"We are?" said drummer Al Hasselman. "Nobody told me."
"Yes we did, Al," said Neva. "We give you a ride home every week. We've been talking about it."
"I must be going deaf," said Hasselman. "What will we do with the drums?"
More to the point, Neva says, what will they do with the three file cabinets full of sheet music they have accumulated over the years, all catalogued and indexed by her. She's looking for some organization or individual to donate it. College, high school, maybe the local symphony. They'll throw in the drums, too, for that matter (Hasselman has his own set at home).
The orchestra typically played one concert in the spring and another in the fall. In their heyday, they would travel to play at the Scottish and British homes, the 19th Century Charitable Association, churches and libraries. With what they got paid, they bought more music. At one point, Neva recalls, they had 4-5 clarinets, a tuba, three flutes, several trumpets, eight violins, etc. At their peak, the orchestra was 35 musicians.
Neva's husband, George, 86, joined about 15 years ago.
"We recruited, but people aren't interested anymore." He and Neva moved to Oak Park in 1961. He plays saxophone and clarinet. "My lungs are OK," he said, "but my body is giving out."
Now they're down to Al, George, Pat Parsons (cello), George Satala (clarinet), Liene Sorenson (violin), and Jim Scherer (flute). Sorenson and Scherer are a couple, having met and clicked while playing with the orchestra. Hasselman calls them "the honeymooners." Their oboe player, like Rico, lives upstairs, but he, too, has retired. Most of the members are in their 70s and 80s.
They decided in the last month to call it an era.
"It's sad," says Neva. "We weren't growing. It's just one of those things."
But they're putting on one more concert, their finale, next Tuesday at 1 p.m.
The program begins with "O What a Beautiful Morning" and moves on to "None But the Lonely Heart," "In the Good Old Days," "Echoes from Grand Old Opera," "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," plus several marches, concluding with the "All American March."
A reception will follow.
"This one will have more than wine and cheese," Neva promises.