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Three participants in the TDF Veterans Theatregoing Program talk about the impact it's had on their lives
James Faulkner recalls his wife and daughter going to the theatre, but the Korean War veteran admits he didn't join in. "I never did go with them there, or to the Statue of Liberty or, you know, a lot of places," he says, explaining his experience as a prisoner of war left him a bit introverted. "My wife was a big talker, not me."
But over the past few years, the Laurelton, Queens resident has been getting out a lot more thanks to the TDF Veterans Theatregoing Program, and it's changed his disposition. "I probably talk more than my wife used to!"
The TDF Veterans Theatregoing Program was launched in December 2017 in partnership with New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, then Chair of the Committee on Veterans. The idea was to give local veterans and current members of the armed forces a chance to experience the transformative power of the performing arts with their loved ones at no cost. The inaugural group attended Miss Saigon. By the end of this season -- with the support of current Chair of the Committee on Veterans, Councilman Chaim Deutsch, in collaboration with almost 40 organizations serving the community -- more than 2,000 veterans will have attended 41 performances, including the Broadway musicals Aladdin, The Book of Mormon, Chicago, Come From Away, Frozen and Wicked.
Jim McGrath, a Vietnam veteran who spent three decades working for the Fire Department of New York, says he enjoys the shows, but that the camaraderie is even more meaningful. "Often you'll see a guy you haven't seen for a long time, a VFW [veteran of foreign wars] from Manhattan or Brooklyn and you'll say, 'What are you doing here?!' And he'll say, 'I'm here with TDF!'" he says. The longtime Vice President of the Staten Island branch of FDNY Retirees, McGrath has introduced many of his peers who are also veterans to the program. "Most of us particularly like the matinees because we can have a cocktail or a bite to eat and reconnect with people," he notes. "That's a really nice thing."
While McGrath and his wife are regulars at the TKTS Booth in Times Square, he says many of his fellow veterans on fixed incomes can't afford to buy tickets -- not even discounted ones. "There's an awful lot of guys, especially retirees, who just can't," he says. "Offering tickets to guys who can't normally get to go to a show is very, very exciting for them."
Harold Radish, a World War II veteran who had to hide his Jewish identity as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, says he was an avid theatregoer when he worked as a New York City public school teacher. He even belonged to TDF. "We used to go as a group of schoolteachers once or twice a week," he recalls, adding that he went to see pretty much everything, "even shows that practically closed while I was sitting there!"
At some point after he retired, his membership lapsed, and he stopped attending shows. But participating in TDF's program has reignited his love of theatregoing. "The last show we saw was Waitress," he says. "The way they moved around with the pies and the trays and all that, it was fantastic." The Douglaston, Queens resident has even been going to theatre with friends outside of the program. "We saw Linda Vista. Oh my god, it was like a 100 years ago going to New Jersey burlesque!" he says. "With all that free sex going on, it was a lot for a 95-year-old guy who grew up with -- I don't know if you know the expression 'no chuppie, no shtuppie' [essentially Yiddish for 'no marriage, no sex']. That's what your girlfriend used to whisper in your ear!"
McGrath cites the frequent preshow meals and post-show talkbacks as ways the program goes above and beyond to foster a sense of community and connection. "Lynda Thomson [the FDNY Community Coordinator who works with the program] often tries to coordinate a lunch, most times in the firehouse on Eighth Avenue," he says. "You know, sandwiches and soda and a little cake. It's even more of a get-together, more social, and that's the big item with this whole program in my opinion. And some of the shows have even made arrangements for a couple members of the cast to come out and speak to us. That was very interesting as you get a little insight into what was going on."
Ultimately, all three men agree that the Veterans Theatregoing Program has enriched their lives. "If TDF didn't take me, I probably never would go," says Faulkner. Radish agrees. "You're not a home-stayer anymore. It gives you a nice mental approach and it also helps you physically by getting out. Please keep this program going. It's important."
Top image: James Faulkner, one of the participants in the TDF Veterans Theatregoing Program. Photo courtesy of TDF.
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