Banjo club hits all the right notes

Ninety-two-year-old Jeanne Wheelock says she is “just a plunker.”

She is so much more than that.

Wheelock shows up for every weekly practice session of Tacoma Banjo Club and the group’s performances, as well. She also serves as the club secretary.

“I’ve been playing since 1988,” said Wheelock.

Wheelock said Frank Rinehart started the club and formed the band by putting an ad in a newspaper. A tuba player and five others showed up. Now the members come from all over Pierce County and from Kitsap County.

At a recent rehearsal at the Asian Cultural Center in Tacoma, the number of folks who came to sit in on the session outnumbered the banjo players.

Since 1991, James Ozanich has been a regular attending the practice sessions. He busied himself as soon as he arrived, bringing more chairs in for other audience members as the room quickly filled up.

As the session got underway, folks in the audience began tapping their feet and clapping.

Club president Gary Hauenstein said the group has a steady following,

and most of the folks attending practice sessions and performances (at retirement communities, casinos and private parties, among other venues) have gray hair and bald heads.

“The 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s is their type of music,” he said. “We all have memories of a song, and to the majority of the people, everything is related to music. They remember what they were doing and where they were as a kid.”

Hauenstein said the group usually draws the elderly crowd because they take those memories back to their youth, and the players enjoy looking into the audience to see their reaction.

“There isn’t one time we go somewhere and play that we don’t see folks tapping their feet, eyes closed, smiling or crying, because it brings back memories,” he said.

The Tacoma Banjo Club is a very friendly group. And popular. “We are already booked for 2018,” Hauenstein said. 

Hauenstein has been playing since he was 9 years old, when his dad, who also played the banjo, put one in his lap.

“I never had any formal lessons,” he said.

Hauenstein, a retired fire chief with Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, said club members play a Dixieland style of music, and they have a real following.

Lorraine Lewis, who plays the washboard, said she started on the banjo back in the 1960s and with the group since its beginning.

“Of course I like the music and the people – we are a very closeknit group, like a big family. We enjoy playing and hope it improves someone’s day,” she said.

Lewis said sometimes when they play a melancholy piece, she has seen members of the audience tear up. But mostly the group performs upbeat songs.

“We feel like we are doing the audience some good and doing ourselves some good, and each one of us loves playing,” she said.

Pianist Joyce Fischlin has been with the group for four years and compares it to doing a form of community service.

“I am simply here for the enjoyment,” she said. “It gives me an opportunity to ad lib and pull music out of my head to complement the other instruments. It gives me an opportunity to jam – just start playing – and I really like the people,” she said.

Beverly Dallman, one of the two pianists with the group, said she has been playing piano with them since she saw an ad in Senior Scene in 1998. “They wanted a pianist, a player who would work for food and fun,” she said, adding she couldn’t wait to sign up.

Recently, focusing on holiday favorites, the all-volunteer group kicked off the season in style, performing for residents and guests at the Willow Gardens retirement community in Puyallup. Resident Judith Abeyta was meeting a friend at the holiday event and said the performances were a highlight for everyone.

Members of the banjo club wore their sporty red outfits as they performed songs everyone could relate to, including “Frosty the Snowman,” “Silver Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” just to name a few.

Bob Ritter opened the concert by reminding the banjo players, “Find your favorite C chord.” And just like that, the performance was off and running.

Audience members were tapping fingers and feet as the musicians never missed a beat, performing holiday favorites everyone could recognize. Staff setting up for the residents’ dinner were nodding their heads and lip-synching to the music as they worked.

“When we go to the facilities and see folks faces light up and toes and fingers tapping, it brings joy to my heart, “said Fischlin. “I have such a good time. It warms my heart to see the reaction of our audience and also the camaraderie in the group. A bunch of musicians just sitting down and enjoying each other. It is such a hoot.”


Tacoma Banjo Club member Jeanne Wheelock, 92, has played the banjo since 1988 but calls herself “just a plunker.” She shows up for all of the group’s rehearsals and performances. (Joan Cronk/for Senior Scene)