Performer Gary Rosen continues to entertain children despite illness

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(Host) Gary Rosen, formerly of the musical duo Rosenshontz, has entertained families for decades with his catchy rock tunes for kids. Last summer the 57-year-old Brattleboro singer-songwriter was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But as VPR’s Susan Keese reports, the show must go on.

(Sound of microphone check.)

(Keese) On a Sunday afternoon in a hall near Boston, Gary Rosen is warming up for a show. He sits in a straight chair, flanked by his teenaged daughter Lela and son Penn. A younger daughter Liza will appear later in a Winnie the Pooh suit.

The kids have been part of the show for as long as they can remember. They’re taking a more prominent role vocally since their father’s illness, though up to now Rosen’s voice hasn’t been affected.

When it comes to harmonies, Rosen says there’s nothing like a genetic blend. Besides, he needs their help now getting on and off stage. It’s only two steps but it’s a struggle.

(Sound of Rosen leaving the stage) “Move down, better.” (Grunts.)
“Okay right, there we go. All right, you’re down.”
“Wait a minute, I’m leaning too far over.”
“We got it, okay.”

(Keese) Rosen shuffles off with his walker, which Penn has decorated with racing flames. Lela wonders if he ought to be back on stage before the audience arrives. Rosen says no.

(Rosen) “We’re going to walk in onstage, they’re going to see me in the walker and struggling to get up on those steps, which are – boy….”

(Keese) Rosen has been not talking down to kids for a long time. In the 1980s he and his former partner Bill Shontz became nationally famous for creating kids’ recordings and concerts that grownups could enjoy too.

Rosenshontz broke up about ten years ago. But Rosen kept writing and recording and jumping around onstage with his funny hats and stuffed animals and guitar.

Last summer he started having muscle cramps and stumbling inexplicably.

(Rosen) “So the progression started with my legs and after about two months it went into my hands and arms.”

(Keese) Later that summer, he learned that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

The Rosens were on Cape Cod for a series of concerts when he and his wife Mary told the kids.

(Rosen) “I told them that it was very, very serious and that I wasn’t going to get better. And it was going to be very difficult and we all had to do this together. And you know, everybody cried and we all hugged and kissed. And then two days later we went out and did great concerts. It’s almost like concerts were a therapy.”

(Keese) Lela and Penn agree.

(Lela Rosen) “I do think performing with my dad is a great coping mechanism. It goes back to what we used to do when it was normal.”
(Penn Rosen) “It’s an especially effective coping mechanism for my dad when he performs, because when he gets on stage his face just lights up and you can sense that. He kind of forgets the ALS for a moment and just sings for these kids.”

(Keese) In September while Rosen could still play guitar, the whole family went to a Brattleboro studio to record one last CD. Lela says it was fun, but bittersweet.

(Lela Rosen) “But we made the best of it, I believe.”

(Keese) Making the best of things is the topic of the bonus track on the new CD. It’s an old Rosenshontz song that was adopted as a theme for the Special Olympics. Rosen wrote it to encourage kids with disabilities. After his diagnosis, he wrote a new verse. Rosen says it’s become his mantra.

(Lela Rosen, singing)
“We’ve got a Dad who’s special to know.
Although he’s been sick he’s still doing his show. We say, don’t you feel bad that you’ve got to slow down?”

(Rosen, singing)
“Oh no, not when I’ve got love all around.
Don’t go feeling sorry for me
I may be sick, but I can see that I’m —
I’m going to be the best that I can,
Yes I am, yes I am…..”

(Keese) Back at the concert near Boston, it’s clear that Rosen’s best still works for his young fans. Even though he’s sitting and singing to recorded tracks, the kids dance in the aisles to an old favorite.

(Music plays, “Rock n’ Roll Teddy Bear”) “Do we have any teddy bears that like to rock and roll?”

(Rosen) “I love that energy that you get back from a really good audience. It makes me feel good. It makes people feel good. So why not?”

(Keese) Rosen will perform at a benefit concert in Brattleboro in May.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

(“Rock n Roll Teddy Bear ends.) “Boy those bears do get wild sometimes!”

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