Tough act to follow

George and Bea Lamb in their University City home. George and Bea received the Lifetime Achievement Award  from community theatre group Arts For Life at the annual Theatre Mask Awards on April 1. Photo: Bill Motchan 

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

It takes a bit of energy to keep up with thespian George Lamb.

He plays two roles — a taxi driver and Pope Paul IV — in a production of “Sister Act” at the Olivette Community Center that runs through Sunday, April 9. He bowls in a weekly league and plays an occasional round of golf. He works out problems using Microsoft Excel when he’s not posting his status on Facebook. And he dotes over his loving wife, Bea, whom Lamb refers to as “his bride.” The couple will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary April 11.

Not too bad for a man who will turn 97 in June.

Lamb is already looking ahead to another opening, in the play “Annie.” He’ll play Franklin Roosevelt — for whom he voted.  

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There are dozens of recordings of George Lamb’s performances on a shelf in his University City home. Now he can add one new item to the collection: Lifetime Achievement Award. The community theater support group Arts for Life presented George and Bea with the honor April 1 at its annual Theatre Mask Awards.

For several decades, George Lamb has acted in community theater companies, including the YMCA, St. Charles Community College and the Over Due Theatre Company. Lamb has no formal training as an actor, although he did some Shakespeare in high school. Directors love him because he’s reliable. He meets the show business trifecta: he shows up on time, hits his marks and knows his lines.

Wayne Mackenberg, director of “Sister Act”and artistic director of the Over Due group,said he’s often amazed at George’s range.

“Everyone loves him, he has a joke for everybody, and he’s really funny without even trying,” Mackenberg said. “He’s a good friend to everyone, and he really boosts the morale of the cast.”

As an actor, Lamb has taken on every type of character, from Groucho Marx to a judge in “Seussical.”

“Acting is a great gig,” he said. “In ‘The Sound of Music,’ I was the bishop who marries Maria and the Captain. In ‘Sweet Charity,’ I played a drunk.”

“Sister Act” is a high-energy musical. During Lamb’s first scene in Act 2, as a cab driver, he’s bound, gagged and threatened with a gun. Then he hustles backstage for a costume change as the Pope.

Lamb was born in New York and grew up in the Bronx. He can still turn on the accent — hey, goils! — if need be for a part. 

During World War II, Lamb was stationed at Scott Air Force Base. After the war, he stayed in the area and built a career and a family. The Lambs have three children, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The acting bug bit Lamb quite by accident. Years ago, United Hebrew Temple was staging a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Bea Lamb was in the cast, and the director looked at Lamb.

“He said, ‘George, how’d you like to be the fiddler?’ ” Lamb recalls. “So I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love it.’ I opened the show and closed it when everyone left Anatevka. I was the last one on the stage.”

Lamb had a great time, so he started going to auditions every time a play began casting.

“It was a kick,” he said. “I was in my late 50s, I had time on my hands, and the kids were out of the house. I enjoyed it because it was an accomplishment keeping my mind engaged to learn lines and learning to emote, too.”

This was a far cry from Lamb’s day job as a chemist. He worked for a small aerosol supply company called MIDCO. Lamb always had a creative instinct; he’s painted in oil and watercolor, and he was a master woodworker. He designed and built furniture and several Torah stands, including two that are still in use at Central Reform Congregation and United Hebrew Temple.

His detail-oriented nature got the attention of a member of B’nai El Congregation, who asked George to make a Torah stand for the temple.

“He knew that if he gave me the job, that I would make the Torah stand,” Lamb said. “I didn’t know anything about them, so I went to the library and researched them. I got an idea of what I wanted, and I designed it and built it.”

Nowadays, Lamb doesn’t mess with a drill or lathe, but he can’t help tinkering with ideas to fix problems. When he and Bea moved into their apartment in University City, he noticed it only had one closet. But there was an L-shaped wall separating two rooms, and that gave him an idea.

“I decided that I was going to make a closet out of this space,” he said. “So I had my son-in-law put the brackets in. I designed the whole thing, so now we have two closets.”

George and Bea used to perform as musicians, he on trumpet and she on clarinet. And they both tap-danced. I asked George if he could still do a bit of soft-shoe now if a director asked him. He thought for a second, then confidently said, yes, he probably could.

Between auditions and learning lines, Lamb bowls in a weekly league. His average is 125, down from 160 a couple of years ago. The result, he said, of going to a lighter ball which just doesn’t get much action.

“I get my share of spares, though,” he said.

If you’re wondering how a 96-year-old has the energy and stamina to keep up with an active schedule like this, consider Lamb’s philosophy.

“I like to be busy,” he said. “If I’m not doing anything, I like to play brain games on the computer. My advice to others is to keep active. Join a group. Take responsibility and take charge of something instead of having someone else do it for you. If you want something done right, do it yourself.”