Singing group with disabilities performs for the children of St. Edmond’s Home
By Jim Gauger
Special to The CS&T
ROSEMONT – The large room at St. Edmond’s Home for Children in Rosemont, Montgomery County, is filled with perhaps 50 young people in wheelchairs, staff members at their sides.
They are gathered in a semicircle awaiting a unique group of men who will sing during this cold, snow-encrusted February afternoon. As they wait, a boom box delivers a set of loud, catchy pop music.
Joe Reilly, an energetic man of 53 with a white mustache, is the person behind “The Language of the Heart Concert.”
“It’s the first stop of our tour,” Reilly said, laughing. “We’ll finish up at the Kimmel Center.”
Reilly chaperones the Wise Guys, a singing group composed of men with disabilities who are residents of the Cardinal Krol Center in Springfield, Delaware County. The men, ranging in age from 41 to 67, have performed together since 1977. He figures the group has done more than 300 shows in that period.
Reilly, one person suggests, is the conductor.
“Actually, I’m the guitar player,” he said. Quite so. His guitar work and vocals bring everything together.
Reilly, a certified music therapist who heads Tune-Up Network Enterprises, has worked full-time and part-time at the Krol Center beginning in 1977. He also works as an adjunct professor at Immaculata University. Since 2001, the St. Joseph’s University graduate (1978, English literature) has worked with Catholic Social Services as a consultant.
He sees music as a tool that provides confidence and healing.
“We use music to restore and improve the state of well-being in human beings,” Reilly said. “It helps with communication skills. You teach the guys a song and in the process of learning the lyrics a lot of things happen. The guys are working on their own intellectual ability; they’re also working on social interaction because they are working in a group. The lyrical content provides emotion.
“If a guy is angry, for example, a way to express that is to punch someone. But you can express all the emotions in music in a safe manner,” Reilly said.
The Wise Guys arrive with a flourish; all smiles and energy. They are ready to entertain.
The men line up in two rows. Reilly brings several men forward for solos or duets. The first singer is introduced as Frank Sinatra. His real name is Mike Gesualdi. He asks the audience, “Are you happy? Are you happy?”
“Yes,” is the answer. Then Gesualdi begins, “Forget your troubles, come on get happy.”
After the show, Gesualdi is asked about singing with the group for so long. “It makes me feel great,” he said. “I hope to come back here soon.”
The 40-minute concert continues with the group performing oldies, some pop music and one or two hymns. After all, the concert was held on Ash Wednesday, the original show postponed by the record-breaking snowstorm a week earlier. Another fine moment is a rendition of the Beatles favorites, “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Hey Jude.”
The Wise Guys signature song, “I Had a Dream,” is accompanied by the use of large cards with lyrics and interaction with the audience.
“Music is a huge part of the children’s lives because they are so involved with their disabilities,” said Julia Vivanco, activities coordinator at St. Edmond’s. “Music is good sensory fun. It can change a mood around. You see the children smile. The kids love music.”
The ages of the residents at St. Edmond’s range from 2 to 23. Reilly, in his role of music therapist, visits three times a month.
The Wise Guys have received praise for their performances at the state Special Olympic Games (“a musical phenomenon”) and from the Delaware Disabilities Foundation (“a super-charged love train”). They also were featured in a cover story in St. Anthony Messenger magazine headlined “Acting Like Saints.”
At one time, said Reilly, the Wise Guys did close to 40 concerts a year. This year it is one a month.
Most of the men in the choir have Down syndrome, some have autism and some have physical disabilities, said Reilly.
He marvels at the enthusiasm the men provide to an audience. He says the emotions that pour out of their performances are most genuine. What has Reilly really excited is a planned documentary that will cover the past 30 years of Wise Guys performances. He is working on the documentary with AmericanInsight.org of Narberth.
“These disabled men probably have a little more wisdom about life than either you or I,” Reilly said. “They have an incredible amount of joy – more than most people on the street. They’re very honest. They don’t have a mask like you or I. What you see is what you get.”
The show at St. Edmond’s was over. The packing up began. But the boom box still played tunes. Some of the Wise Guys and some of the St. Edmond’s staffers kept the party going, dancing together in the late afternoon.
Members of the Wise Guys who performed at St. Edmond’s were Dave Duddy, Mike Magee, Mike Gesualdi, Joel Rosenthal, Jackie Abbott, Paul Cannon, Mark Heavens, Doug Mecke, Mike Schmidt, John Leimbach, Bob Lowrey, Franny McCullough, Jim Stranix, John Moran, Sam Catrambone, Richard McHugh and Bob Murphy.
The Wise Guys’ signature song, “I Had a Dream,” can be seen on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-sDkxR9QfM.
Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.