James Farrell’s elixir of youth is not a magical potion, but four strings and his voice.
He emerged Friday morning from his third-floor room at the Redwood Retirement Residence, in sunglasses, a tan corduroy jacket and a black fedora that seemed to conceal some of his 96 years. In his right hand was a ukulele, a frequent companion in a life stretching from show business in New England to years as a merchant seaman to his retirement years in Napa County.
In the atrium of the retirement home, he sat down and began strumming, and singing, a succession of tunes awaking echoes of musicals and memories decades in the past. For his audience he had Carol Eldridge, a saleswoman for Redwood’s owner, and a couple of other employees, but for 20 minutes he performed with the verve of a well-practiced nightclub act facing a ballroom’s worth of spectators.
“I’m a Yankee Doodle dandy, a Yankee Doodle do or die!” he crooned to the signature tune of the 1904 Broadway musical “Little Johnny Jones.” What followed was the revival of hit parades of generations past — George Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me,” the Bing Crosby standard “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.” Pausing for a quick breath, he quipped, “When I put my teeth in, I’ll do a little better,” with a mix of modesty and slyness.
“Playing the uke is the spot in the brain that keeps me young,” said Farrell, who moved to Redwood in June after five years at the Veterans Home of California at Yountville.
Farrell’s life journey with the instrument began at his childhood home in Providence, R.I., among a family of music lovers. Raised by a pianist mother and a father who sang baritone in light opera productions, he was 7 when his older sister, in 1924, bought him his first ukulele — a high-pitched instrument resembling a shrunken guitar, introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the 1870s.
“First thing I learned was this,” he recalled, before strumming the chords of “Ting-a-Ling.” “I only sang four songs for the longest time. Then my sister started buying sheet music, every Saturday, and I’d start to play it.”
By the time of Farrell’s childhood in the 1920s, the ukulele was becoming fashionable on the mainland as the accompaniment to a generation of stage and film entertainers. The solos and show-stoppers of numerous musicals soon passed as sheets of paper through the family home, feeding a love of show business that he says led him to a stage career — as an actor, not a ukulele player — in musicals from Boston to Hartford, Conn., to Off Broadway productions in New York.
The coming of World War II pulled Farrell, by then in his mid-20s, off the boards and into a military plant back in Providence. Afterward, his journeys led him to postings as diverse as a General Mills sales job in Modesto, dealing in office supplies in Chicago, a chauffeur post for the British Consulate in Los Angeles and 16 years as a seaman in the U.S. Merchant Marine, with stints in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Aside from occasional, long-ago concerts for friends around Los Angeles, Farrell’s ukulele has never been a route to public acclaim, much less fortune. But in his old age, the value of his musical sidekick runs even deeper.
If it’s the middle of the night and I’m disturbed, I’ll get up and play the uke for a while,” he said after his midmorning recital. “The ukulele is the piece that keeps me alive. It sublimates your soul, if you believe in the soul.”