After slipping into the familiar white robe and securing the angel wings on his shoulders, Charlie Franza, 94, prepared to head into the Salisbury Senior Center’s all-purpose room to hand out Hershey’s Kisses to residents one last time.
“You’re going to love this,” Phyllis Caggiano, the East Meadow Senior Center president, said. She untangled a long white wig and placed it on Franza’s head. As he held Caggiano’s hand, they made their way into the room, where they were greeted by applause from members of both the Salisbury and East Meadow senior centers.
The event, known to East Meadow center members as the annual Kissing Angel, was new to the Salisbury seniors. “This marks the first event where members from both centers come together officially since the merge,” Caggiano said.
In December, the Town of Hempstead announced the closing of the East Meadow center, citing financial disputes with its landlord, the Mitchel Field Senior Citizens Redevelopment Co., according to town officials.
A Mitchel Field company spokesman said that the center’s owner signed a 20-year lease in 1996, agreeing to allow the town to use the space for free. The spokesman said that the town paid nearly $10,000 for utilities over the course of four years. Once the lease expired last July, he explained, the town and the company could not agree on an extension.
So the center closed its doors on Dec. 29, and merged with the Salisbury center on Jan. 3, according to Helen Paladonia, the East Meadow Senior Center coordinator. “So far, the residents seem to like it here,” she said. “We still plan to hold the same events we held at the East Meadow Senior Center here, and hopefully try to bring both centers together as much as we can.”
For 15 years, Franza was known to East Meadow Senior Center members as the Kissing Angel. He would dress up and hand out Hershey’s Kisses to the female members. Now he hands them out to everyone. This year Franza said it was time to hang up the angel wings, but not before mingling with the Salisbury center members.
“We were all upset at first when we heard the news the East Meadow center was closing,” said Franza, an East Meadow resident. “But you have to make the best of the situation.”
While musician Tommy Sullivan sang classic songs from the 1940s and ’50s, couples danced along. “We’re getting to know one another,” Caggiano said. “We are trying to mix together. Some are still getting used to the idea of taking the bus to come to the new center, but we’ll make the best of it.”
Diane Lesser, 75, of Salisbury, said that although she doesn’t know many East Meadow members yet, she looks forward to future joint events. “This is a lot of fun so far,” she said. “I see a lot of people here talking to each other and getting to know each other. But because this is the first event we have with both centers, many people are still keeping to themselves.”
Although some tables were filled with friends from one center or the other, Franza’s outfit — and the Kisses — drew smiles and laughs, easing whatever awkwardness the members felt. Franza sat near Sullivan for most of the event, chatting with Caggiano and Paladonia. He watched the dancers and sang along to the music.
And then: “Look! Charlie’s dancing!” Caggiano hollered.
Egged on by claps and cheers around him, Franza swayed his hips and waved one hand in the air while the other supported him on his walking stick. For a few minutes, he owned the spotlight.
Then he laughed, “That’s it for me. If I didn’t need to use this walker, you bet I’d be dancing right now. My girlfriend and I were always the first ones on the dance floor back then; then everyone else followed.”
And this time, too, everyone else followed, as the dancing continued.