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Doug Clark: Crooner rocks the house at 101st birthday party

It’s Friday morning at Coeur d’Alene’s McGrane Center and show time for a remarkable woman named Betty Hollingsworth.

Small and thin, snow-white hair arranged into tight pin curls, Hollingsworth rises from her chair and positions herself a few feet from an upright piano.

An introductory chord or two later, the transformation happens. Hollingsworth begins to belt out a bouncy old tune called “Angry.”

“Please don’t be angry, cuz I was only teasing you …”

There are singers who simply sing. Then there are performers who entertain. There’s no denying that Hollingsworth fits into the entertainment camp.

Midway through her song, Hollingsworth wags an index finger to emphasize a phrase. Moving with the beat, she bobs her head and softly claps her hands.

Every now and then, she kicks a leg out to add a dramatic oomph to her performance.

I’ve already gotten my biggest kick out of Hollingsworth. Today is her 101st birthday.

“I just love people,” she tells me later. “I love to make them happy. And that makes me happy.”

What a sweetheart.

To the dozen or so onlookers enjoying the show, some of them dancing to the music, this is pretty much business as usual.

Part of the Kootenai Health hospital complex, the McGrane Center provides a number of care and rehabilitation services for seniors. Visiting musicians are a treat that help brighten the lives for some of those who use this outpatient facility.

I learned about Hollingsworth through her cowboy-hatted 73-year-old daughter. Iva Jane Smith strums her guitar and sings classic country songs at the McGrane Center twice a month.

Smith thought it would be cool for mom to get some media exposure. She’s right. I’ve written about plenty of musicians over the years, but a crooner who’s broken the century mark?

That’s definitely a first.

Then there’s the treat I didn’t count on.

“I played USO shows for World War I veterans, World War II veterans and Korean War veterans,” says the 87-year-old pianist, Kathryn Robison.

“Although in those days I played the accordion.”

Robison is a terrific accompanist for a couple of very important reasons: She knows how to listen. She slyly keeps the singers tethered to the beat and never lets her piano volume overwhelm them.

Robison’s also a human jukebox. She has a vast repertoire of instrumental standards and also will add the occasional vocal.

“Over hill, over dale, as we hit the dusty trail, and the caissons go rolling along,” Robison sings while banging out a medley of military anthems.

Robison honed her chops by doing the Lord’s work. During World War II in California, she played her accordion for wounded soldiers, sometimes performing in as many as 17 hospital wards a day.

Hollingsworth grew up in Ohio, the middle child in a family of seven kids.

“I used to enter all the jitterbug contests,” she says.

Hollingsworth says her husband, Bill, died 22 years ago.

What brought her to the Coeur d’Alene area?

She wanted to be close to her daughters, Iva Jane Smith and Ruth Chase, she says.

The daughters perform a country duo they call The Redheads. Make that “Mom and the Redheads,” whenever Hollingsworth tags along.

In all, it was grand time at the McGrane Center.

Songs like “Red River Valley,” “Sentimental Journey” and “Five Foot Two” turned this drab, utilitarian meeting room into an upbeat concert venue.

“Show me the way to go home,” sings Smith. “I’m tired and I want to go to bed. I had a little drink about an hour ago and it’s gone right to my head …”

The last song ends. The last chord fades.

“Thanks for having us,” Smith says. “See you next time.”

Cue the ice cream and birthday cupcakes for this remarkable woman, Betty Hollingsworth.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.