Bob Hope marched a parade of octogenarians through the Sheraton Washington Ballroom last night to celebrate Florida Rep. Claude Pepper's 84th birthday and, well, to just sort of herald the fine art of maturation. As expected, Hope was a hotbed of geriatric joking.
*"I knew I was in the right place tonight when the waiter asked me if I wanted my meat rare, medium or pure'ed."
*"Security was pretty tight here tonight. You have to show a Medical Alert bracelet."
*"George Burns believes you can have sex till the day you die and if you're lucky you can time it to the minute. He's 88 and he just signed on at Caesar's Palace for another five years. With options."
*"Claude and I can't light all the candles on our birthday cake without permission from the fire department."
*"I looked up gerontology in the dictionary before I came and all it showed was a picture of Claude saying, 'You can have as much fun at 84. It just takes longer to recover.' "
The surprise star of the night, however, was Anthony Quinn, who showed after he finished the evening's performance of "Zorba" at the Kennedy Center. He jabbed a little at Hope, said he was a big admirer of Pepper's and then barely got out alive before the autograph seekers smothered him.
The birthday party for a thousand was actually a fundraiser for the Mildred and Claude Pepper Eminent Scholars Chair at Florida State University. The party raised $800,000 for the chair, which will be devoted to the study of aging, and everyone got a miniature pewter statue of Pepper as a souvenir.
Perhaps the evening was summed up best by Arthur Flemming, the former chairman of the Civil Rights Commission. "Very unusual gathering," he said. At 79, Flemming was the youngest of the "honorees," who seemed to be having the time of their life.
"I'm just beginning to have some real fun in my life," said Pepper, a vocal advocate for the rights of the elderly. "I recommend aging to everyone. It's just another journey."
"Everyone should live till 90!" said Helen Cronkite, mother of Walter. She turned 92 in August. "Well I haven't been in the nineties that long, so I can't tell you about them yet. But I'm striving for 100."
"I've looked into my crystal ball and I expect to live past 107," said W. Clement Stone, 82, the very Republican self-made insurance magnate. "I was born in May 1902 and with the new math that makes me 47. I'm riding a persistent wave of good fortune."
He always talks like that.
Pepper's tenacious advocacy for the rights of the elderly has brought him national fame in the past decade. Most significantly, the Democrat has been the moving force behind eliminating a mandatory retirement age.
From the podium House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Florida Gov. Robert Graham boasted his accomplishments. "He founded a quality of life for senior citizens," said O'Neill.
"Claude Pepper has achieved more in the 19 years since he turned 65 than most of us accomplish in a lifetime," said Graham.
At the end, a chorus of waiters marched out with 80 coconut-cream birthday cakes. Pepper and Cronkite took to the dance floor and the band played, what else, "I Could Have Danced All Night."