When Rhonda Marzetta called up Charlie Hall, she was facing a dilemma: Aldersbridge Communities, a nonprofit network of skilled nursing and assisted living homes based in East Providence where she works, was looking for a way to raise funds online, in lieu of live events. The team had bounced around a few ideas, including a talent show, when Marzetta asked comedian and friend Hall to help them brainstorm over Zoom.
“At the meeting, I lamented on how tough it was to do live comedy online,” Hall begins, pointing to struggling late-night TV comics, “but that maybe something I came up with years ago might work: The Rhodywood Squares.”
Rhodywood Squares is a spin-off of the hit game show Hollywood Squares, the original of which ran from 1966 to 1980 on NBC and was followed by new productions on various networks till wrapping up for good in 2004. The concept is simple: Two contestants compete in a game of tic-tac-toe for the chance to win cash and prizes – except the “board” is a 3x3 stack of open-faced cubes occupied by celebrities who are each asked a question, and the truth of their answer is judged by the contestants to earn squares. Notable appearances included Paul Lynde, Joan Rivers, and Rose Marie; as you can imagine, Hollywood Squares was much more about the delivery of one-line jokes or zingers from its celebrity guests, making it as much a comedy show as a game show.
Hall had hosted a successful, in-person Rhodywood Squares before to raise money for RI Meals on Wheels at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, and, he explains, “The idea of using this Hollywood Squares format on Zoom had been swimming around in my head ever since COVID hit.”
When Hall brought this up to Director of Development, Public Affairs & Philanthropy Elise Strom, “PR guru” Betty Galligan, and Marzetta, he was met with enthusiasm: “We fell in love with the idea,” says Strom, “and voila – the event was born!”
Hall wasted no time; within 60 seconds of logging off that initial Zoom meeting, he texted his good friend and local news anchor Gene Valicenti, who immediately agreed to be their center square, and other local celebrities followed: the Cardi Brothers, Judge Frank Caprio, and WPRO’s Tara Granahan. Strom and Galligan secured NAACP’s Jim Vincent, film director Mike Corrente, and Miss RI USA 2020 Jonet Nichelle, while Marzetta brought in her cousin Bob Perlow, former Hollywood Squares joke writer and Jay Leno Show crowd warmer.
Once the celebrity guests were lined up, Hall faced the biggest challenge: writing the questions, which are tied to Rhode Island or a particular star’s forte, like law for Judge Caprio or news for Valicenti. Hall also devised a bluff answer and funny answer for each celeb to have on hand in addition to the real one, to “alleviate some stress on their part.” Of course, they can also take a stab at their own zingers: “Judging from the folks we’ve got lined up, they are sure to come up with hilarious lines of their own, too,” says Galligan.
On the night of April 10, attendees will purchase a “ticket” at Aldersbridge.org to receive the link to tune in. They’ll be treated to a “red carpet pre-show” with fellow comedian Doreen Collins posing as Joan Rivers, who will interview the celebs and special guests before Hall takes over to start the show. What will ensue? Well, you’ll just have to sign up and watch.
“This fundraiser has been more complicated than I thought it would be, but I think the payoff will be well worth it: To see Gene Valicenti’s impression of Paul Lynde,” says Hall. “I told him I would even buy him a polyester suit to complete the look. He said no. He already had one.”
While the event itself is sure to be a riot, it’s not just about having fun. For Hall, working with the team at Aldersbridge, including tech genius Jim Gracik, has been his favorite part, and “it’s helped to temper the ‘glum’ of not being able to perform this year.” He’s also excited to make the concept work to raise funds for other nonprofits in the future, and already has a few lined up.
For Aldersbridge, the funds raised will help COVID-19 relief efforts such as purchasing PPE, cleaning supplies, and equipment; sustaining the many physical, social, emotional, and cognitive wellbeing programs and services for residents; and support their ElderVentures wish-granting program.
“Bringing all of the local celebrities and the community together to raise much needed funding to support our nonprofit organization is heartwarming, because we are raising awareness that elder lives matter,” says Strom. “It will be a nice way to celebrate the fact that there is goodness and hope, even in the most challenging of times.”
To learn more about Aldersbridge Communities and register for the event on April 10, visit Aldersbridge.org.