Photos of bygone cinema stars conjure memories for residents of Aurora care center

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AURORA | For 95-year-old Warren Cateron, the recognition is almost instant.

“That looks like Bob Hope,” Cateron, a World War II veteran and former U.S. Army mechanic, says when presented with a black-and-white photo of the indelible entertainer.

Jenni Seaman, life engagement director at local memory care facility Chelsea Place, confirms Cateron’s tentative recognition.

“That does look a lot like Bob Hope,” she says with a proud smile, unfurling from a crouch beside Cateron’s wheelchair. Seaman’s awe is palpable as she explains that Cateron’s faculties, especially those pertaining to recognizing and identifying people, aren’t typically so sharp.

“If I asked him his daughter’s name, he couldn’t tell me,” she says. “But he could look at that photo and immediately know what’s up. It’s so cool.”

Moments like those have become regular, but fleeting occurrences at Chelsea Place in recent months thanks to a newly uncovered trove of monochromatic images that hearken back to an erstwhile age of cinema. Seaman has been using a collection of more than 40 autographed photos of 1940s film stars to jog the memories of the some 50 residents who live at the facility on East Quincy Avenue.

“You’re able to see how they’re able to recall these things from their long-term memory,” she says of the photos. “Even someone who can’t recognize a son or daughter can recognize these stars.”

The series of framed photos, which feature enduring celebrities like Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and John Wayne, came to Chelsea Place by way of the facility’s dietary director and chef, Ken Gustafson. The cook’s wife, Gwen Writer, had procured the photos from her father, who, along with a business partner, owned and operated The Dream Theater in Russell, Kansas, for several decades. Once a beacon of midwest entertainment, actors and actresses visiting The Dream, which was recently renovated by Russell Historical Society, would almost always leave behind an autographed headshot, according to Gustafson.

Gustafson said, while he and Writer displayed many of the photos in a now-closed restaurant they ran for nearly 20 years in Georgetown, called Raven Hill Mining Company, the images have not been exhibited as a complete set in several decades.

That changed last Friday, when the photos were presented as a collection during a small exhibition and community outreach event at Chelsea Place.

Seaman said, for residents like 90-year-old Ruth Updike, the gathering offered more than a chance to fawn over the faces of the silver screen; it brought out memories of a faded lifetime that can often be elusive to retrieve.

“With Ruth seeing John Wayne, it was not just, ‘I remember a movie star,’” Seaman said. “It’s ‘I remember watching westerns with my husband on our ranch, and I remember riding my horse, and my horse’s name was Whiskey.’

“It’s drawing all of those things out by just standing in front of the room and literally holding a photo.”

Updike, a native of Craig, glowed when shown the photo of Wayne.

“Oh my heavens,” the nonagenarian said. “He’s one of my favorites.”

The photo exhibition has taken on additional, sobering meaning for Seaman, who said the collection has provided her extra opportunities to learn about the public history of Alzheimer’s disease. The first photo Seaman showed some of the Chelsea Place residents was of actress Rita Hayworth, who died in 1987 at the age of 68 of complications tied to Alzheimer’s. Hayworth is widely credited with bringing much-needed public awareness to the disease, which currently affects about 5.4 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

About 11 percent of Americans over the age of 65, and about 32 percent over the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the organization.

Seaman said she supports public figures like Hayworth disclosing their struggles with the illness in an effort to bring further recognition and, hopefully, additional funding for research.

“I just think (public acknowledgement) does so much good; to not hide it away and to not keep it from the world,” she said. “We rely on public figures and private citizens to be open about their journey, what that looks like and that it’s still a life worth living.”