Every week at KleinLife in Northeast Philadelphia, 89-year-old Burt Forman hosts a trivia contest called “Burt’s Brain Games.”
Forman’s board features six categories with 10 questions per section. Twelve senior citizens take turns picking questions and attempting to answer them. If the selector answers incorrectly, the other contestants jump to raise their hands first.
The Jewish host tallies up points and gives out gelt to the week’s winner. Throughout the game, he dances to music playing from a speaker off to the side, laughs with his contestants and keeps the peace as they get competitive with each other.
It’s like “Jeopardy” but as a sort of hangout/dance party for older people.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Forman said.
Forman doesn’t just emcee the game once a week. He spends two hours a day coming up with questions and making boards. His categories can be as normal as history and as quirky as one-syllable cities.
In about six years of hosting games, Forman has accumulated 15 books that hold about 85 topics each. He tries his best to never repeat questions.
“It gives me something to do, and I enjoy people, and I enjoy conversing with them and getting them all excited,” the retired biology teacher said. “I have one guy who calls me every Monday, and I have to go through old books and play the game over the phone.”
Carol J. Robins, like most contestants, attends the game every week. She said she finds it educational and good for the memory.
She also said it’s nice to see people and laugh. But perhaps more than anything, it’s the host who keeps her coming back.
“He comes up with these very interesting topics,” Robins added. “It’s like he’s still teaching.”
Forman retired from his teaching position at Samuel Fels High School in Philadelphia at age 62.
For years, he enjoyed life as a retiree. Forman and his wife, Kay Forman, took trips and attended Broadway shows.
But when Kay Forman came down with dementia, the couple had to find an activity close to home that could help. That was when they started going to KleinLife.
Months later, KleinLife Program Director Shelley Geltzer was looking for new activity suggestions. Forman pitched his trivia contest. Geltzer loved it.
Pretty soon, about 25 people were coming each week, including Kay Forman. Then, he started taking the game to other senior facilities in the area.
By 2020, Paul’s Run Retirement Community, The Philadelphia Protestant Home and two KleinLife locations were paying Forman to host “Burt’s Brain Games.” After Kay Forman died in 2018, it became the thing that made “my day go fast,” Forman said.
“If I don’t do it, I’ll get old,” he added.
Yvette Greenberg, Forman’s stepdaughter, used to come to the games with the host and play his music. Forman called her his Vanna White, a reference to the “Wheel of Fortune” co-host who presses the letters.
Greenberg said the people in the trivia groups got so close that, when a contestant had to go to the hospital, she would go visit.
“They were just so much fun. They were always so excited to see me. They made me feel good,” she added. “Hugging me. Always thanking me for being there.”
But when the pandemic hit, those facilities closed, and Forman had to cancel his games. During COVID, he cooked, baked, read and watched TV.
Yet without “Burt’s Brain Games,” he felt a void. And then, even after facilities started reopening in 2021, they didn’t call Forman.
Except KleinLife in Northeast Philly.
In September, Forman returned to the place where his game started.
The number of contestants was a little smaller. He wasn’t getting paid anymore. And his Vanna White now had a full-time job and couldn’t co-host.
But Forman was back.
“It was so good to come back,” he said. “I put a lot of work into it.”
The Alex Trebek of Northeast Philadelphia has a solid group of 12 who play each week at KleinLife. He has thought about reaching out to the other facilities, but he’s a little hesitant due to the ongoing pandemic.
So for now, he’s content to come up with more and more categories and to keep making his days go by fast.
Last week, his categories included oxymorons, fossils, firecracker blondes from Hollywood history, Bellevue Hospital and Polly Adler, the 20th-century madam who built a business of bordellos.
“It’s really very informative,” Forman said.
A month ago, Forman and his family celebrated his birthday in a private room at a diner. His daughter, Tami Brauer, had to reserve the room because Forman wanted to play the game with his children and grandchildren.
At first, Brauer was like, “Really?” But over a couple of hours, Forman asked questions and danced. And the whole family laughed and did their best to answer.
“We loved watching him do that,” Brauer said.
Forman plans on continuing the games for as long as he can at KleinLife. At 89, he is still sharp and active, according to his daughters.
He still does his own grocery shopping and goes to the library each week to research new categories.
“His brain is functioning amazingly,” Brauer said. “He knows way more about life than I do.”
Contestants tell Forman the same thing.
“They’re amazed at some of the things I teach them. (They say) ‘I never knew that,’” Forman said.
“I’m satisfied,” he concluded.
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