Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The original playground for America's elderly

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Sun City

Rainbow Quartet
The Rainbow Quartet is Sun City's very own barbershop group

I forget for the moment who it was that described jazz and animation as the only two original American art forms but it does not matter, because they are wrong.

Whoever it was forgot barbershop singing - the sweet, soaring blending of four-part harmonies that can instantly conjure the mood of the United States from sometime before World War I.

It is a long-vanished age, of course - perhaps it never really existed at all - when American prosperity was bathed in "the light of the silvery moon" and the only stress a fellow felt came from scheming how to snatch a kiss from his "Coney Island baby".

But it seemed somehow appropriate that when we travelled to Sun City, Arizona, to mark the 50th anniversary of one of America's most important retirement communities, we should run into the Rainbow Quartet - whose energy and melodic precision belie the fact their combined age is well above 300.

Self-made man

Here is a little clip of the boys in action, four friends enjoying precisely the kind of active retirement Sun City was always meant to provide.

It is only fair to point out by the way, they do not actually remember America before WWI. But they are all military veterans and one of the guys bidding his "Coney Island girl" a sweet farewell is a Vietnam-era fighter pilot.

The four singers were young men starting in their working lives when the American builder and businessman Del Webb started thinking about creating a new kind of town for retired people.

Mr Webb, a self-made millionaire, could fairly be described as one of the architects of the modern United States.

Mob rule

He put up the usual homes and hospitals, of course, but also built such quintessential bits of Americana as major league baseball stadiums and the reinforced concrete silos that housed Minuteman nuclear missiles in the depths of the Cold War.

Sun City in 1959
The area was not much more than a desert in 1959

At one point he even found himself building a casino in Las Vegas for the gangster Bugsy Siegel. The story goes that when he expressed concern at finding himself doing business with the mafia, Mr Siegel reassured him with the grimly prophetic words: "Don't worry, we only shoot each other." This was a few weeks before Mr Siegel was indeed shot by his business rivals - or possibly his partners - in the gaming industry.

Mr Webb though always felt Sun City was his greatest achievement, perhaps because he did more than any other individual to change the perception of what it meant to be retired.

'Country club life'

He once told the American talk show host Merv Griffin: "When I go there, people come up to me and put their arms around me and say, 'Mr Webb you saved my life, my husband and I came from Chicago and we never had a country club life and now we come down here and we're living like kings'."

A shoplifter in Sun City
A "shoplifter" of a different kind

Before he came along, retirement tended to involve remaining in or near the town where you spent your working life, helping out with the grandchildren and, in the words of one Sun City resident, "waiting to die".

Mr Webb's experts told him Americans would not move away from their families, but his instincts told him elderly Americans basking in the prosperity of the Eisenhower era, were ready for something new.

Edson Allen, from the Sun City Historical Society, puts it like this: "He sent people out to interview retirees in Florida and they found out that, yeah, people would move away... women told him, 'I raised my own children, and I don't want to have to raise my grandchildren'."

Mr Webb understood how to market a new idea.

Crowd magnet

When the first phase of Sun City opened on 1 January 1960, he had five completed homes, a golf course and a fully-stocked supermarket ready for the crowds to inspect. And the crowds came.

His and hers golf carts
His-and-hers golf carts are par for the course in Sun City

Legend has it 100,000 people dropped in to take a look at the model of the retirement community. But whatever the exact number, it was clear that Mr Webb had a hit on his hands.

A contemporary photograph shows crowds filling the streets.

And by the end of that first weekend, 237 homes had been sold at a price of $2.5m. That was quite a return on Mr Webb's initial outlay of $1.5m.

The Sun City Historical Society has preserved one of the first show homes complete with its pink kitchen decor, giant refrigerator and his-and-hers golf carts parked under a Sun awning.

Cart mania

The golf cart remains the mode of conveyance of choice for many Sun City folk. I have never seen golf-cart warning signs on highways before, but you can see how they became necessary here.

Golf cart cruising the streets of Sun City
Transportation the Sun City way

And the appeal of Sun City for folks considering retirement now, remains pretty much the same as it was back in 1960, as the America of Eisenhower was preparing to give way to the America of Kennedy.

There is a sense that you are leaving the cares of an old life behind for a retirement which seems like a summer vacation that death alone can end.

And there is the climate. Arizona can be brutally hot in the summer, not for nothing is the state plant the cactus flower and the state flag a riot of colour in which the livid rays of the midday sun feature prominently.

But in winter and spring it is wonderfully warm and sunny, the perfect reward for lives well lived in the snows of Montana or Minnesota and the industrial cold of Pennsylvania or New York.

Sunny prospects

Paul Herrmann, the executive director of the visitor centre at Sun City, says there are similarities between living in extremes of hot and cold - you would not stand around chatting to the neighbours when the temperature is 30 degrees Fahrenheit below freezing and you would not do it when it is much more than 100 above either.

Cactus in Sun City
Sun City is still essentially a desert town

But as Paul points out when you ask him whether it is better to be too hot or too cold: "You don't have to shovel heat".

Sun City has spawned countless imitations around the United States and many of them for obvious reasons are in the Sun Belt of the South.

But not all. There are retirement communities these days right up in the north-eastern United States, not far from the old towns and cities which the original snowbirds were fleeing.

And that, I guess, sums up the appeal of Sun City and places like it. The climate is important, but more important still is the chance to enjoy a period of leisure at the end of your life.

There are plenty of Americans who cannot afford this type of retirement of course. Americans stranded by the collapse of company pension schemes who find themselves flipping burgers or waiting tables well into their seventies and beyond.

American lifestyle

But Lori Petersen, who came to Sun City with her husband from Minnesota, captured the essence of this lifestyle for those can afford it.

Sun City sign
Sun City is proud of its status as the original retirement community

She told me: "It's the perfect beginning to the end of your life.

"When I was a kid we went to the playground every day in the summer and now I'm retired, I go to the playgrounds again, and I absolutely love it."

I got the same signal too from the Barbershop boys, from the retired people in the gym and from just about everyone we met as we travelled through Sun City and it is a strangely cheering signal in an age where perhaps we fear ageing and death a little too much.

As Lori says, there is no reason why the end of your life cannot be the time of your life.

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