Todd Steinberg parks his rental van outside the Kobernick-Anchin Home and begins getting dressed for work. He grabs his white cowhide vest and cowboy hat, ties a bandana around his neck and tops it off with the final, essential detail — a red clown nose.
Once dressed, he grabs his banjo and heads toward the front door, where he joins fellow Circus Sarasota employees, Chuck and Noriko Sidlow. Together, the three make up Laughter Unlimited, a humor therapy program that pays daily visits to hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities to deliver what’s often referred to as the best medicine: laughter.
On this particular day, Steinberg is having car trouble, but it hasn’t stopped him from making it to the bi-weekly visit on time. As he heads inside, he switches into his character, “Billy Bob” Steinberg, and he greets residents with comfortable familiarity. He asks how they’ve been, about their families, and of course, he cracks a few jokes.
“How do you like my boots?” he asks one resident. “They’re great aren’t they? I got ’em on Longboot Key.”
Chuck Sidlow is right behind him with another wisecrack.
“You know, you’d look just like my wife, if it weren’t for that mustache,” he says to a clean-shaven resident, who politely informs him that he, in fact, doesn’t have a mustache.
“I know,” says Sidlow, with an over-the-top laugh. “But my wife does!”
The three enter the lobby of the Anchin Pavilion, where a crowd of residents greets them with applause, and the trio sets into an hour-long routine that includes jokes, music, trivia and most importantly, relationship-building.
Chuck Sidlow, Laughter Unlimited’s managing director, founded the program 12 years ago with the goal of improving quality of life for patients in hospitals and senior-care facilities. He and his wife, Noriko Sidlow, and Steinberg each bring years of professional entertainment experience to the job, including clowning, comedy, magic and musical training.
Through Laughter Unlimited, the three run 10 multi-content programs each week, at 15 facilities throughout Sarasota and Manatee counties, to which they make visits every day.
Programs include room-to-room visits in hospitals and senior-care facilities, group performances and Steinberg’s personal favorite: men’s club, a session in which men in senior-care facilities can feel comfortable to gripe, trade dirty jokes or just shoot the breeze.
“We kind of go by the Vegas motto,” he says. “What happens in men’s club stays in men’s club.”
Steinberg says that, even with years of international experience as a banjo comic and Circus Sarasota performer, it’s challenging to perform for the wide variety of patients and residents they see every day.
“There’s so much to learn,” he says. “There’s no one formula that works for everything. It’s a lot like improv, and you have to be good on your feet, but our whole idea is that we let them lead us.”
More important than getting laughs, he says, is exercising memory and building relationships.
“You have to learn to relate to people on a personal level,” says Steinberg. “It’s important to listen to them, because it’s not about us — it’s about them. If we can bring them happiness, even if it’s just while we’re there, then that’s amazing.”