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Grandparents share advice, memories and decades of romance

By Kate Linthicum

Los Angeles Times


LOS ANGELES — Barbara "Cutie" Cooper, 93, speaks drolly to the camera, her words slurred from several strokes.

"Dear Abby has had her day, it's my turn now. Any problems ... contact me ... please call, don't write."

"Oh my goodness," chimes in Harry, her squeaky-voiced husband of 72 years. "She'll either send them to the poor house or up to the White House!"

From behind the camera come snickers and snorts from Kim and Chinta Cooper, half-sisters who barely knew each other before a crisis with their grandparents brought them together. When that happened, two years ago now, they decided Cutie and "PopPop" were so special they couldn't keep them to themselves.

So they bought a video camera, started a website and launched the "OGs" on the world. — short for Original Grandparents — has its own theme song (lyrics: "Oh wow, oh gee, it's the OGs!") and a handful of regular video features. In "PopPop's Adventure Corner," viewers look on as he discovers modern marvels like the iPod (He calls it his "music box.") In "Ask Grandma Anything," they get style advice from Cutie, a bold fashionista who was recently kicked out of the dining room at the couple's retirement home for wearing leggings that were, Kim admits, "too sexy."

Thousands of fans from around the world have tuned in to watch the couple opine on such topics as time travel ("it's possible"), lesbians ("just do your thing") and Michael Jackson ("He was a very unhappy young man who didn't know if he was fish or fowl.")

They've been like this practically since they met, in the 1930s on the tennis courts at Poinsettia Park in Los Angeles.

Cutie, who was born in Egypt and came to the United States as a child, didn't think twice about PopPop when they were first introduced. But when an aunt prodded her to reconsider the Philadelphia-born former Army private, "I opened my eyes and saw him. He had black curly hair and brown eyes — big, wide, brown eyes."

They married and built a house in Beverlywood, with a pool and plenty of room to raise a family. They had a daughter, Carol, and a son, Jan.

At Hollenbeck Palms nursing home in Boyle Heights, Calif., they still sleep in the same twin bed and kiss more often than teenagers.

"If I walk by, he kisses me," Cutie says. "We kiss when we say hello, goodbye, when we're going to bed and waking up."

Fellow residents attest that Cutie, slim and wide-eyed with bottle-blonde hair, is never far from PopPop, who, with his straight back and strong shoulders, has the figure of a younger man, his 98 years revealed only in the age spots on his face and the soft layer of fuzz on his head.

A recent video blog captures their reunion after Cutie's solo hair appointment in Echo Park.

"How are you?" she asks after they kiss.

"Lonesome," he replies.

"Good, you're supposed to be when I'm not there."

Nine decades of living may have slowed the Coopers down — last month Cutie broke her elbow in a fall — but they've hardly dulled them.

"Of course we've got the spark," Cutie says to the camera. "It's kind of rubbed off at the edges, but it's there."

It's a spark that charmed Kim, 43, and Chinta, 21, who for most of their lives shared a father but little else. Jan Cooper wasn't around much for either of them, they say.

In 1978, when Kim was 11, he set off with her younger sister to sail the world, leaving Kim to live in Hollywood with her mom, who was more interested in punk music than parenting.

So Kim would escape to spend time with Cutie and PopPop, who had moved into a Camarillo, Calif., retirement community called Leisure Village. Her grandparents were "straight shooters" who talked to her frankly about life. The drawers in their home were filled with candy and Cutie's collection of fancy, elbow-length gloves.

More than two decades later, Chinta also sought refuge at Leisure Village.

It was 2007, and she had just finished her first year of college in San Diego. She headed to Camarillo for the summer to avoid going home to her four younger brothers and parents in San Pedro, Calif. Their house was crowded and hectic; Jan had just decided on a whim to open an ice cream store.

At Leisure Village, Chinta could swim, putter around the golf course and listen to her grandparents weave tales about the past.

She could also help Cutie and PopPop out. Their health was failing — both had had heart attacks — and that spring their daughter Carol had died of cancer.

Six months later, Jan died of a heart attack.

Bereft, Cutie all but stopped eating. Always in sync with her, PopPop did the same. Soon Chinta, reeling from the loss of her father, dropped out of school to care for them.

In the summer of 2008, Cutie landed in the hospital with congestive heart failure. Chinta desperately called everyone she could think of, finally dialing the number of the half-sister she hardly knew.

"I really have no idea what I'm doing, Kim," Chinta said, "and I really need your help."

Kim, who lived in Los Angeles with her husband, Richard Schave, agreed to help Chinta move their grandparents to Boyle Heights.

"Their children were dead and they were all alone," Kim said. "That's when we stepped into our roles."

Together, they helped PopPop and Cutie settle into Hollenbeck Palms, where their health began to improve. Chinta moved into Kim's El Sereno, Calif., home, and the sisters began to realize they had more in common than shy smiles and thick black hair. They had a shared history.

At Leisure Village, Cutie had taught each of them to drive. (Kim's husband says this may explain their less-than-perfect driving skills). And they had grown up hearing the same stories — like the one about their grandparents getting stranded up the Amazon during a trip to Brazil.

And both had a fondness for all things historical — in college, Chinta had taken an L.A. history class, and Kim and Richard run Esotouric Bus Adventures, showing guests landmarks of the city's criminal and literary past.

So they decided to preserve their grandparents' magic for the public and for posterity.

Every moment is potential fodder for the blog: Halloween parties, visits to the Jewish deli, trips to the dentist ("The office was unpretentious," Cutie notes.)

Kim and Chinta don't have their camera out during a recent hamburger dinner at the retirement home, but maybe they should.

PopPop and Cutie banter like actors on a sitcom, he the exasperated Desi to her saucy Lucy.

"He's very generous," Cutie says, "and I'm more feisty."

"It's a give-and-take relationship," PopPop retorts. "I give, she takes."

Kim and Chinta — whom the OGs call their "girls" — visit at least three times a week. They pass the time reading to their grandparents from "Huckleberry Finn," introducing them to the wonders of Wikipedia and filming new segments for the blog.

"We pat their hair down, fix her top and just throw questions at them," Kim says.

Cutie hates close-ups. "We visualize ourselves as more beautiful — and sometimes when we talk it's all nonsense," she says. But she's always game. Right now, she's planning a lip-sync performance of a Lady Gaga song.

PopPop, who grew up listening to dishwasher-sized radios in the 1930s, professes to not fully grasp his cyberspace stardom.

"They're always taking our picture," he says. "I don't know why."

Kim and Chinta set up a Facebook page for the couple, and Cutie has a loyal following on Yelp, a website where customers review restaurants and shops. She recently praised a restaurant in Thousand Oaks: "The people who work there are very, very nice and put up with my husband and I splitting our meal, ordering hot water with lemon and needing extra Sweet N Low all the time."

For the Coopers' 73rd wedding anniversary (their 72nd, technically, but Cutie and PopPop like to count from the time they met), Kim and Chinta urged fans to leave messages on a digital anniversary card.

"You darling people, you are the role model of role models," one person wrote. "You should give lessons."

Another confessed her love of the Coopers and asked, "Will they adopt me?"

Kim and Chinta aren't quite sure why the website works. Perhaps it reminds people of their own grandparents. Perhaps it makes them trust a little more in love.

A philosophical streak runs through the family — Chinta is studying Eastern religions — and in moments of repose they tend toward reflection.

They're sitting together on a recent blustery afternoon, not filming for the blog, just catching up in the retirement home's lounge, when Kim asks her grandparents whether life has been easy.

Cutie shakes her head.

"Don't think it's all Skittles and fish," she says. "We've had our ups. We had our downs."

She and PopPop just won 50 cents at a bingo game in the retirement home's lounge. They're leaning toward each other, munching quietly on popcorn and sipping fruit punch.

Out of the blue, Cutie utters her husband's name: "Harry Cooper."

A pause.

"That is I."

'Thank you for taking care of me."

"It is my honor."