John Metzger was a natural entertainer. He studied magic until he amazed people with his tricks. He studied George Burns until he did a great impression — especially late in life, when Metzger looked a lot like the classic comic. Metzger even had help from his wife, Ann, playing along as Gracie Allen, Burns’ wife and comedy sidekick.

And John Metzger, whose longtime home was Wildwood, got to live his life very late. He died last month, six days short of his 103rd birthday.

Magic and shtick weren’t his only tricks. Metzger practiced his saxophone every day, well into his 90s — to play with the Cape May County String Band. Metzger was a South Philadelphia boy who was in his first Mummers Parade at 9, as a clown. Later, he taught himself sax and banjo to join a string band.

The Metzgers moved to Wildwood in 1944, and when a Wildwood String Band formed, John jumped in. Years later, he switched to the Cape May County String Band shortly after it started in 1986, says Jean Magnavita, of Lower Township, whose husband, George, founded the band.

She says Metzger was an active member for a good 15 years. In 2003, at 93, John told a reporter he practiced his sax an hour a day — at least.

In his work life, John did everything from running cranes to “clipping dogs’ nails,” he said in 2003. But his main career was as a professional masseur — and he still did that part time at 93.

But the Metzgers’ daughter, Dee Mankowski, of Cape May Court House, says her mom’s health failed by 2004. So Ann and John moved to assisted living at Victoria Commons, in Lower Township. Ann died in 2005, at 90.

Still, John managed to play his music sometimes. His old band would visit to entertain the Victoria Commons crowd, and John sat in when he could.

His body was giving out on him, “But he never had a bad day, he was never grumpy about anything,” says Angela Bean, Victoria Commons’ activities director. “He couldn’t see very well, couldn’t hear very well, he was in a wheelchair — but never did he go by without smiling. He was just a happy man.”

And a determined one. He once pushed himself through months of painful physical therapy to see a dream come true — one last strut with his string band. He made it, too, finally getting out of his wheelchair to walk 20 feet, Bean says.

John never wanted a funeral. He wanted a party, with music — and beer. Sure, his old string band was the music. The beer was in shotglasses, with 80 or so people raising a toast to a natural entertainer.

“We danced, we took pictures,” Mankowski says. “Everyone said they’d never seen a funeral like it. It was so much fun — it was my dad, it was his style. It was just a perfect fit.”

A Life Lived: Stories about South Jersey residents who died within the past month, leaving lasting marks on their community, neighborhood, friends or families. If you have a suggestion for A Life Lived, email lifelived@pressofac.com

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

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