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Hollywood Cares for Elderly at Own Home

Associated Press  June 10, 2004

Tucked away on a lush 50-acre spread in a far corner of the suburbs, Hollywood cares for its own.

For over six decades, Mack Sennett, Norma Shearer, Mary Astor, Johnny Weissmuller and scores of other film-world notables have spent their late years here. So have far less famous folks from behind the scenes at Hollywood's dream factories.

Some saved their money and paid their way. Others were broke, so they paid nothing.

The official name is the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Woodland Hills campus a state-of-the-art, full-service retirement facility with a $100 million annual budget.

Yet for many, it will always be "The Old Actors Home."

The quaint moniker refuses to die, despite official pleadings that the property also includes a hospital and accepts all kinds of workers from the movie and TV industries, from extras to producers.

"We've tried campaigns and marketing techniques (to get rid of the name)," says Kenneth Scherer, head of the money-raising arm of the Fund, as the support organization is known in Hollywood. "It is a huge misnomer. But it's said with great affection and a sense of pride."

Some of the home's famous occupants have left behind undying legends.

Longtime residents remember Astor, the femme fatale of "The Maltese Falcon," wheeling around the campus on her bicycle, nodding graciously to those she passed.

Tarzan star Weissmuller became a problem, roaming the halls late at night bellowing his famous jungle yell. He wouldn't stop, so the Fund rented him a house in Mexico and hired an attendant and doctor. Weissmuller and his wife remained there, free of charge, until his death in 1984.

The Fund had its beginnings in 1921 when the film industry's big guns, notably Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, formed a charitable organization to help co-workers caught in the ups and downs of a fickle business.

In 1940, the Fund's farsighted head character actor Jean Hersholt, after whom the special humanitarian Oscar was named found a 48-acre walnut and orange grove for sale in Woodland Hills, which is now the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley. He persuaded the board to buy it for $850 an acre.

The Motion Picture Country House opened in 1942 with accommodations for 24 retired film workers. It now houses 400.

Four years later, Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple, Robert Young and other stars of the time helped dedicate a hospital addition, with 40 private rooms and 10 surgical beds. It now has 250 acute-care beds.

As its clientele changed, the home accommodated. It's Alzheimer's Unit, donated in 1992 by Kirk and Anne Douglas and named "Harry's Haven" for the actor's father, is considered a leader in care and treatment of the disease.

The late Lew Wasserman and his wife Edie were mainstays of the Fund for 40 years, both in donations and using their considerable influence to enlist new benefactors.

"One day I received a phone call from Lew telling me, 'Be in my office tomorrow morning at 9,'" recalls Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of the Dreamworks company. "I had no idea what it was about. When you got one of those calls from Lew, it didn't matter what it was about; you appeared."

Wasserman, the last of Hollywood's true moguls, proceeded to recruit Katzenberg to head a new Fund effort to enlist younger members.

Today, the Fund continues to help hard-up industry people with cash payments a total of $750,000 last year. Half of those living at the campus do not pay.

Explains producer Walter Seltzer, a longtime Fund supporter: "We tell people, 'If you can afford it, pay your way. If not, be our guest.'"

To qualify for the home, applicants must have worked in any aspect of the film or TV industries for at least 20 years. The waiting time is usually a few months, with no preference given to celebrities or those who can pay their own way, Fund officials say.

One recent day, a few retirees were gathered in the Viewing Room, a comfortable place with a big-screen TV and shelves packed with hundreds of feature films no doubt with credits including past and present residents.

"I like it here," remarked Audrey Totter, 86, the blonde star of mid-century noir and action films such as "Lady in the Lake" and "Alias Nick Beal."

"I keep busy with my ceramics and decoupage," she said. "The food is good. And if you don't like what you're served, you can send it back to the kitchen and get something else."

The studios regularly screen new releases in the facility's Louis B. Mayer theater, and about 20 residents are still card-carrying members of the motion picture academy and receive Oscar ballots each year.

Totter, meanwhile, doesn't attend any of the screenings.

"In our day we made classics," she said. "The pictures today are all about sex."

2004 Associated Press

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