originally published April 24, 2013
Have you seen Quartet, that new Dustin Hoffman-directed movie about the four singers in the retirement home full of singers? I’ve seen the trailers for it, and what sparked my imagination was not so much the story itself but the idea that there could be an old-folks home full of once-renowned artists, dabbing bingo cards, exercising on padded chairs and chewing malleable meals on plastic trays.
I pictured this home in the future: Keith Richards checking out Bob Dylan’s IV drip to see what he’s got going on, John Sebastian staring aimlessly out a window, asking himself if he believes in magic, Neil Diamond and Eric Burden gathered around a radio, seeing who gets more airplay on the oldies station during a workday, that kind of thing. Turns out, such a thing actually exists.
Not for singers or musicians, unfortunately. But for those whose time in the limelight of Hollywood has faded into the soft-glow fluorescent light of a seniors’ community, there’s the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital.
When Jean Hersholt, president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, laid down $850 an acre for some prime real estate at the southeast end of the San Fernando Valley, his intent was to fill a need that the people in his industry were demanding. The first pioneers of cinema were beginning to show their age, and while the Screen Actors Guild was fine for monitoring working conditions and scale pay, it wasn’t set up to care for the elders of showbiz when they needed a little extra attention.
Fees at the home are dependent on one’s ability to pay. Since the roster is not restricted to the showbiz elite, a lot of writers, directors, producers, tech guys, and even extras have made the retirement home their address over the years. The requirements are simply that you must have been working in the industry for at least twenty years.
In 2008, things began to go slightly awry at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, which I’m just going to call the MPTCHH for short. The corporate board of directors voted unanimously to shut the place down without telling any of the residents. A month after the vote, new residents were still being moved into the long-term care facility, being told not to worry, they’d have this place as their home for the rest of their lives.
The announcement was finally dropped in January, 2009. The place was apparently bleeding money, losing something like $10 million every year, which would dry up the Motion Picture & Television Fund completely in the immediate future. The problems had been brewing for about five years, but nobody had bothered to tell the residents. Nobody had done anything to help the situation.
A meeting was held, and the board was held to the coals for this mess. Families of residents were in attendance, as were actors John Schneider and David Carradine, who had shown up to support the cause. And once you’ve pissed off Bo Duke and Kung Fu Caine, you know you’re in trouble.
The hospital receives a trickling of money from Medicare and Medi-Cal, roughly $10,500 per patient per year. As a comparison, it costs just over $47,000 for the State of California to keep a prisoner incarcerated for a year. $12,442 of that is for their medical care. California is spending more money on medical care for inmates than it’s willing to spend to take care of elderly actors.
Naturally, because we live in an age of online activism, a movement was started to save the home, and to do a little digging into why things went so wrong in the first place. First off, the residents’ impending transfer to other facilities was supposed to have been handled gently. There were allegations of bullying by the workers who were supposed to be caring for these people, and even some deaths linked with transfer trauma – a condition wherein symptoms appear because of the mental strain placed upon someone with dementia when they are forced to move to a new residence.
But wait. It gets worse.
The people in charge – I’m not sure who, but somebody with a cold, empty breeze where once a soul might have lived – got hold of a prop movie car, and positioned it permanently near the cottages in order to intimidate the residents who didn’t want to leave. Sympathetic media outlets – including the Los Angeles Times – were sprawling this story over as much of the public stage as they could.
Then the money started to roll in. The Screen Actors Guild and the Teamsters stood with families and residents at numerous rallies in and around Los Angeles. Funds were scraped together, and in October of 2009, the month when the facility was supposed to close, they received a year reprieve. Somehow that year must have bought the residents enough time, because the place is still operating today, and according to their website, they’re accepting new residents.
So who has settled in to this retirement community for the stars? Not the biggest of the biggest, but a lot of important names in the history of film and television have sauntered through these doors.
- Phil Brown for starters. He was Luke Skywalker’s uncle Owen Lars. That alone makes this place awesome.
- Norman Fell, who played Mr. Roper on Three’s Company and in its first unfortunate spin-off.
- Bud Abbott, the straight-talkin’ half of Abbott & Costello. The guy who actually understood that Who was on first.
- Three of the Three Stooges – Larry Fine, Curly Joe DeRita, and Curly Howard. No doubt the hijinks would have been hilarious if they’d only been there at the same time.
- DeForest Kelley, the only Bones the Enterprise ever needed.
- Johnny Weissmuller, the guy who was in all those ridiculous Tarzan movies back in the 30’s and 40’s.
- Fred de Cordiva, producer of The Tonight Show in its pre-Jay days
- Edgar Kennedy, that poor lemonade vendor who Chico and Harpo tormented in Duck Soup.
- Mary Astor, Bogart’s exquisite love interest in The Maltese Falcon.
- Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket.
- Harrison Ford. But not that Harrison Ford. The silent film star.
- Broncho Billy Anderson, who starred in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903, and who literally became the first star in the history of westerns.
- Also – and this one passed away recently – one-time Mouseketeer and Beach Blanket Babe Annette Funicello.
It’s clear the MPTCHH needs to be kept alive. The industry must be able to support its own, and personally I’ll sleep better just knowing there’s a place like this in the world. A place where the old-timers of the cinematic golden age can gather together and talk about the good ol’ days, when movies were movies, dames were dames, and every guy wore a fedora. If you’re so inclined, you can even cast a donation their way yourself.
I’m guessing they could use it.