Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Old Folks at Home: The Motion Picture & Television Fund Retirement Home

Quite a coincidence. On Friday, I went to the Ahmanson Theatre to see Taxi alumni Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch in a new production of Neil Simon’s old chestnut, The Sunshine Boys. This tale of elderly vaudevillians, which won an Oscar for George Burns in 1977, builds to a climax when one characters considers moving to a home for ageing actors. That suburban facility sounds like a comfortable place to wait out one’s waning years. But still – it’s New Jersey, not Manhattan’s Great White Way, so for a thespian it’s clearly a last resort.

Then on Saturday I addressed the San Fernando Valley branchof the California Writers Club.  Where do they meet? At the Wasserman campus of the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, where Mulholland Drive meets Spielberg Way. This beautifully landscaped MPTF enclave, established by actor Jean Hersholt in 1940, today serves as a retirement home for members of the film community who have nowhere else to go.

Strolling the grounds is like walking through Hollywood history. The most recent buildings, sleek and airy, date back to the start of this century. These include the imposing Fran & Ray Stark Villa, with its attractive dining facility. Nearby are several Katzenberg Pavilions which provide meeting and recreation space. Then there’s the Saban Center for Health and Wellness, featuring the Jodie Foster Aquatic Pavilion.    

Older residential and administrative buildings also honor Hollywood figures. One low-slung apartment block bears a plaque labeling it as “Hopkins’ Haven,” lovingly presented by Sir Anthony Hopkins’ mother, Muriel, and the Motion Picture Mothers. Perhaps the most charming structure is the cozy John Ford Chapel, inspired by George Washington’s chapel at Mt. Vernon and transported from Ford’s ranch to the MPTF site. The chapel interior is embellished by lovely stained glass windows. The altar is set for a traditional Christian service, but there are also Jewish symbols, plus a mezuzah on the doorpost.

 Statuary graces the grounds, sometimes in unexpected places. A welcoming presence near the entrance is a larger-than-life work depicting Charles “Buddy” Rogers, the musician-actor husband of Mary Pickford, playing a trombone. It’s adapted from a smaller piece by actor George Montgomery, who was also a self-taught sculptor. Elsewhere you can find a bust of old-timer Charlie Ruggles, a well-liked comic actor who appeared in films from 1914 until his death in 1970.

But the centerpiece of the grounds is the remarkable Roddy McDowell Rose Garden. McDowell had been a supporter of the Motion Picture Home since he first visited in 1942, as a lad of fourteen, fresh from starring in his first American film, How Green Was My Valley. His death inspired a living tribute by his many female friends in Hollywood., who were determined to capture the spirit of the garden he loved at his English country home. The campaign was spearheaded by four women: designer Joan Axelrod, Lauren Bacall, Sybil Burton Christopher, and Elizabeth Taylor. (The last two were both married to Richard Burton, and I suspect they rarely found themselves working side by side.) Supporting the effort were almost 100 so-called “Roddy’s Girls,” including such assorted luminaries as Julie Andrews, Jamie Lee Curtis, Deanna Durbin, Jane Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Sharon Stone, and Joanne Woodward. The roses, on a sunny November afternoon, were lovely. But the garden’s most striking feature is a giant Caesar statue, honoring McDowell’s role in Planet of the Apes.

The property is not without controversy: the sudden closure of a hospital facility circa 2009 caused residents much grief. But on a bright day in early fall, what a lovely place to contemplate growing old. 

An update: Veteran TV writer, Irma Kalish, whose husband and writing partner Austin (Rocky) Kalish, is now a resident of the MPTF, wrote to me about the good things that have happened in the past few years. She credits the work of her daughter Nancy Biederman, who along with devoted allies in a group called "Saving the Lives of Our Own," has spearheaded an effort to keep the MPTF intact. 

Here's Irma's latest email to me, including a link that significantly updates the MPTF story:

I am happy to report that the long term care unit is alive and thriving. The same is true of the dementia care unit, Harry's Haven.  

While the small acute hospital is currently open, it is being phased out to make way for a number of beneficial campus changes including a geriatric psychiatric unit (opening next year) in partnership with UCLA, and an alliance with UCLA to run the health centers.

Here, for your possible interest, is journalist David Margolick's 2011 story about what transpired.
It should be noted, however, that the Providence deal mentioned did not pan out.  Rather, and to its great credit, MPTF reaffirmed its commitment to Long Term Care and reopened the doors to industry members in need of 24/7 skilled care in early 2012.    

Thank you again for your interest.  You are shining a warm and welcoming light on this wonderful facility.


  1. I remember hearing as a kid that Bud Abbott spent his last days in such a place - maybe this very one? It's a place I would enjoy visiting if I make it out there - and I'd enjoy visiting with any residents who'd like a good chat! Beautiful post, Ms. G!

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  3. Trying again -- yes, this is where Bud Abbott died, along with a long list of other greats. Check Wikipedia for a list, which I assume is pretty much accurate. Stanley Kramer died there, I know.