A Retirement Community Where Hollywood Takes Care Of Its Own

Mar 8, 2016
Originally published on March 23, 2016 4:13 pm

You don't expect a bunch of 80-pluses to be working up a sweat, but at the Motion Picture and Television Fund gym, they do. An exercise instructor encourages them. "Squeeze your tush. ... Tushies, tushes, tushies. Squeeze your buns," she urges.

At this retirement community in Woodland Hills, Calif., less than an hour from Los Angeles, the movie and TV industry has been taking care of its own for decades. The Motion Picture and Television Fund's 48 acres include gardens, fountains, cottages and apartments for independent residents, plus assisted living facilities with skilled nurses and dementia care.

Resident Connie Sawyer, 103, has lived here since 2004. She got into show business when she was 8. "I worked in vaudeville and nightclubs. I played every saloon in the business," she says. She was in a Broadway show called A Hole in the Head, which caught the attention of one of Frank Sinatra's managers. Sawyer says the manager told Sinatra, " 'You gotta buy that property. It'll make a wonderful movie.' He said, 'Buy it! Bring the author.' " But the author wouldn't go without Sawyer, who created her stage character — a funny, tipsy gal who got lots of laughs. So the manager called Sinatra back and, according to Sawyer, "He said, 'Bring the drunk!' "

Today, Sawyer is still working — she did a Super Bowl ad for Dodge last year. She says the secret of her longevity is "Move. Don't sit on the couch. All my life, I played golf, I swam. And even here, I go to the exercise class."

Sawyer takes special swim classes for her arthritis in a pool Jodie Foster contributed to the campus. (Water therapy helped the actress' mother, and she wanted to help others.) The community also offers a weekly writing workshop called the Gray Quill Society. At the group's 115th meeting, somebody's Labrador snoozes while screenwriter Peter Dunne, a volunteer, runs the show. Fourteen residents sit around a long table with manuscripts they're working on — memoirs, poems, even promos they may record at the home's 24/7 closed circuit TV station. That same station also airs resident-made short films and recorded talks.

The Motion Picture and Television Fund is home to 200-plus residents who once worked on screen, behind cameras, in production rooms and in secretarial pools — industry people in an extremely fickle industry. Fund President Bob Beitcher says most were freelancers.

"They might be working on [a] TV series that [is] supposed to be 13 episodes; six weeks into it, it gets canceled, they're out of work," he says. "They work in a feature film, feature films end and then they're out of work. So it really is an industry where you never know what lies in your future."

The founders of the fund, some of film's greatest early stars, decided to create some stability. In 1921, they formed a fund so working industry folks could make contributions to those without work.

"That was the vision of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith," Beitcher says. "And they say that if you worked on a Mary Pickford picture, she had a little galvanized bucket on the set with a little flag on it and if you were lucky enough to be working that day, she expected you to drop something in the bucket to reflect your gratitude for getting paid for the work."

All these years later, the industry still pitches in. Fund chairman and DreamWorks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg has raised about half a billion dollars in the past 23 years. The money supports thousands of industry people in need, including residents who can't afford the $3,000 to $8,000 monthly fee.

Ken Scherer, CEO of the Motion Picture and Television Fund foundation, says many facilities on campus are named for the film giants who endowed them, like Kirk Douglas.

"He would tour the Alzheimer's unit that he helped build, and then he would come and have dinner," Scherer says. "And inevitably a resident would walk up and say to Kirk Douglas, 'You were in my last picture.' Now that person could've been a grip [lighting and rigging technician], but in his head, Kirk Douglas worked on his picture."

Film and TV giants have also used the campus' facilities — Norma Shearer and Mary Astor lived there. Hattie McDaniel died there, and comedian Bud Abbott came in for physical therapy.

More recently, a meeting at the campus was almost movielike: TV writer Tony Lawrence, 87, moved to the campus 11 years ago with his wife, Nancy, who had Alzheimer's. They had been married 50 years when she died. "And that's why it was so astonishing and such a miracle to find ... someone like Madi in my life," he says.

Madi is Madeline Smith, 75, a former NBC administrative assistant who moved to the campus in 2014. A year later, she and Lawrence got married in the rose garden. On the couch in their small cottage, the newlyweds sit so close together you couldn't fit a piece of paper between them. This is what, in showbiz, you'd call a happy ending. Especially since neither wanted to move here.

"I thought, 'Oh no, this is a bunch of old people. I don't want to live here,' " Smith recalls

"Of course, everybody says that before they come here," Lawrence adds. But then you arrive and, as Lawrence puts it, "You find out you're one of the old people."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When people get older, where to age becomes an issue. Many factors can come into play for those fortunate enough to have a choice, like proximity to relatives or the climate. But here's something different. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg found a retirement community in suburban Los Angeles where the movie and TV industry has been taking care of its own for decades.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: You don't expect a bunch of 80-pluses to be running like crazy. But at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Gym, they are - sitting down in exercise class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, squeeze you're tush. And squeeze. Tushies, tushies, tushies - squeeze your buns.

STAMBERG: Fit or not, a golf cart's helpful to cover the campus, 48 acres with gardens, fountains, sculptures, various buildings, cottages and apartments for the independent residence, plus assisted-living, skilled nursing and dementia care. The cart gets us over to Connie Sawyer, who's lived here since 2004.

CONNIE SAWYER: Hello. Susan, I'm a little deaf.

STAMBERG: OK. So if I raise my voice, how's this?

SAWYER: That's great.

STAMBERG: All right. How old are you?

SAWYER: One-hundred and three.

STAMBERG: Connie got into show business when she was 8. She's had quite a career.

SAWYER: I worked in vaudeville in nightclubs. I played every saloon in the business.

STAMBERG: San Francisco, New York, a Broadway show called, "Hole In The Head."

SAWYER: Sinatra's manager saw it. And she said, you've got to buy that property. It'll make a wonderful movie. He said, buy it; bring the author.

STAMBERG: The author said she wouldn't go without Connie. Connie had created her character, a tipsy gal, funny, got lots of laughs. She had to go to. The manager went to the phone.

SAWYER: And she called Sinatra. He said, bring the drunk (laughter).

STAMBERG: And she is still working - did a Super Bowl ad for Dodge last year. Here's the secret of her longevity.

SAWYER: Move. Don't sit on the couch. All my life I played golf. I swam. And even here, I go to the exercise class.

STAMBERG: And takes special swim classes for her arthritis.

SAWYER: You get my age, you've got to have arthritis.

STAMBERG: Jody Foster paid for this pool. Water therapy helped her mother. The actress wanted to help others. Twenty splashing and joking seniors are lapping it up, as it were.

PETER DUNNE: Welcome to the Great Quill Society. Here we are.

STAMBERG: It's a weekly writing workshop.

DUNNE: It's our 115th meeting.

STAMBERG: Somebody's Labrador snoozes while screenwriter Peter Dunne, a volunteer, runs the show.

DUNNE: Joel, are you still writing poetry?

JOEL: Yes, once in a while I gird my loins.

STAMBERG: Fourteen residents sit around the long table with manuscripts they're working on - memoirs, poems, even promos they may record at the home's 24/7 closed circuit TV station.

JENNIFER CLYMER: Action.

BURT BLUESTEIN: If you've worked on a picture, give us a call here at Channel 22. You'll enjoy it.

STAMBERG: Burt Bluestein and other residents make short films and record talks with affectionate help from media director Jennifer Clymer.

CLYMER: Smile.

BLUESTEIN: (Laughter). Thank you.

CLYMER: And cut... Great.

STAMBERG: There's plenty of history on this Motion Picture and TV Fund campus, MPTF for short. Two-hundred-plus residents, whose careers have been in entertainment - on screen, behind cameras, in production rooms, in secretarial pools, industry people in an extremely fickle industry. MPTF president Bob Beitcher says most where freelancers.

BOB BEITCHER: They might be working on a TV series that starts off and is supposed to be 13 episodes. Six weeks into it, it gets canceled. They're out of work. They work on a feature film. Feature films end. And then they're out of work. So it really is an industry where you never know what lies in your future.

STAMBERG: The founders of MPTF, some of movie's greatest early stars, decided to create some stability. In 1921, they formed a fund where workers gave back to those without work.

BEITCHER: And that was the vision of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffith. And they say that if you worked on a Mary Pickford picture, she had a little galvanized bucket on the set with a little flag on it. And if you were lucky enough to be working that day, she expected you to drop something in the bucket to reflect your gratitude for getting paid for the work.

STAMBERG: So many years later, the industry still pitches in. Fund chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg - he's head of DreamWorks Animation - has raised about half a billion dollars. The money supports thousands of industry people in need, including residents here who can't afford the three to $8,000 monthly fee. It also pays for health centers around LA that care for industry people. Fund CEO Ken Scherer says many facilities on campus are named for the film giants who endowed them, Kirk Douglas for instance.

KEN SCHERER: He would tour the Alzheimer's unit that he helped build. And then he would come and have dinner. And inevitably, a resident would walk up and say to Kirk Douglas, you were in my last picture. Now, that person could have been a grip. But in his head, Kirk Douglas worked on his picture.

STAMBERG: It takes a village to make a movie. It takes movie and TV people to make this village for its retired, sometimes ailing residents. Silver screen legends Norma Shearer and Mary Astor lived here. Hattie McDaniel died here. Comedian Bud Abbott came in for physical therapy. More recently, a meeting here was almost movie-like.

So are you in one of these first places?

TONY LAWRENCE: No, we're right up at the top of the hill.

STAMBERG: TV writer Tony Lawrence, age 87, came here 11 years ago with his wife Nancy, who had Alzheimer's. They'd been married 50 years when she died.

LAWRENCE: And that's why it was so astonishing and such a miracle to find. I couldn't believe that I had gotten this lucky to have somebody like Madi in my life.

STAMBERG: Madeline Smith, 75, an administrative assistant at NBC, moved here in 2014. A year later, she and Tony got married in the rose garden. On the couch in their small cottage, the newlyweds sit so close together, you couldn't fit a piece of paper between them. This is what in show business you call a happy ending, especially since neither wanted to move here.

DAVID SMITH: No, I didn't want to come. I thought, oh, no. This is a bunch of old people. I don't want to live here.

LAWRENCE: Of course, everybody says that before they come here.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: I don't want to live with a lot of old people.

STAMBERG: And then what happens? You get here. What happens?

LAWRENCE: You find out you're one of the old people.

SMITH: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

STAMBERG: And if you're lucky in your old age, you get to live at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Home in Woodland Hills, Calif. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous Web version of this story, we incorrectly said the Motion Picture and Television Fund pays for industry health care centers throughout Los Angeles. In fact, since 2014, UCLA Health has funded and operated those centers.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.