George Clooney, Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Fight for the Future of the MPTF Country House

Posted in: Arts & Culture |
George Clooney, Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Fight for the Future of the MPTF Country House

Hollywood’s veritable Soho House for senior citizens is where Bud Yorkin still “felt like he was on the lot,” Liz Taylor and Sybil Burton made up, and a 104-year-old lied and said she was 102. Now, on the eve of its annual fundraiser, the beloved retirement home for actors and the industry faces escalating medical costs and a future where entertainment doesn’t generate benefactors like it used to: “The moguls who make a billion, they exist today, but they’re in Menlo Park.”

Growing up, Chris Pine frequently visited his grandmother Anne Gwynne — one of the first iconic “scream queens,” known for her work opposite horror maestros like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi— at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Country House and Hospital. “By that time she’d had a stroke and was so compromised physically that any sense of freedom, she enjoyed to no end,” says Pine. “We would take her along the paths lined with topiaries under the trees and go to the John Ford Chapel, past the bungalows where she was staying at first. We’d visit the birds outside Harry’s Haven” — an Alzheimer’s unit financed by Kirk and Anne Douglas and named after his father — “and she really loved the rose garden. Especially for my mom, how hard it was to see her mother with the stroke — any time to see her laugh, it gave my mom such joy.”

Pine himself hadn’t yet broken into acting (he’s the third generation in his family to do so). “But I catalogued what I experienced there,” he says of the Country House visits, which ended with Gwynne’s death at age 84 in 2003. “The space, the privacy, the care: a sense of the community giving back, taking care of their own.”

“Taking care of our own” has been the MPTF’s mission since 1921, when Mary PickfordCharlie ChaplinDouglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith founded the then-Motion Picture Relief Fund, financed by payroll deductions at the studios. The facility, planned as housing for the destitute — and primarily utilized by actors who hadn’t managed the transition from silent films to talkies — opened on the edge of Woodland Hills in 1942. (Times have changed: The local economy, then agrarian — hence the Country House name — might now be classified as Kardashian.) It long has been a source of pride for a business often castigated by outsiders as morally suspect.

Today, the current generation of industry leaders — from executives like DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Fox chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos to such stars as Jodie Foster and George Clooney — have supported the MPTF through its 2009 near-implosion, when its long-term care and hospital services were scaled back because of operating deficits that were set to bankrupt the fund (its CEO subsequently resigned). They are attempting to navigate the 250-resident facility through the stark challenge of spiraling health-care costs, particularly at the end-of-life stage. The MPTF’s annual operating budget of $50 million pays for the Country House as well as two other facilities that provide services to thousands of all ages in the area, ranging from day care to financial assistance of various levels (down to paying a phone bill) to memory training; the Fund has $47 million in reserve.

MPTF’s leaders also are faced with the sensitive task of perpetuating the organization’s close bond with entertainment machers when Hollywood ownership-level power — and the financial largesse it confers — mostly has skipped town. “When this place was founded, things were much simpler,” says Katzenberg, 64, who has chaired the MPTF Foundation since 1993. “Transitioning into the 21st century — that complexity — can be mind-numbing.” That’s a message the MPTF continually drives home at fundraisers like its annual Reel Stories, Real Lives event, April 25 at Milk Studios.

What’s more, the entertainment moguls with the purse strings are nearly extinct in L.A. (Even Katzenberg’s salary took a 53 percent dive in 2014 after a troubled year for DreamWorks Animation.) “The Jeffreys who make a billion, they exist today, but they’re in Menlo Park,” says MPTF CEO Bob Beitcher. “Kevin Tsujihara or Michael Lynton — they are high-paid help.” Adds Ken Scherer, CEO of the MPTF Foundation: “You have great people running great companies. But they are corporate executives, not moguls. Equity is the key.” So what’s the plan? “I’ve got a sponsorship from Delta,” Scherer says of his increasing outreach beyond Southern California. “I’m putting it to use.”

The MPTF faces the same hurdle that burdens the nation: the rising costs associated with living longer as technologies advance. “Look at me: I’m in shouting distance of 100,” says Kirk Douglas, 98. “Of course, one doesn’t like to dwell on the ravages of time, but medical needs increase. More and more of the long-lived outlive their savings, and pensions never go as far as one thinks. And then there’s the specter of Alzheimer’s, which puts such a strain on families and caregivers.” (The Douglases’ 2012 gift of $20 million enlarged Harry’s Haven and provided increased care.)

“Unfortunately, government support and social support aren’t keeping up with the aging population and their needs, so we need to provide that privately,” adds Gianopulos. “We can’t count on anyone else but the community to supply it.” The industry remains engaged and inspired by the MPTF’s successes: “Some people argue that the health care system in this country is overly expensive or dysfunctional, but here in the entertainment industry we have something that’s premium,” says DGA president Paris Barclay. “So we never waver in our support. The health care system is obviously problematic, so why not provide a safety net that’s secure?” But the Hollywood community that conjured this unique experiment — no other industry has embarked on such a project — has scattered. “The industry is much more geographically diverse than when the MPTF was founded,” says board member and Wasserman Media Group CEOCasey Wasserman. “We may be the last generation to feel about the industry and its members the way we do,” notes Beitcher. “As stewards of a 95-year-old vision, we are obligated to pass on a strong, lasting foundation for the next and the next and the next generation of industry leaders.”

It was Wasserman’s late grandfather, Lew, the legendary Universal owner and a MPTF benefactor for decades (for whom the campus now is named), who tapped Katzenberg to shepherd the organization. Before his death in 2002, Wasserman arranged to continue a Country House family tradition: his wife Edie’s birthday lunch each Nov. 4 in the dining room, catered by former Chasen’s maitre d’ Orhan Arli, who’d bring with him some of the restaurant’s waiters and cooks to serve its famous chili and cheese toast. Since Edie’s death in 2011, the family has held an annual dinner for residents in her honor.

The dining room, these days a casual scene, has come a long way since a more formal era when women like silent film star Viola Dana would arrive in gloves and stole. “If we had an event for the Academy Awards, they would come dressed to kill,” says Sue Schubert, who began working at the home 40 years ago as an occupational therapist. “Even though it was the ’70s, they had their memory of the ’40s.”

Now residents clamber aboard their motorized scooters; back then, it was all about your tricycle to ride from the koi pond to your cozy cottage. (Emphasis on cozy: Late film publicist Ronnie Chasen was known to sigh to friends that, as much as she loved the idea of the place, she could never see herself retiring there because “the closets are too small.”) Says Lea Pipes, vp community services, who started in 1981: “I can remember seeing Mary Astor just powering around campus. It was really a kick.”

Much has remained the same: There still is a predictable propensity among residents to ham it up (Johnny Weissmuller was known to let out his Tarzan call while walking around the campus during his stay in long-term care) and equally predictable carping about the new films screened each Sunday and Thursday at the Louis B. Mayer Theater (“Nobody knows how to enunciate!” “Nothing’s properly lit!”). High-profile visitors still come to connect with former colleagues. “I had lost track of Jan Sterling, who was my co-star in Billy Wilder‘s Ace in the Hole,” says Douglas. “We had a wonderful time reminiscing, particularly about the scene where I choked her with a fur piece and almost killed her. I visited her often until her death [in 2004].”

Recalls Kevin Spacey, a board member who first visited as a young Christmas caroler (he grew up in nearby Canoga Park): “You’d find yourself talking to a sound man or the secretary to a great studio head or someone who did makeup on The Planet of the Apes, and you’d hear these incredible stories of this business. I came away knowing from those experiences that more than anything else, no matter what they’re facing, the thing that they were the most afraid of was being forgotten,” he says. “I hope people go out there, and not just during awards season” — a joking allusion to the long-held belief that there’s a field of Oscar votes to be tilled among the residents — “and listen to people’s stories.”

Those stories have an outlet via the in-house, self-produced Channel 22, whose equipment is bankrolled by Robert and Susan Downey‘s production company. (One popular program: The Roaring 90s, a female gabfest.) Station manager Anne Faulkner, a resident and working actress (most recently on HBO’s Getting On), is in charge of scheduling. “If people call and say, ‘I’d like to see such-and-such film, I did editing on it,’ I’ll say, ‘OK, but I want you to introduce it.’ ”

The Country House has a notoriously long wait list, with 600 people standing by. (Cost is determined by income; for those who are able to pay in full, rooms range from $3,400 to $6,100 a month.) “The wait list is slightly illusory because they turn 65 and they put their name on it because they know it’s hard to get in,” says Beitcher. “But if we were to call them tomorrow, they’d say: ‘Are you crazy? I’m 65 years old! I’m fine!’ ”

Foster, whose seven-figure gift financed an aquatics therapy center that opened in 2006, often visited her studio teacher Irene Brafstein (who also taught Winona RyderBrooke Shields andMolly Ringwald) in the hospital on campus. “I have a loyalty oath to the people who raised me,” says Foster. “You talk to people there, and it’s kind of a tapestry.” Indeed, the MPTF is a centrifuge of industry name-dropping (even if those names might often be modified by “late”) unrivaled outside of Soho House. “You still see people networking,” marvels Beitcher.

That networking often is therapeutic. “The setup there, it looks like a beautiful studio,” saysCynthia Sikes Yorkin, wife of 89-year-old director-producer Bud Yorkin, who returned in March to their Bel Air house under hospice care after his 18-month stay in Woodland Hills for treatment for dementia. “What was wonderful for Bud is that he felt like he was on the lot. Everyone is in show business. Those photos of the stars up on the wall; it’s just like a commissary. He was talking about his work. He felt like he was recognized, at the pond, the rose garden. Even though he wasn’t able to engage in the same way conversationally — he’s very cognizant, but he couldn’t express it — it was so sustaining. It allowed him to have that engagement in life that he wouldn’t have been able to have anywhere else.”

That rose garden, by the way, came courtesy of MPTF supporter Roddy McDowall, who attended the Country House’s groundbreaking as a child actor. As he was nearing death in 1998, McDowall summoned Elizabeth Taylor and Sybil Burton — Richard Burton‘s wife at the time of his and Taylor’s initial affair — to his Fryman Canyon estate: “[The women] hadn’t talked in all of those years,” says Scherer, who witnessed the occasion. “He’s got a morphine drip. It turned out to be his last real day of consciousness. He says to them, ‘You two are going to raise the money for a rose garden together or I’ll haunt you from my grave.’ They looked at Roddy, and their love of Roddy was greater than their hate for each other. And the night we dedicated the garden in 2001, Elizabeth Taylor calls Sybil up and apologizes. It’s the power of this place.”

Beitcher, previously a board member, became CEO in the wake of what Katzenberg terms the MPTF’s fiscal “crisis” of 2009: “Bob led us back to the promised land.” The former head of Panavision, who took the job when the organization had come under attack — “We were catching hell from everyone, and I was the fireman” — subsequently has partnered with UCLA on hospital services. He also has prioritized a $150 million cash campaign as well as an aggressive new $200 million goal for legacy gifts from the likes of Barry DillerSteven Spielberg and David Geffen. (“It’s the Buffett pledge: When I die, I’ll give.”) He hopes to break ground in the next few years on a for-profit 400-unit luxury community for independent-living seniors on an 18-acre adjacent field (now growing tomatoes and basil) that would pump money back into the organization.

Producer Mark Fleischer, vice chairman of the board, had parents and grandparents who have been residents of the home. (“After my grandfather died” — Max Fleischer, creator of Betty Boop — “my grandmother lived until 104; she lied and said she was 102.”) He believes the MPTF will need to pivot, as it has before. “What do you consider the entertainment industry in today’s world? It started as the home that took care of actors. Then it evolved as the home that took care of the motion picture industry. Then came television — in its time that was very controversial, as silly as it seems today. Now we’re going to have to look at our boundaries. The Internet? That is a subject under very active discussion at the board level. It’s a work in progress.”

A work in progress that all involved with the MPTF see as a shared responsibility. “What really caught my attention was when they dedicated the Ray Stark Villa [a residential annex] several years ago,” says Gianopulos. “This wonderful woman in her wheelchair mentioned to me that she’d gotten started as an assistant in the early days of television, had worked her way up to being a vice president, and she said she’d been there for many years. There’d been a regime change. ‘You know how it is in this business. I was out.’ She paused, and said, ‘I didn’t think I’d live this long.’ It was such a powerful statement: There was no sense of self-pity. It was so matter-of-fact. It was so telling about our industry. It’s the nature of our business: There’s a cycling of talent and creative taste and who’s in and who’s out and who’s in favor and who’s not. And it causes us to have an obligation.”

by Gary Baum

Photo: The MPTF’s Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills.

Source publication: The Hollywood Reporter