Hollywood Flashback: When the Star-Drenched Thalians Charity Got Its Start
"It was set up by a small and wonderful group of mostly actors who got tired of being called sex-minded, pot-smoking assholes," jokes Ruta Lee, who helped found the female-led philanthropy group with film icon Debbie Reynolds.
This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The group started out with a humble agenda. "It was set up by a small and wonderful group of mostly actors who got tired of being called sex-minded, pot-smoking assholes," laughs Ruta Lee, one of the brides in 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, who teamed with film icon Debbie Reynolds to lead the Thalians, named after the goddess of comedy known as Thalia.
As female philanthropists, they followed in the historical footsteps of the likes of Clara Barton and Helen Keller to advance the real mission of the Thalians, which was to raise funds for the treatment of mental health issues — in all, the group donated more than $30 million toward building the Thalians Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai. Starting with Jayne Mansfield hosting the first meeting at her "Pink Palace" mansion in Beverly Hills in 1955 (Liza Minnelli's future husband, Jack Haley Jr.; Kim Novak's beau, real estate developer Mac Krim; and country music star Margaret Whiting showed up), the high-energy fall fundraising galas have been the centerpieces of the Thalians' efforts.
There was that time in 1972 when Fred Astaire joined Gene Kelly onstage, or in 1976 when Bing Crosby sang and Bob Hope told jokes. In 1978 Rita Hayworth did the tango, and in 1984 Lucille Ball performed a routine from Mame. Throughout six decades of festivities, Reynolds and Lee have co-steered (for her work, the Academy recently gave the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Reynolds, who serves as president emeritus, with Lee as chairman of the board emeritus). Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Lana Turner, Harry Belafonte and Doris Day all have been supporters, and in 1998 the Thalians honored Sally Field, who fondly recalls her night. "The year they gave me the award, I wasn't sure what they did," Field tells THR. "Then they allowed me to visit their mental health facilities and meet the people, and I went, 'Wow!' I felt proud it was in our acting community."
While the organization has severed ties with Cedars (Thalians Health Center now houses other clinics and offices) and currently focuses on giving back to veterans through UCLA's Operation Mend, its mark lives on. "It's one of the things [Jon] Voight throws at me still today," says onetime honoree Burt Reynolds. "I was kidding him and he says, 'I've got to remember you're a Thalian.' "