Hollywood vets rally to keep MPTF facility open

'Taking care of our own' slogan is focal point for fundraiser

At a Hollywood theater Tuesday night, there will be a benefit called "1 Voice," featuring performances and passionate pitches from Richard Dreyfuss, John Schneider, Esai Morales, Nichelle Nichols, Connie Stevens and a dozen others. The event is more than about raising money: It aims to ramp up efforts to save the long-term-care facility on the Wasserman campus at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills.

"It's an awareness evening," said John McCormick, who will direct the show at the NEO Ensemble Theatre. "We need to keep having this conversation about what is happening and how we can help."

Since the plan to close the facilities was disclosed in January 2009, there have been numerous media reports and the formation of a number of committees to address the situation, all of which has been embarrassing to the Motion Picture & Television Fund. The nonprofit, which has overseen the premier industry charity for generations, continues to run a retirement home for about 165 residents, provide outpatient services and operate seven for-profit outpatient clinics and a health club on the campus.

"We don't want to put people out on the street, which is how this has been portrayed," said Bob Pisano, nonexecutive chairman of the MPTF board. "I guess it's been portrayed that way because we didn't do a terribly good job of explaining what was going on."

He said they're trying to turn that around by explaining the need to close the unit, which was part of an acute-care hospital that already has been shuttered as the MPTF deals with lower donations and investments that have fallen in value since the recession hit.

The PR backlash has had consequences. Dr. David Tillman, who had run the MPTF, resigned in February and was replaced for the interim by board member Bob Beitcher. Pisano said Tillman's compensation of nearly $1 million a year -- high for a nonprofit -- is being reviewed.

This comes as the MPTF is evolving. Its new mission is summed up in a promotional message sent to industry members asking them to join the new health club (which includes executive offices): "The Saban Center for Health and Wellness represents an opportunity for the [MPTF] to evolve from a predominately internal residential focus and transform into an outward, community centered vision."

Said Pisano, "The mission of taking care of our own hasn't changed since 1921, but how we go about it has evolved."

In June, a reorganization eliminated one of the three MPTF boards. There's now one corporate board that makes decisions, an honorary advisory board and an honorary foundation board -- led by DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg -- that primarily raises money. No news release went out to announce the changes, which Pisano described as simply housekeeping to make the MPTF more efficient.

Others see it as a trend toward ever more corporate operations and away from operating as a charity first.

"When things are hard, you go back to your core values and say, 'Our commitment is to provide health care and financial assistance to the neediest in our community,' " said Melody Sherwood, who was Lew Wasserman's secretary for years and whose 94-year-old mother is in the long-term-care unit. "You don't turn around and say, 'We're going to build a $35 million health center and new executive offices.' "

That anger also has led to surprising activism from some Hollywood veterans, including the husband-and-wife team of Joseph Bologna and Rene Taylor. Taylor said she grew up thinking she would retire to the Motion Picture home, which was opened in the 1940s by industry pioneers including Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Jean Hersholt.

"I had a very romantic idea with my husband that when we were in our 90s, we would be there and still be putting on shows," said Taylor, who played Fran Drescher's outspoken mother on "The Nanny."

When Taylor and Bologna went to the facility last Christmas, they said they were stunned by what they saw and heard. That led to discussions with MPTF officials who said the decision to close the unit was final and that nothing could be done. They didn't agree and formed a committee, which includes actors Stevens and Elliott Gould, to assist the residents.

Taylor and Bologna also joined with the group Saving the Lives of Our Own, which was formed shortly after the closure was announced, to try to save the unit.

Until Pisano became chairman of the MPTF board four months ago, the protests appeared to fall on deaf ears. That led to protests in front of the big fundraising dinners the MPTF holds the night before the Oscars and Emmys, which bring in millions in donations. That did not sit well with some MPTF officials and supporters, who say such protests are counterproductive.

"They have every right to protest, but they should understand that does turn off celebrities, which is the last thing you want when you are asking them to write checks," Pisano said.
That didn't faze Sherwood.

"I was proud to be one of the picketers at the night before the Oscars," she said. "Yes, the [MPTF] helps people, but they're not helping the people that need it. They're abandoning their historic mission.

"We picketed because they won't even talk to us," she added. "They characterized us as ragtag malcontents, but we're industry members who supported the fund, who believed and trusted in the slogan, 'We take care of our own.' This is a betrayal of that trust."

To help, the committee formed by Taylor and Bologna raised $30,000. They offered it to the MPTF if it was guaranteed to be for long-term-care residents. MPTF officials said they would accept it, according to Pisano, but would administer it by their rules -- which Taylor said involved so much paperwork that some of these old people would be dead before it reached them.

So Taylor and Bologna's group began to administer it themselves. When a resident has a need, they communicate it through a committee member, and Taylor writes a check. The money doesn't go directly to the resident because that could jeopardize their Medicare benefits.

One of those receiving benefits is Don Larson, 93, who for more than 30 years was a grip in IATSE Local 80 and has been a resident for the past decade. He spent six years in a retirement cottage, then two years in the Lodge, an assisted-living facility. When he lost his sight and his legs gave out two years ago, he was moved to long-term care. He gets weekly massages from a therapist paid for by Taylor's group that cost $40 a half-hour.

His daughter, Joanne Weaver, said Larson got a notice in January 2009 that the facility would close, but he refused to move. "He has given so much of himself to the industry and supported the MPTF all these years," Weaver said. "Why should he be tossed out like unwanted garbage?"

Pisano said such a characterization is wrong. He said the MPTF has no legal obligation to keep these people in place, but they are "trying to discharge our moral commitment, part of which is not kicking people out."

Weaver said the only reason her father has not been evicted is that the residents retained the law firm of Girardi & Keese in early 2009, and the threat of legal action has kept the unit open.

"We told them if they tried to evict anybody from the facility, we would bring a legal case against them," said attorney James O'Callahan, who believes the MPTF made a binding legal commitment to people who were told they would have a home for life.

There are other efforts to find solutions. On Sept. 21, Katzenberg met at DreamWorks with Dreyfuss, the MPTF's Ken Scherer, SAG president Ken Howard, Nancy Biederman of Saving the Lives of Our Own and others. While there was much discussion, the only thing they agreed on was that the MPTF would work more closely with SAG to find solutions.

"I hope [these conversations] will help lead us to solutions," Howard said. "I'm going to be talking about this with the SAG board and others in the coming weeks and am optimistic about our efforts."

The meeting, Biederman said, "was an opportunity to put aside misconceptions and work collaboratively. They were interested in solving the problem. We believe people of good will, people committed to doing the right thing, can get this matter resolved."

If it isn't, producer Robert Hunter and his wife Diane Ladd are pursuing an alternative. They want to raise $125 million to build a new long-term-care unit either on MPTF land or elsewhere. Hunter and Ladd raised about $50,000 through te Art and Culture Taskforce, which they used to pay for a feasibility study.

"I don't see a moral or business conflict," Hunter said. "It's only a business conflict because they choose to do business in a certain way."

Pisano said the MPTF hasn't foreclosed on the idea of a long-term-care unit but would need more than $100 million to do it, and efforts to raise the funds have not been successful.

"Our obligation is to take care of our own," he said, "but when you run a charity, you have to live within your means. If you can't continue your charitable mission, what have you accomplished?"