Jewish Journal

Living in limbo

The closure of Motion Picture Home makes the future uncertain for residents

by Danielle Berrin

Posted on Aug. 17, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Main entrance to the Wasserman Campus

Main entrance to the Wasserman Campus

One day last spring, Jill Schary-Robinson Shaw was walking through a quiet, darkened corridor in the long-term care unit at The Motion Picture Home, the iconic Woodland Hills nursing home for entertainment industry veterans and their families. Hardly anyone was around — lights were dim, residents alone in their rooms — as Schary-Robinson Shaw, the daughter of Isadore “Dore” Schary, who ran MGM in the 1950s, wheeled her husband, Stuart Shaw, a resident of the home, around his desolate indoor neighborhood.

“There used to be wonderful entertainments,” Schary-Robinson Shaw said. “Pianists, musicians. But it’s all changed. Replaced by a mood of tension — a foreboding.”

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, the home, originally known as the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, was once considered a pristine palace, inhabited by a bustling community of industry workers — like Bud Abbott of Abbott and Costello, Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel from “Gone With the Wind” and Maurice Costello, a vaudeville actor whose granddaughter is Drew Barrymore. Even amid the home’s obvious signs of decay, there is still nostalgia for a happier past. Throughout the place, memories of the home’s glory days loom large through the lingering spirits of Hollywood’s ghosts.

“Sadie, you won’t believe this,” Schary-Robinson Shaw said to a passing nurse on the ground floor of the Jack H. Skirball Health Center.

“What happened?” the nurse asked. “Don’t give me bad news ...”

“It’s good news,” Schary-Robinson Shaw said with a smile. “He wants a sandwich.”

The nurse laughed, relieved.

Shaw, 82, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and related dementia, so it had been awhile since he’d asked for anything, and the request delighted his caretakers.

Lately, the only joy around here seems to be in the movie memorabilia lining the hallways — where Rosalind Russell smiles a toothy, actress smile in a photo on the Rosalind Russell Wall. But even that tends to deepen the contrast between the rollicking fantasy of the movies and the home’s now-diminished quality of life. For 70 years, the Wasserman Campus was the crown jewel of the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF), serving as home to generations of elderly movie stars, producers, directors, their crews and their families. But everything changed in January 2009, when MPTF, the nonprofit that operates the home, announced plans to shutter its long-term care and hospital facilities. Long-term care was costing the fund $1 million per month, they said, and threatened to bankrupt the entire fund.

The decision to eliminate long-term care marked the end of an era. The campus would no longer accommodate the industry’s most elderly and infirm — its most vulnerable clients — a move many felt was contrary to the fund’s founding purpose. According to entertainment industry lore, the fund was created in the 1920s by affluent Hollywood stars — Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford among them — and built its reputation on a bold and inviolable promise: to always take care of industry members in need. Over the years, the home has become highly regarded, both for its beautiful setting and for its continuum of care — the promise that once a person retired, he or she could count on finishing life there.

But even as MPTF chose to close long-term care for financial reasons, the fund continued to invest in other newer facilities on campus. In July 2007, the Saban Center for Health and Wellness opened, a $20 million, state-of-the-art fitness facility that stretches over 36,000 square feet and includes the Jodie Foster Aquatic Pavilion, with its shimmering warm-water pool and a high-tech gym.

Meanwhile, in the 19 months since the closure announcement, the home’s resident population has dwindled from 134 residents to just 47; at least 33 were moved to other facilities, a dozen more resettled elsewhere on the campus, and another 60 have died. The remaining few have launched a fierce resistance, casting themselves as refuseniks in a complicated saga that has sparked moral outrage among many in the entertainment community. Bolstered by a pending lawsuit, the conflict has gotten repeated play in the press and divided the entertainment community between those who support the closure (read: the fund, its leaders and administrators) and those who don’t (the residents, their families and mainly blue-collar workers).

The battle has often been ugly. Just last week, a report from the California Department of Public Health was released, reportedly saying the fund violated state law in transferring more than 30 residents out of the facility without official 30-day discharge notices explaining their rights, including the option to appeal relocation. This is just one in a long line of twists and turns in a saga that has cast a dark pall over the fund’s once-virtuous image.

But the fund is not solely responsible for the problem. Much of the imbroglio stems from changing trends in health care: With people living longer and birth rates declining, the need for elder care is rising, along with the requisite costs, while the pool of available caregivers is shrinking. This new reality poses an additional challenge to heath-care organizations like the MPTF, which have adopted a new ethos in elder care that promotes “aging in place”  — at home, instead of in a facility.

A Moral Dilemma

But while there’s no clear villain in this fight, there are, unfortunately and indisputably, victims. Because stewing beneath the surface of all the drama is actually a profound moral dilemma: What happens when escalating costs of health care get stacked against the dignity of human beings? And what will become of the 47 residents still living in limbo, caught tragically in the crossfire?

Last April, Schary-Robinson Shaw considered her answer.

“[The fund] figured, I’m sure, let the people who are here stay ...” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper, “until they are ... [dead], but it changes the character of the place.”

She and Stuart have been married 30 years, and he’s been living at the home since 2008.

“We thought it would be forever,” Schary-Robinson Shaw said. So word of the closure came as a shock. “I thought, ‘Well it can’t happen. We’ll fight it,’ ” she said, adding: “Stuart heard about it and said, ‘You’ll never find me again. They’ll take me somewhere, and you’ll never know where I am,’ ” she recalled. “They sense in the air what’s going on because the energy here has changed so radically.”

Early on Jan. 14, 2009, MPTF management gathered some staff in an activity room and told them the plans to close long-term care and the campus hospital by the end of 2009. Within hours, letters were delivered to residents’ rooms stating, “No one will be moved for at least 60 days,” although some residents’ family members say social workers immediately began knocking on residents’ doors, urging them to relocate. Families were distraught — where would they find comparable care? Residents believed they would stay at the home for the rest of their lives, so many had invested in their own care by donating what savings they had to the fund; as a result, their dependence on Medi-Cal narrowed their options. Because the MPTF had Hollywood behind it — and because the presence of a campus hospital merited a higher rate of reimbursement from state and federal health entitlements — almost anywhere else residents could go would be a compromise in care.

Residents with family members, from left, Mary Stellar with her son, Richard; Stuart Shaw with his wife, Jill Schary-Robinson Shaw; Hal Alexander with his wife, Pat; and Irv Rosenblum with his wife, Lil.

But, for the so-called refuseniks, digging in came with a price, and the families of those who stayed claim their loved ones have been punished for noncompliance. Many say a shift occurred immediately. The congenial community vibe the home had always been known for was replaced with a feeling of callousness and tension. Security was amped up, and new visitation formalities applied — now, families are required to sign in, wear visitor badges and report their whereabouts. A popular dining room was closed, residents say entertainments were reduced, and entire corridors in long-term care have been cordoned off. Families say automated doors allowing residents in wheelchairs access to the outdoors were disabled on weekends, impeding mobility and plucking at quality of life. (MPTF officials dispute this, saying residents continue to have access to the outdoors in all facilities, though “in some cases these access points may be different than what they had been before.”)

Several residents and their relatives filed complaints with Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform (CANHR), citing a decline in the level of care. According to Michael Connors, a CANHR spokesman who served as mediator between residents and MPTF in the months following the closure, some relatives claimed they were barred from visiting loved ones, and others reported accidents and neglect related to inadequacies in staffing. One citation issued by the California Health and Human Services Agency found the MPTF in violation of proper operation of the equipment used to transfer a person into or out of a wheelchair. In this instance, only one of the two staff members required by law was present for the transfer, and an 87-year-old resident fell to the floor, head first, suffering a brain hemorrhage. The fund was fined $7,500.

“The Motion Picture Home has gone from that rare nursing home where the residents felt like it was truly their home to a place where no one knows who to trust,” Connors said. “People felt like they were part of a community there; now they feel like their larger community is trying to abandon them. Everything is a secret.”

The MPTF paints a different picture. In an e-mail responding to allegations, Bob Beitcher, the fund’s CEO, said the campus’ security practices are consistent with those of other nursing homes. He called claims of any reduction in entertainment “completely untrue.”

“The Motion Picture Home is not a nursing home,” Beitcher wrote. “It is a thriving environment for elderly members of the entertainment community ... [who] continue to find it a haven. Nothing is secret.”

‘This Used to Be Like Disneyland’

Last April, Richard Stellar sat outside on the patio of The Pavilion, a long-term care wing that has since closed, alongside his mother, Mary Stellar, a 92-year-old resident who worked for 20 years for Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, the original producer of the James Bond films. Richard Stellar was reminiscing about the home’s earlier days.

“This used to be like Disneyland,” he said. “My mom would bring me here when she was fundraising; I met The Three Stooges here.”

Lil Rosenblum, 88, has visited the Motion Picture Home every single day for the past five years. Her husband, Irv, 83, suffers from dementia related to Parkinson’s disease, so she comes daily to tend to him. Irv spent 30 years as a film editor, and Lil fights back tears as she looks back.

“If anything crazy happens to Irv, something happens to me; I love that man,” she says, her delicate, wizened hands quivering as she puffs a cigarette.

Lil said that after the closure announcement and subsequent layoffs, Irv’s care suffered. “They just stopped walking him. They didn’t put in the book that you have to walk him every day for this man to continue walking.”

But not even compromised care could dissuade her from staying.

“I’m chaining myself to the bed; I’m chaining Irv. Call the police, call the papers — you’re not getting me out of here and you’re not getting Irv out of here,” she said. “I’m a big mouth; now I’ve never hurt anybody, but when it comes to Irv, I fight like crazy.”

Lil said the fund should have given them the opportunity to save the home. “We could raise the money — we could do something,” she said, pleading. Her theory as to why they didn’t: “My mother always had a saying: ‘When your belly is full, you don’t believe the other person is hungry.’ ”

Rosenblum is referring to the MPTF leadership, who are some of the most successful people in Hollywood. Sitting on the fund’s various boards and committees are DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas and Nora Ephron. Much of the public fury over the closure has been aimed at them — unfairly or not — and the grass-roots group Savings the Lives of Our Own, which is fighting to keep long-term care open, has organized public protests outside the fund’s major annual fundraisers.

In the months following the closure, it became clear that the decision to close long-term care had been a long time coming, at least since 2004 when the fund hired the Camden Group, an independent consulting firm, to analyze their operation. The study found that the high cost of labor, a reduction in reimbursements from state and federal entitlements, decreased investment income and a decline in philanthropic giving following the economic crisis foretold a massive budget shortfall over the next five years that would deplete the fund of its $68 million investment reserves.

But then the independent Hollywood news Web site TheWrap.com began to question the fund’s figures, reporting a month after the closure that MPTF’s numbers didn’t add up: Official IRS documents from 2006 and 2007 showed no net losses — on the contrary, they showed growth in the fund’s total assets.

“Some of the arguments they gave to justify at the outset that Medi-Cal was cutting their funds, that was never true,” nursing-home advocate Connors said.  In fact, in February 2008, the State of California tried to reduce Medi-Cal reimbursements by 10 percent, but the attempt was blocked by a federal judge the following August. Connors added: “It appears from our perspective that one of the reasons their revenues were down was that they weren’t filling their beds — and they weren’t filling their beds because they were trying to go out of business. Basically, it looks like they tried to concoct a financial reason because they didn’t want to operate the home anymore.”

MPTF CEO Beitcher insists the fund has exhausted every option to help residents transition and has promised continuous follow-up care. “That is hardly abandonment,” he wrote via e-mail, adding that the fund has spent $18 million keeping long-term care open past the intended closure date.

Different Approach to Similar Problem

Molly Forrest, CEO and president of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, suggests there were other options: “Why don’t we take what is an unfortunate public relations issue for the Motion Picture Home and contrast it with the way the Jewish Home has handled the closure of buildings on our campus?”

In October 2008, three months before the Motion Picture Home announced its plan to close long-term care, the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging faced a similar crisis. Due to imminent changes in building codes and safety regulations, it was determined that four of its residential care/assisted living buildings would not meet the new standards and would have to close. But instead of evicting approximately 140 residents, the Jewish Home relocated them to other facilities on campus. To do so, it froze admissions to residential care facilities and paid the proprietary costs (such as plumbing, water etc.) of operating those four buildings until the transition was completed.

Patio and exterior of Pavilion building that was closed.

By contrast, the Motion Picture Home resettled a dozen residents on its campus but said that integrating the entire long-term care population elsewhere on campus would not be feasible; the need for full-time care is still too costly.

“It cost us money,” the Jewish Home’s Forrest said. But, “we were concerned that we could not evict them, because they would have no place to go.”

Both homes are nonprofit providers, which means their residents tend to be less affluent; most of those residents — Forrest estimates about 80 percent — are dependent on government subsidies. “They are not the ones who are going to go to Sunrise and Belmont, [private facilities] because they’re poor, and you can’t get into those places if you’re poverty-stricken.”

Even if the Motion Picture Home has a glamorous reputation, in reality it serves Hollywood’s needy. “A lot of their people are not, frankly, the movie stars and the elite of Hollywood,” Forrest said. “They are the people who worked within that industry, and they may have a pension, but for the most part, they’re not money people.”

With a swelling elderly population in need of full-time care, and a paucity of working-age adults available to care for them, many Americans have no other choice but to turn to a nursing home.

“Most Americans believe that the government pays for nursing-home care and yet, nursing-home care is not covered by the government,” Forrest said.

This new, stark reality has many predicting a demand for social reforms that include long-term care benefits. But, for the time being, Forrest says, the reimbursement rates for skilled nursing care are so low (especially in California), the costs of building and maintaining facilities for that kind of care so high, and the regulatory environment so tough, it discourages nonprofits from entering the industry. “No one would choose to build a nursing home for people who are poor in California, and yet there is a huge need for poor people to be able to have 24-hour skilled nursing care. It is a societal problem,” Forrest said.

The MPTF’s promotion of “aging in place” has its own set of challenges - namely, how average working families can physically and financially support such care. And, yet, the fund has cause to be concerned about its bottom line: Unlike the Jewish Home, the MPTF also runs seven other health centers, providing a wide range of outpatient care throughout Los Angeles, serving an estimated 60,000 people per year. Ultimately, the MPTF has had to weigh its ability to provide long-term residential care to, at most, 165 people at a time, against serving 60,000 others. To put it bluntly, what are a couple of hundred elderly patients really worth when the fund has responsibilities to thousands?

Where It All Began

No one could have imagined this outcome when the fund began in 1921 with a passing of the hat to raise money for industry colleagues in need. Afterward, a group of wealthy stars established the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which operated on tzedakah box-style giving at first, providing a range of services from health-care assistance to help with mortgage payments. Studios and unions soon bought into the fund, in many cases instituting compulsory giving for industry members at the highest end of the earnings spectrum. And in 1940, actor Jean Hersholt found the 48-acre property in the San Fernando Valley that would become the Motion Picture Home.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I had a fantasy that someday I would wind up in the Motion Picture Home,” actress Renee Taylor said last April. “I had this romantic idea that I would write shows and end my days there.” Taylor and her husband and collaborator, Joe Bologna, have been working to save the home over the past year, including hosting a fundraiser at their Beverly Hills residence, which drew actors Elliott Gould and Alan Rosenberg and raised $30,000. Taylor said the proceeds were offered to MPTF with the condition that they keep long-term care open; the fund refused the money.

The reason? Beitcher, the fund’s CEO said, “$30,000 keeps LTC [long-term care] open for one day, so why would we accept the money on the condition of keeping it open forever?”

When Beitcher took over from former CEO David Tillman in February 2010, he immediately made efforts to clean up the mess.

Beitcher quickly issued a mea culpa to the press: “Clearly, we just sprang [the closure] on everyone. We can now look back and say we f—-ed up,” he told TheWrap.com. “We communicated it incredibly poorly, and it just made people crazy. We still haven’t been able to clarify it.”

Film producer Sid Ganis, vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as its former president, said that bringing Beitcher on board was a good move for MPTF.

“I know [Beitcher] well, and I know the kind of person he is, and I also know what’s preceded him, what’s happened at the home,” Ganis said. “They have a running start with him as head, because he’s a wonderful, ethical family man and devoted to the elders in his life. On top of that, he’s a very good businessman, so if things are changing, they couldn’t have picked a better guy to effect the change.”

When Beitcher was asked, for this article, whether the board ever considered reversing its decision in the face of the community’s outcry, he responded by e-mail: “At no point have we ever considered reversing our decision. The fact that it wasn’t popular with the residents and their families isn’t surprising, nor is it a valid reason to reverse course.”

Irma Kalish, who served on the MPTF board for 27 years and has writing credits on shows like “I Dream of Jeannie” and “All in the Family,” resigned from the board in March 2009 in protest. She felt the fund was abdicating responsibility to its founding principles, giving itself over to a hardened corporate philosophy.

“I don’t know whether it’s business first and morality second — I think it’s business first and everything else second,” Kalish said.  “The corporate mentality does not think in humanistic terms. They only think in dollars and cents and the bottom line,” she said from her home in Rancho Mirage.

Resident Mary Stellar in her room.

Indeed, some have wondered whether Hollywood’s leaders have become so inflated by their own largess they’ve lost touch with the needs of ordinary people.

“Everything in our industry has become a business,” Gerry Sanoff, an executive at Sony, agreed. “I really believe that when it’s convenient to have a sense of morality, you have it, but when it’s no longer financially feasible to have morality, you can justify changing.” Sanoff’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was in her 60s and has been living at the Motion Picture Home in the memory care unit, called Harry’s Haven, named for Kirk Douglas’ father, Harry Demsky.

There is frustration among the families that no leading Hollywood figure has effectively championed their cause.

“I’ve probably heard in the last two years at least 20 times, ‘If Lew Wasserman were alive, this would never happen!’ ” Sanoff said.

Melody Sherwood, whose 94-year-old mother, Katherine Meyer, has lived in the home since 2004, remembers an era in Hollywood history when industry leaders were fiercely committed to improving the status quo. One such figure was Sherwood’s boss, the legendary Wasserman, a galvanizing force in Hollywood for important causes. There are mythic stories about Wasserman’s leadership and how he demanded of his colleagues to give; if money was needed, he’d pick up the phone and get it.

Sherwood, who spent 30 of her 39 years at Universal Studios as Wasserman’s executive assistant, said, “Lew was immensely successful, but he never forgot what it was like to struggle.

“I don’t think there is that kind of figure in Hollywood today who commands the respect and who has the wide-reaching influence that Lew Wasserman had,” she added.

In Search of a Positive Outcome

For now, no clear resolution is in sight. “As uncomfortable as that may be for both sides,” Beitcher explained, “we’re not prepared to evict them, and they don’t seem to be prepared to move. We’ve reached a bit of a stalemate.”

If anything could seal this story with a happy ending, it’s a proposal to start fresh. For the past year, Oscar-nominated actress Diane Ladd and her husband, Robert Hunter, a former CEO and president of PepsiCo Food Systems, have been in private talks with the the fund’s top leaders — including Katzenberg, foundation CEO Ken Scherer and Beitcher — about a proposal for a new, independent long-term care facility to be built adjacent to the Wasserman Campus.

But that proposal comes with a hefty $150 million price tag and could take years to realize.

Hoping to convince Katzenberg to support the project, Hunter made an honest appeal: “My biggest point to him was, ‘My God, you’re an icon in this industry, you’re the guy that makes things happen, the fundraiser since Lew [Wasserman] is no longer carrying the torch, and what you’re going to be remembered for, 10 years from now, is that you’re the guy who closed the Motion Picture Home,’ ” Hunter said.

For now, the fund is entertaining that proposal, among others, but with varying degrees of skepticism and caution. 

James G. O’Callahan, an attorney at Girardi & Keese, the firm handling the residents’ charges against the MPTF, said he is amenable to the idea of resolving the situation Hunter’s way.

“If the people that I represent were going to get the care that they had been promised, and it was done in a setting that was acceptable to them and their families, I’d be 100 percent behind it; I’d do anything that I could to help make that happen,” O’Callahan said.

“But it’s got to be a situation that is acceptable to the residents and their families. Short of that, those people are entitled to stay right where they are and continue to get the care they were promised.”

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