Hollywood pulling plug on hospital for its own
By BOB THOMAS, Associated Press Writer – Fri Mar 6, 3:10 pm ET The entrance to the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital is shown in the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009. For 63 years the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital provided treatment for stars and janitors, directors and secretaries. Those who could afford to pay their way, did so. Those who were broke were taken care of. Early this year Hollywood learned that the hospital would be shut down. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
LOS ANGELES – In 1940, Hollywood humanitarian Jean Hersholt purchased 48 acres of walnut and orange groves in the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley for a hospital to be run by the Motion Picture Relief Fund.
Hersholt, a popular character actor of the day, was president of the fund, which had been founded 20 years earlier by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and others to aid needy members of the film industry.
After a delay caused by World War II, the Woodland Hills hospital was finally completed in 1948. Among those attending the opening ceremonies were Robert Young, Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan and Hersholt, who is probably best known today as the namesake of a special Oscar recognizing charitable work — most recently given to Jerry Lewis.
For the next 60 years, the hospital provided treatment for stars and janitors, directors and secretaries. Those who could afford to pay their way — such as Norma Shearer — did so. Those who were broke — and there were many in the topsy-turvy film industry — were taken care of.
Now, Hollywood has been shocked with news that the hospital itself is passing away, a victim of red ink and an ailing economy.
"We studied the problem for three years," says Ken Scherer, president of what is now the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation. "We found that we had an operating deficit of $10 million a year.
"We reached the conclusion that the best thing to do was to take some of those dollars and invest them in programs that would reach more people. The aging population wants to live in their own homes and not come to the Motion Picture and Television Fund."
Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation chief and chairman of the MPTF's foundation board, said the deficit would have bankrupted the fund in "a very few years."
Reports of the closure, which will displace more than 100 long-term patients and eliminate some 300 jobs by the time it's complete at the end of the year, sparked a recent picket line of 200 people at the MPTF's nearby headquarters. Among the protesters was John Schneider of "Smallville" and "Dukes of Hazzard" fame.
"Many people look forward to coming here and I am one of them," Schneider said. "This decision was indeed a fiscal decision. We didn't lose the debate. We weren't even invited to the debate."
Along with anger, the impending closure has also inspired nostalgia among the film crowd. Walter Seltzer, movie producer and longtime member of the MPTF's board of directors, tells the saga of Johnny Weissmuller, greatest of the Tarzans: "When Weissmuller was in the hospital, other patients complained because he was yelling (the Tarzan yell) in the hallways. It got so bad that we had to remove him. We found a place for him and his wife in Mexico near Acapulco, which was where Johnny wanted to be. We sent people down there several times a year to make sure he was all right." Weissmuller died in 1984.
Seltzer recalled that actress Mary Astor rode a bicycle around the premises and was aloof. Her only companion was actor House Peters and she insisted on having their own table in the dining room. Seltzer also remembered the story of Chester Conklin, a pioneer comedian who worked with Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields: "When he lived at the home, Chester had a hobby of making beautiful jewelry which he advertised. One rich lady in the Midwest bought a lot of them, and she came to California to meet him. They fell in love and married, and he lived with her until he died in 1971." Hollywood pulling plug on hospital for its own