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

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.