September 23, 2019

Hollywood Mecca

Lewis Sluskin must have been an imposing man at one time; tall and broad shouldered, with a clear, no-nonsense manner that one often finds in those who work behind rather than in front of the camera – in his case, as a property master for more than 45 years. He is still a man of substance, but his frame has shrunk with age. He no longer sees or hears very well, and his face has taken on that smooth, almost newborn wonder when he talks about the past. When Sluskin, 90, speaks about his youth, he reveals a time when studios embraced their workers like family, not MBAs.

“Working on ‘The Learning Tree’ was the most memorable experience of my life,” says Sluskin, his face lighting up as he recalls that golden time more than 30 years ago. “I think of that show, and I think of Gordon Parks; he was a god to me.

Sluskin remembers Fort Scott, Kansas – the location director Parks picked to tell the story of his youth – where he watched over the set and made sure the actors had their props and everything else they needed. Sluskin also remembers working on “Gone with the Wind” for a day during the burning of Atlanta and a wild tuna chase in a movie called “Chubasco.” He even remembers the address of Warner Brothers in New York City at 44th and 10th Avenue, where as a 17-year-old errand boy he earned 60 cents a day in 1928.Seven weeks ago, Sluskin moved to the top of the waiting list at the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF) home in Woodland Hills for a spot in the Frances Goldwyn Lodge, an assisted-living facility for entertainment retirees and their dependents. To qualify, one must have worked in the industry for 20 years and be older than 65. The waiting list is nearly seven years, although exceptions are made for an emergency.

“It seemed like an eternity,” Sluskin laughs. All in all, he has adjusted well to his new home.

“My daughter had a security blanket when she was small; wherever she went her blanket went with her. It’s the same. The Lodge is really shelter. In the final analysis, that’s what you want,” he says with a slight smile. “If anyone is procrastinating, you don’t have to worry.”

The MPTF was founded in 1921 by Hollywood pioneers Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and others as a service organization for industry employees, retirees and their dependents. In 1932, deductions from employees’ paychecks began at all the major studios. (At present, the MPTF home operates via medical insurance reimbursements and philanthropic gifts.) In 1940, MPTF President Jean Hersholt purchased 48 acres of land in Woodland Hills for the MPTF Hospital, along with the Country House and cottages for independent living. Later, the Louis B. Mayer Theatre for movie screenings and presentations, the Frances Goldwyn Lodge and Harry’s Haven, an Alzheimer’s and dementia care facility created by Anne and Kirk Douglas, were built on the Valley campus. More recently, the Fran and Ray Stark Villa, 93 assisted-living units, broke ground for construction. When completed, the MPTF hopes, it will put a dent in the long waiting period.

Besides retirement care, the MPTF offers five health care centers (plus the 260-bed hospital) for its members throughout Southern California and provides child care and preschool education at the Samuel Goldwyn Foundation Children’s Center in West Los Angeles.

Today, the MPTF facility occupies 20 sprawling acres of neatly trimmed cottages and buildings, topiary and rose gardens, California live oaks, winding walkways and quiet streets, with old Hollywood memories wafting through the air.

On this crisp fall day, retired seamstresses and cameramen, grips and production assistants find time to socialize in one of the communal dining rooms and play a quick round of gin rummy. Twice a week, first-run movies, with talks by their directors, are held at the Louis B. Mayer Theatre. Every year, Edie Wasserman celebrates her birthday on campus, with an extravagant catered party, and DreamWorks employees routinely show up to talk and entertain the folks; DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg is a MPTF Foundation chairman.

It’s then, when the two generations come together, that one can follow the arc of Hollywood over the years. The MPTF residents are mostly white, in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, products of the studio system, while the new lions of the Digital Age are ethnically diverse, preferring to work independently rather than for any one studio. To Bill Weiness, 80, resident on the MPTF campus, this fact signals just how much times have changed.

Weiness was property master for Warner Brothers in the late 1950s, later moving to Paramount. Times were good; an actor or technician was assured of his position within the system, even if it meant working on a variety of shows and films during a given week.

“I enjoyed my work more than anything else back then,” Weiness recalls. “I was what you call a utility property master – wherever they needed me, they would use me. I worked mainly in TV, movies of the week, pilots. Then in the 1970s, more accountants and lawyers were taking control of the studios, and a lot of actors became independent. After 1970, I went independent, moving back and forth [between] different studios. In 1980, Paramount asked me to take over as supervising property manager. It was a lot of headaches. I was glad to get out of the business when I did. I just didn’t enjoy it anymore.”

“It’s a very difficult industry to work in. It has to have some compensation,” says Weiness’ wife, Ann, 78. “Bill was gone [on location] for weeks and months; the kids only saw him from weekend to weekend. He was the first one to leave in the morning and the last to come home at night. And it was very hard when he wasn’t working. When we bought our condo, we had to show our income tax. It was amazing how much he made per week but how little he made in a year.”

The compensation for all that hard work, Ann admits, is the small but tidy cottage that she and her husband have occupied since 1998, when their name appeared at the top of the MPTF waiting list. Since then, they’ve joined the whirlwind of activities on campus and have made many new friends.

“We socialize at parties, with actors and actresses who come for affairs; we go to the Directors Guild and Universal, and there are trips to Laughlin, where they give you a dollar on the way home so you won’t come home broke,” Ann laughs.

“This is a continuation of our life, only better. We convinced our children that we should move here; it was our best gift to them. We thought we’d have it when we need it, rather than need it and not have it. If we were home, we’d be sitting by ourselves,” says Ann.

“I can’t think of any other industry that has facilities like this for their employees to retire,” says Sluskin.

“We get a wonderful pension, Social Security, and they do everything physically possible for us. They take us to the doctor, to the medical facilities, the pharmacy, different events. If one feels healthy enough, this is a mecca.”

Unfortunately, a bad hip and poor eyesight make it hard for Sluskin to participate in most of the MPTF’s activities, and he finds himself philosophizing about growing old.

“Moral decay sets in no matter where you are. There’s very little to relate to with other people; each has his own thoughts, his own problems. You can be among a sea of faces and still find yourself like a cork on the ocean: You’re alone,” he says.

“I’m not lamenting, it’s a philosophical fact. This is the way it is.”

Sluskin settles in his chair, his chin resting on his hand. His eyes are shaded behind his thick glasses, and for a moment, he’s lost in his thoughts. Then he remembers something from a long-ago past, and his face lights up.

“For my limited amount of formal education, I struck the jackpot. I met interesting and fascinating people. I have long-standing relationships among some of the age-old survivors,” Sluskin says. “I have pleasant memories and agonizing woes, which make the pleasant memorie
s all the more enjoyable. In the final analysis, I wouldn’t trade a day for anything else. Show business is the greatest business in the world.”