April 25, 2019

An Afternoon at the Motion Picture Retirement Home

They were actors, set designers, writers, studio secretaries, directors. Now they’re residents of the Motion Picture Retirement Home, a placid place tucked into a sleepy Woodland Hills neighborhood and dense with stories of Hollywood past.

I pull up a chair in the home’s sun-drenched dining room, designed to look like a studio cantina, and settle in to talk to some of the home’s residents. I want to hear their stories, but as someone just starting out here, I guess I also want to know if it was worth it.

“It’s been a tough road,” says Hal Riddle, 79. “I never encourage anyone to go into this business. There’s lots of rejection and heartbreak. I didn’t become a star. I didn’t become Elvis.”

Riddle, who moved into the home four years ago and has no family, knew he wanted to be an actor when he was 9 years old, sitting in a Kentucky movie house and watching a silent film.

“There was something up there that mesmerized me,” he explains.

After serving in the Navy, Riddle won a scholarship to the renowned Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. Every year, he performed in summer stock theater, rooming with Jack Lemmon in the summer of 1948, a friend with whom he still keeps in touch.

Riddle and pal James Dean, a fellow struggling actor, would earn pocket money testing stunts for “Beat the Clock,” a 1950s game show that paid the actors $5 a day.

At age 30, Riddle finally got a break, appearing in “Mr. Roberts” on Broadway. More roles followed, including his film debut in “The Cop Hater.” A few years later, he was invited to Hollywood to act in “Onion Head” with Andy Griffith. He has never left, appearing in scores of TV shows, commercials, soap operas and 16 films. Three of his films starred Elvis Presley.

The actor, a dapper man with perfectly wavy gray hair, applied to the Motion Picture Retirement Home when he had some health problems.

“I was still working, but I could see down the road. I needed security,” he says. “Here, we’re retired, but we’re still with our peers, we’re still connected to what we’ve done our whole lives. We’re still wanted.”

Pausing for a moment he adds: “I dreamed of money and fame, but look how Elvis ended up and where I am. I’m happy. How many people retire and live in a beautiful place like this?”

And how many people have stories like his to look back on, I think to myself. A gold watch and a pension are one thing, hanging out with James Dean is another.

Across the table is Pearl Smith, 85, who was a studio secretary for 33 years, working with such notables as Edith Head and Gloria Swanson. She was even responsible for renaming Bernard Schwartz, who her boss wanted to call Edwin Curtis. No, she said, he’s a Tony.

“We’re one family here. We speak the same language,” says Smith, her expressive eyebrows lifting. Like many of the residents, Smith’s career was the focus of her life. She never married.

Recently, Director Steven Spielberg visited the retirement home, and recognizing the former secretary, he ran over and gave Smith a huge hug. A photo of the two now hangs at the home, along with pictures of donors like George Burns and residents like Fayard Nicholas, of the tapping Nicholas Brothers.

Since it opened 58 years ago, the Motion Picture Retirement Home has been supported by donations from more than 1 million industry professionals. “We take care of our own,” is the home’s official motto.

According to Carol Pfannkuche, public affairs director at the home, those who succeed financially are happy to give back because they see their success as part of a team effort. Aaron Spelling, she tells me, stopped by and went out of his way to greet a former “Love Boat” script supervisor now living at the home.

Other than just shelter, the home offers support groups, holiday programs (including a Passover seder) and group dining to provide the socialization that is so often missing from the lives of seniors. An Alzheimer’s unit, courtesy of Kirk Douglas, provides a “wandering garden,” a safe place for the disoriented to enjoy the outdoors. A hospital cares for the very sick and dying.

I’m a little nervous to discuss the ‘D’ word, but I go ahead and ask Pfannkuche what happens to those who can’t afford funerals.

“We provide burial services,” she says. “Those who support the home would not want one of their own going without a proper burial.”

Driving away, some of my worries about the future are soothed, others are picked raw. My mind is back in time with James Dean and Gloria Swanson, as my Datsun wanders in search of the 101. Still, I know where I am, and now I know there’s a place I wouldn’t mind ending up.

Now it’s just the next 50 years I have to worry about.

Teresa Strasser is a 20-something who writes for the Jewish Journal