HENRY EPHRON, screenwriter
“SO I CAME OUT TO SEE IT, AND I LOOKED AT THE DINING ROOM, AND THERE WAS THIS ENORMOUS SEA OF WHITE HAIR."
ANITA GARVIN Stanley sits regally in her chrome wheelchair. "Anita appeared in all those Laurel and Hardy films," says a nurse bending down to her. "Didn't you, Anita?" The 85-year-old woman with the Japan-white face, scarlet lipstick, and perfect bow eyebrows nods and bats her fabulous lashes. "You were a blond then, weren't you?" the nurse goes on.
Anita produces a disdainful moue and shakes her platinum pageboy. "I was not."
"Redhead, was it?"
"No," Anita drawls. "Jet black. And mean!”
She draws herself up in her wheelchair -nose high, eyes forward- and takes off as vigorously as the hated contraption will allow. After 400 films, Anita Garvin Stanley knows how to make an exit.
It's just before noon on a broiling Valley day, and I watch as Anita joins a slow migration of movie veterans -performers, designers, writers, technicians, producers, secretaries, grips, and their spouses- who are making their way from their rooms toward lunch at the Frances Goldwyn Lodge. The dining room is airy, clean, Rotarian, with clerestory windows, a soaring ceiling. Naugahyde tub chairs mike no noise on the vast green carpet as the 50 or so men and women take their seats.
The chatter is pure show biz: When I was at Fox… Thalberg told me… Mail is set out with the pink and white napery. Waitresses circulate. Ham today -looks good. The unremittingly joyous overture to Gypsy blares over the public address. Cigarettes are lit, voices are raised, and though some tables are empty, no one sits alone.
Despite the conviviality, I hesitate to enter. This is not because of the curious stares already catching me as I hover in a corner. I do after all fall short of the average resident's age by a good half century. But I am not so sure I care to stare back. Is old age catching? Even visiting my own grandmother in the nursing home where she lives, I sometimes feel the need to avert my eyes. In the movies, everyone stays young forever. I used to believe it. Perhaps they did too.
ROSE HOBART, actress
"THE GUY WHO PUT THE FINGER ON ME SAID HE'D BEEN TO A COMMUNIST MEETING IN MY HOUSE, AND HE MAY HAVE, BUT I WAS IN THE ALEUTIANS AT THE TIME, DOING 'THE MALE ANIMAL' FOR THE USO."
IF PEOPLE HAVE HEARD OF THIS place at all, they think it's some kind of geriatric warehouse -where Norma Shearer spent her last sad years clutching the wrists of visitors, asking, Are you Irving? Were we married? This is a reputation the Motion Picture and Television Fund spends thousands of dollars a year to amend, with glossy brochures and inspirational videos that highlight its services to young and old. The MPTF is, in its own words, a nonprofit provider of medical care, social services, emergency financial assistance, and residential care to eligible industry employees, retirees, and dependents. But it is, most tangibly, what I see before me: a place where an elderly actress eats lunch among friends.
Anita has wheeled herself to Whit Bissell's table. A dapper actor with a trim white mustache and bright blue eyes, Whit has that air of slightly disowned vanity often found in handsome older men. "This lady has a million stories," he says helpfully.
Anita hesitates. "I was silent for three years until talkies came in."
"Luckily you knew how to talk," Whit says.
"I can't talk now with these teeth!"
Still, with Whit's prompting, she manages to reminisce. “I did a Ziegfeld show called Sally-"
"I wasn't even sixteen."
Her voice is tremulous, baritone, recessive: the voice of a movie vamp. She talks in short bursts. Quitting Ziegfeld; the Charlie Chase comedies; the pratfalls; the wigs; the beautiful, demolished Biltmore. Then she trails off. "All so long ago," she says. I have the feeling that her reluctance is not so much a failure of memory as a failure of nerve. At one time in her life it was permissible to be on display, to strut her long legs, to stare directly into the camera. Now her long legs are nearly useless. Perhaps she believes in a punishing fate; in her Laurel and Hardy pictures, she always played the tallish lady-elegant, wealthy, but a parvenu at heart -who learned over and over how pretension was rewarded with comeuppance in the end.
Now she touches her hair, so bright it looks pink. "The hairdressers here," she sighs theatrically. "I just want a plain old pageboy, straight; I wind up with everything except what I want."
Whit nods, brusquely sympathetic.
"When you get home," Anita says to me suddenly, "will you go to Central Park and pat that big rock for me? My mother used to say: 'Stay off of that rock, you're wearing out your pants!' The crinkly, oystershell smile expands. "What was the name -good God- of that restaurant? Tavern on the Green! I used to see all the beautiful women going in. Someday I'm gonna eat there too, I said. And I did, finally." She looks at me with a plaintive intensity. What is it she wants me to know?
"Ah, well," she shrugs. "I'm a mess."
"That's nonsense," ' says Whit.
"I am, I know it.”
"No," Whit repeats, kindly but firmly.
Lunch is over. Several men congregate on comfortable sofas; a half dozen women in wheelchairs line up in patches of sun. "Melancholy Baby" comes over the public address.
WHIT BISSELL, actor
"HOWEVER OLD YOU ARE, YOU HAVE TO STAY INTERESTED. IF YOU DON'T, YOU'RE DEAD."
OUT AMID THE WASSERMAN-ENDOWED landscaping, the Merle Oberon Rose Garden struggles against the 109-degree heat. The jacarandas and mimosas are limp, the grapefruit trees weighed down by their fruit. Only the fantastic topiary survives unscorched: chickens and trains and an owl carved from boxwood.
The Lodge, the hospital, the Country House and its cottages -all facilities run by the fund here in suburban Los Angeles- are spread out on 21 lush, priceless acres. Behind them, twenty more are planted in strawberries and corn. Though the land is worth a fortune, the fund is running at a deficit. Proceeds from the voluntary .5 percent payroll deduction that began at the studios in 1932 have declined in the past decade from $10 million to $1.4 million a year. Third-party payments are now the primary source of income -but Medicare does not reimburse for topiary.
Fortunately the fund continues to receive the odd large bequest. The campus is dotted with eponymous plazas, pergolas, and wings. A bronze bas-relief of George Burns guards the door to the George Burns Intensive Care Unit, as if talismanically, to keep George Burns out. Twice a week, movies loaned by the studios are shown at the Louis B. Mayer Memorial Theater. And back near the Frances Goldwyn Lodge sits a tiny, white colonial chapel, more New England than New England itself, with ecumenical stained glass-named for John Ford.
While the Lodge provides a moderate level of assistance to its residents, the Country House is designed for independent living. The cottages -attached studio apartments- are laid out in rows among the roses and prize oaks. The dining room, like a suburban country club, is somewhat formal, somewhat hushed. The residents look as if they've dropped in from a round of golf.
Barbara Nicholas, wife of the spectacular tap dancer Fayard, is so youthful in her jaunty blue jacket, I mistake her at first for a visitor. She's sitting with actress Eve Conrad Burch, who once helped Clark Gable into his jammies. "Clark had the most gorgeous olive skin -all over," Burch reports. At another table, attended by three elderly gents, sits Rose Hobart, a dramatic beauty at 84. Blacklisted mid-career, she was banished to the stage and TV.
And then there's Mae Clarke. Immortalized by one unscripted gesture -Jimmy Cagney shoving a grapefruit in her face in The Public Enemy-s he is perhaps the most famous resident. She's certainly the most feared; for days I have been warned not to cross her. Still, sipping soup, she looks harmless enough. "Miss Clarke?" I venture.
"Not now!" she barks ferociously, slamming down her spoon. "Don't you know better than to approach an old lady in the middle of eating? You could have choked me!"
SPITE & MALICE -A thrice-weekly card game- appears on the mimeographed schedule of events along with knitting, art, bingo, golf, Holy Communion, and big-band dancercise. Assisting in these activities are volunteers who call themselves -with unintended irony- Blue Angels. In the Lodge recreation room, several such Angels in their sky blue smocks are glazing ceramic centerpieces for the upcoming Golden Boot Awards dinner.
The familiar, reedy voice of Johnny Carson wafts from the dining room, where Hal Elias, 91, is watching himself on a videotape of the 1979 Academy Awards. Elias picks up an Oscar for distinguished service to the Academy, utters the time-honored heartfelt phrases, then slowly makes his way offstage with the glistening statuette. Host Carson takes the opportunity to remark on the comical infirmities of the aged -a moment of hubris he may live to regret.
Hal Elias in person appears vigorous and sporty in his burgundy jogging suit, polka-dot shirt, and white patent leather shoes. He joins his friends in a round of applause. "It was a thrilling night," he says. "A night of nights." He lowers his voice. " In fact, I have the Oscar in my room -unexposed. Stolen Oscars get something like $15,000 apiece. So unfortunately, it's ironical, I have to hide what I treasure."
MARIA PARVIN, costumer
"KIRK DOUGLAS, HE GETS AHOLD OF MY FACE AND GIVES ME A KISS ON THE MOUTH. AND I GIVE HIM A SLAP AND SAY, 'YOU FRESH!'"
Back in his teens, for reasons mysterious even to him, Elias dreamed of show biz while wrapping huge rolls of fabric on lower Broadway for $6 a week. Step by step he made his way west, first as an exploitation man roving the Rocky Mountain region to generate publicity for MGM films. Eventually he became a studio executive. He speaks unaffectedly, with the precise diction of a man trained to get the names across and get them spelled correctly. "I would do anything to further the glamour of the cause," he says. Indeed, he has donated $100,000 for the construction of two Country House cottages, to be named for himself and his late wife, Rheba.
"This place is unique -everyone from the same industry. We take care of our own, that's our motto. Henry Ephron over here" -he points to a man sitting quietly on a nearby sofa.-" goes back to the old days, Kaufman and Hart days. He dotes on anyone who will listen to his stories. I myself try not to spend much time thinking about what could have been. I pick up Variety, but the names are unrecognizable. It's a new world out there; I wouldn't fit in."
He looks out the window toward a patio too hot to set foot or wheel upon. "So this is fine. This is the greatest place to be, if you're in the condition I'm in. Let's put it that way. You have to make up your mind, though," he warns, rapping on the table. "Make up your mind that this-is-it. It doesn't get any better than this."
The rapping seems to startle Henry Ephron. "My turn yet?" he asks heartily. "Come over here, kid." He pats the cushion beside him but does not turn to face me when I sit down.
"You know what Zanuck said about me? He said, 'Ephron, your big gift is enthusiasm. Good thing you've got Nora. ' I mean Phoebe." Ephron has momentarily confused the most famous of his four daughters with his beloved first wife, dead nineteen years. Then he recovers his ha-cha-cha enthusiasm. "So let's go, kid! What do you wanna know? I met her at a party-it's all in the book."
He holds up a copy of his memoirs-We Thought We Could Do Anything-and examines the author's photo on the back. "It looks like me. I was younger ... or older."
Though he's almost 80, Ephron has a full head of hair that's only lightly silvered. Still, he has a haunted look. His shirt doesn't fit. When I ask him how he came to be here, he starts and stutters. "If you wanted to know about my wife and how we started writing, I remember all that in accuracy. But this-to talk about now is going to be hard. I'm not as familiar-in tune as I ought to be. I escape," he says, starting to cry.
For a while it's touch and go. He starts up, loses track, collects himself, then drifts. He tells me stories about his years as a screenwriter -Daddy Long Legs, Carousel, Desk Set. Then he stops short. "You're not getting what you want," he says miserably. But when I suggest we adjourn, he pulls himself together. "No, we'll do it, kid," he says. "The best I can."
And now he is clear, frank, and comprehensive. "I was living in New York about three years ago, depressed because I couldn't seem to write. I was lonely and drinking heavily. Finally, Nora, who is adored in real life and in the life of illnesses, suggested I move back to California, which wasn't exactly my idea of heaven, since you don't want to be living in California unless you're working. But Nora told me she had reason to believe -and I never found out how or why- that if I wanted it; they would take me.
Lou HARRIS, producer
"I DON'T LIKE PEOPLE WHO THINK THEY'RE BETTER THAN ANYBODY ELSE -LIKE SOME PRIMA DONNAS I COULD NAME. WHATEVER YOU DID BEFORE, IT DOESN'T MATTER. YOU LEAVE ALL THAT BEHIND."
ANITA GARVIN STANLEY, actress
"I WORE VERY FANCY CLOTHING: HEADDRESSES, FEATHERS, EVERYTHING.
SANG TOO, THOUGH I CAN'T CARRY A TUNE. MAYBE I COULD -THEN."
"Anyway, when you've got an oldest daughter who's made a beautiful success of her life and she gives you advice and wants to care for you, only stupidity would reject that. So I came out to see it, and I looked at the dining room, and there was this enormous sea of white hair." He chuckles darkly.
"Now, you've got to figure out, my friend, what that means to a man who all his life has been totally individual and made a success of being a kind of half-assed star. But I began-under the mild propaganda of the daughters-to think I might like it. And then I go back to New York, and suddenly I'm getting a desire to come here, because I'm waiting for the fucking phone to ring and even thinking of ordering a bottle of scotch, because where am I in my life?
"And then the word came: They want you. So I flew out again and they put me in a room and Whit Bissell kind of saved my serenity. Anyway, after a while, I can't say exactly when, I came in to folks saying 'Good morning' at breakfast. And found Hal Elias to go on walks with and shoot the nonsense. Motion picture people love to reminisce, you know. Because it's the best years of your life, no matter how you face it.”
Ephron takes what seems to be his first breath in ages. "I'm doing okay, huh, kid?" he says. I nod, elated.
EVE CONRAD BURCH, actress
"CLARK GABLE HAD THE MOST GORGEOUS OLIVE SKIN -ALL OVER. HOW DO I KNOW? WELL, WE DID STRUGGLE TO GET THAT BIG GUY INTO HIS JAMMIES."
MOVIES WERE JUST BEGINNING to be made in California when Gertrude Combs stepped off the Santa Fe in September 1910. The seven-year-old town of Hollywood was burgeoning with lemons, oranges, apricots, string beans, walnuts, marigolds, sweet peas, corn. What a paradise it must have seemed to a stagestruck girl of seventeen.
Now 98, Gertrude Combs is the Lodge's oldest resident. "I'm a Dingaling, " she says, meaning she sings and dances for patients in the yearly Dingaling show at the hospital. Though nearly blind, she is always beautifully turned out: in the brightest part of the afternoon, when the sun reaches deepest into her closet and dresser, she chooses two outfits -including matching shoes- and lays them out for tomorrow.
Maria Parvin, 91, is another irrepressible nonagenarian. Exuberantly adorned -five rings, a brooch, seed-pearl bracelets, and tiny pearl earrings - Maria crochets in her rocking chair, surrounded by drawings, handmade knickknacks, Christmas bows, and heirloom crosses. The hook flashes between her bright red nails, making its way through yards of white yarn that will eventually array itself into an openwork jacket.
"Do you know I worked directly with Mae West?" she says. "One day, we were fitting costumes, and Miss West says, 'Go to my dressing room-underneath the safe is a package.' It was all her jewelry: a set of diamonds, a set of rubies, a set of pearls. And I said, 'Oh, Mae, they are so beautiful! Can I try some?' And she says, 'Yeah, go on.' So I put them on and I start walking around and I say, 'Why don't you come up and see me sometime!' " She giggles joyously.
HAL ELIAS, publicist/studio executive
"I'VE HAD TO SAY TO SOME NOTABLE PEOPLE, 'THAT'S GONE, THAT'S YESTERDAY, WE'RE ALL THE SAME HERE. WHETHER WE'VE WON AN ACADEMY AWARD OR NOT.
Two doors down the hail, Whit Bissell is thumbing through The Gin Game in preparation for rehearsals with another resident. Though best known for his B-movie wackos, here at the Lodge Whit takes the role of the wise elder statesman. "Sometimes the Hollywood attitude is: You're old, you're old, get out of my way. You feel like you're walking into the end. Well, old age is the end of a kind of life but not the end of life itself. You have to keep yourself stimulated-reading, whatever. But if you didn't read at 40 and 50, you ain't gonna read at 70 and 80."
He points to copies of The Economist and The Nation strewn on his bed, but my eye is drawn to a lobby card for I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. In that camp classic, Whit's mad scientist takes the severed limbs of accident victims and stitches them together to create his monster: a perfect, smooth-skinned Hollywood youth.
BARBARA MILLER, screen cartoonist
"I WAS LIVING UP NORTH IN PARADISE-PONDEROSA PINES AND FOUR REAL SEASONS! AND OH, HONEY, IF IT WEREN'T FOR MY LEGS, I'D BE THERE NOW."
IN THE STATELY, PANELED DOUGLAS Fairbanks Lounge, a foursome works its way through a rubber of bridge. Across the room, waiting impatiently in a green leather chair, is the woman I've come here to meet: Mae Clarke.
Clarke has achieved the perfect pageboy that eluded Anita Garvin Stanley. At the moment, it's topped by a golf cap with a rabbit emblazoned on its visor. Her gaze is sharp, her color high, her figure trim, her voice -commanding.
"You're not going to ask me about that damn grapefruit, are you? I'm sick to death of it. Oh! And embarrassed. So many things are more interesting. Yesterday I was on television in a movie I did with Bill Boyd in 1934. Flaming Gold. And I had a good critique in TV Guide. Page 127. 'Well acted by-' " She tilts her eyebrows to indicate herself. "This was the American Movie Classics channel -I'm a classic now. Many times." Indeed, Clarke's movie career got off to an astounding start, with seven starring roles in 1931: gun molls and hookers and Frankenstein's fiancée.
"I hope you're going to conduct this interview in a manner befitting," she says. "People think they can take advantage -just because we're old, we're feeble." She puts on a horrible Baby Snooks voice. "I can give you five minutes."
Bidding in the bridge game commences as Clarke launches into a roller-coaster review of the world: President Bush, Warner Bros., the pergola outside that was misnamed a pagoda. She is precise, witty, and loquacious. But the trail stops short when it reaches her mother. "Violet, " she says. "Her name was Violet. And she was a violet. She died in my arms. And I miss her and I miss her and I miss her. But I never quite get around to saying I can't wait to be with her." She arches an ancient eyebrow. "Because I'm scared to death to go."
One of the players -dummy this hand- walks over to the baby grand and sets a glass of water on its lid. Mae stares daggers. "That's a no-no," she says crossly. "It's a piano, not a table! I'm gonna shoot her." ' The woman gets the message and removes her glass. "Thank you," says Mae with freezing sarcasm.
GERTRUDE COMBS, widow of a studio security chief
"I WAS 70. HE WAS 63. THE FAMILY COULDN'T GET OVER IT, THE SHRINERS COULDN'T GET OVER IT. NEVER HAD I EXPECTED TO KNOW SUCH HAPPINESS."
She turns her attention to a new provocation. "You see that doggone floor lamp in front of the picture?" She points to a portrait of Edith Head in a white derby hat. "My mother taught me, 80 years ago, as I was being born: 'Mae, in this life, never let me hear tell of a lamp or flowers or bric-a-brac –anything- being put in front of a hung picture. It is uncouth.' That lamp belongs with the piano, so the pianist -if there ever was one- can see his music. I keep moving it, and it keeps moving back. And these chairs are wrong, too." She indicates the correct placement of the furniture with semaphoric sweeps of her hand.
If she acts as if she owns the place, she has her reasons. "I was always here," she says. "Even as a young actor. I wanted to know, for a little while those who were about to leave." She times her pause perfectly, then lets it go. "And when, later on, I had no money and found out I could live here -Oh ho ho! It was like God sent a chariot after me. I went right to the chapel. My God, look what I got! This was mine! Still is mine! And I don't really mind that all these other people live here. I like them. But it is my place. Please. And look at all the employees I have -700, and I don't have to pay them. So I don't mind owing $99,000."
"If you don't have the money, they don't require you to pay it," I say.
"But I owe it," Mae says. "Don't analyze. I could show you the bill. We all owe more money than we can give. So I do everything I am asked to do. Interviews, publicity -though it enrages people who think I'm being favored." She jabs her thumb at the bridge players across the room.
"Community life, when you're used to independence, is a strain. Geniuses of small things and large are here, yet they're human. But now we're a family. Sure we fight; that's what family means. Not to the finish. But the truth is, I feel like I have died and gone to heaven. General Motors, other big industries, they have nothing like it. And the reason why is love. You go through hell to be in this business, because you love it." She clenches her fist. "Oh, honey," she whispers, shaking her head, "this industry is love."
Mae rises suddenly and unsteadily from her chair. "Now. Okay. Let's get going," she says. "I want to establish order before I move on." She directs the movement of the lamp and chairs, then makes the final adjustments herself. The conversation groups are cozy if empty, the pianist who never comes has his light. Mae Clarke smiles: Miss Edith Head is free.
DEATH IS THE WORD YOU RARELY HEAR HERE. Residents know and accept the pattern: one day you move from the Country House to the Lodge, later from the Lodge to the long-term-care ward.... But how will it happen: a stroke, a fall? It all depends on the luck of the draw. And dread is reserved for the wild card.
The Alzheimer's Care Unit has won awards for its humane design; still, Anita has told me, a visit there once reduced her to tears. I find it almost disturbingly serene. The ward is sealed with electronic locks. Pasted by the door of each room is a picture of the person who lives there -if residents can't remember numbers or names, they may remember themselves. A ward cat sleeps under a trellis in the Wanderers' Garden, where the texture of the pavement varies from pebbly to smooth. A wishing well gurgles. All the plants -marigolds, trumpet vines, jasmine- are edible; the water in the man-made pools, should anyone try to drink it, is pure. One man sits by the aviary, looking in. He engages himself in a parody of discourse, as do the finches and cockatiels looking out.
Back at the Lodge, I spot Barbara Miller, the newest resident, inching steadily down the hall with her walker. In her other life, I later learn, she inked the cels that made Mr. Magoo.
BARBARA & FAYARD NICHOLAS, model and tap dancer
"WE HAVE FRIENDS HERE WHO WERE IN HUGE BEVERLY HILLS HOMES AND THEN HAD TO MOVE INTO TINY AREAS. WITH NO CLOSETS."
ON THE THIRD DAY OF MY VISIT, AS I'M LEAVING a nearby deli, a car pulls out on Mulholland Drive and honks politely. It's Barbara Nicholas, off on an errand. She waves and passes.
Barbara and Fayard Nicholas keep up an active outside life: benefits, vacations, workouts at the gym. In 1988, Fayard cochoreographed Black and Blue, for which he won a Tony award. A few weeks from now, they're off to Paris.
Thanks to two hip replacements, Fayard, at 76, dances effortlessly -in elfin, size-five shoes. If he's not as acrobatic as he was when he and his brother Harold burned up the screen in such movies as Stormy Weather, he's still got the zip of a hummingbird. When I ask him how he likes his cottage, his hands rotate in stylized spirals. "I like it -fine," he says in his jazzy accent. "If I won $10 million in the lottery, I would still stay here. I'd give some money to the poor, of course-"
Barbara interrupts. "I would remodel the cottages, make them larger." Her voice is smooth and covered: a little Macon, a little MGM. She wears a yellow straw hat angled just so; it's not surprising to learn she was once a model.
"What a heat we're having!" says Fayard.
Barbara tells me about the comfort they take in their Baha'i faith, which teaches them to rejoice in what life offers. But beyond spiritual buoyancy, I think how lucky they are to have their dancing and trips, their car -and each other. They are one of only ten couples here.
A few minutes later, I find Henry Ephron sitting by himself near the door to the
Lodge. "Where's your phone number, kid?" he asks, but when I start to tell him, he waves me off.
"Nah, I don't want your phone number -we're not going for some romance. " He laughs a dirty little laugh. "Actually, that sort of thing doesn't go on here. And I miss it, too. " He looks sad, then his eyebrows leap, and he's suddenly Jimmy Durante. "But you know something, kid? I'd like to see you occasionally. For fun, for men talk, you know what I mean?"
"I'll drop by, before I leave," I say.
He shrugs. "I'll be here." He does a take. "Prisoner of the very rich."
SINCE THEY CAN'T possibly hold individual parties for each resident's birthday, the fund throws a group party once a month. Today the tables in the Lodge dining room have been covered with salmon cloths. The Blue Angels have constructed inscrutable centerpieces: canisters spewing film, with decorative eighth notes appliquéd.
An organist is playing movie themes while 100 or so residents and guests file by the buffet. Conspicuous among them by virtue of his elaborate hairstyle and snazzy clothing is the day's entertainment: the singer Tony Martin.
Sun-preserved and 77, Martin takes the floor after the chicken, cheese soufflé, and Jell-O have been cleared. His amplified voice, too loud for younger ears, fruitily recalls the glory days of Hollywood. After instructing those who cannot clap for him to nod their heads instead, he begins his set. A croony, nearly out-of-control "Almost Like Being in Love" is offered in a key ten years too high for him now. Ignoring the cross-conversation and concomitant shushing, he makes a bizarre segue into "People Will Say We're in Love" as a rumba. "I love all of you," he sings next, pointing to the audience. A man in a wheelchair is pushed past Martin and out the door during the climax of this number.
A woman at my table looks ineffably sad, as if Martin's plummy tones and melancholy poses, deployed in the service of songs about love, stirred up more than she cared to remember. But another woman looks peeved. After a few more songs, Martin thanks the audience, exhorts them, "Don't hate anybody, be sorry for them," and ducks out the door, his accompanist in tow.
A child's dream of a cake is cut, and the day's honorees are serenaded with warbly gusto. The only man toasted is Lothrop Worth, whose birthday yesterday was his 87th.
Worth is a solid man of military bearing, with blue eyes, big hands, and a broken-looking nose. Glasses, pens, and tissues compete for space in his breast pocket; he looks like a physics teacher, as, indeed, for the next few minutes he is.
"They call me the father of 3-D, " he tells me. "But I'm really the father of the 1956 revival. Because 3-D had been around since the 1850s –daguerrotypes then.”
Worth goes into a discussion of parallax, aspect ratio, interocular distance. I can hardly follow, but I do recognize the name House of Wax.
LOTHROP WORTH, cinematographer
“I AM MORE USED TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CAMERA. YOU KNOW WHIT BISSELL? I SHOT HIM IN “I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN.’”
AT HALF PAST SIX, THE LATE-AFTERNOON sun is still beating down through great parched shrubs and threadbare mimosa. I walk to the Louis B. Mayer Memorial Theater, a building both grand and banal. Tonight's feature is Back to the Future, Part III. Through the glass facade of the two-story lobby, I can see a giant white-shag tapestry, embroidered with the six logos of the once-mighty major studios.
Jean Hersholt bought this ground for the fund in 1940 from a real estate firm called Bob's Good Earth. Hollywood was a small town then. If movie people took care of their own, it was because they knew who their own were. Mary Pickford could stump for money if some poor actor needed an emergency toupee. A Hollywood party could still mean a summer barbecue at Mae Clarke's, featuring her mom's prize potato salad. It occurs to me that this place, with its library and ceramics classes, is a lucky remnant of that earlier world. If it didn't exist already, it's hard to imagine it could be created now. The land alone would be too dear. And who would play Mary Pickford?
The residents arrive for the movie in wheelchairs and electric carts, with walkers or without, bandaged, stiff, or quick and unbowed. Hal Elias shows up; Barbara Nicholas drops her husband at the door. Suddenly an Angel remembers to turn on the tapestry; she throws a switch, and a thousand points of fiber-optic light begin to twinkle around the Lion, the Torch, the Mountain, and the Globe as the sun falls over the hills.
LOU HARRIS AND A COUPLE OF his cronies are smoking after lunch. The conversation winds in the form of jokes through various relevant topics: memory loss, other residents, religion, the afterlife. "Me, I'm an atheist," Lou says. "I don't believe in anything."
Lou is 85 and a bit of a swell in his bright red suspenders and cherry red glasses. Despite the eighteen operations he's undergone -arteries, hips, on and on- he seems fit. He's certainly chatty, even gruff. His personality has not been worn down to mildness.
"I've done everything there is to do in this business," he says. "I was Cecil B. DeMille's assistant producer. Advertising, PR, directing, writing. I don't like people who think they're better than anybody else -like some prima donnas I could name. Whatever you did before, it doesn't matter. You leave all that behind. When I moved here in January, I walked away from my home and said, 'Sell it. The hell with it.' I kept my collections of Shaw and Shakespeare and O'Casey, and that's it.”
His wife, Vera, was already here, in the new hospital, after years in the Alzheimer's unit. Harris used to make a 42-mile round trip three times a week to visit her; now it takes five minutes on his Mallard electric cart. This afternoon I tag along as he careens down the hills and into the long-term ward. He pulls up directly at Vera's door. Vera, he tells me, was a modern dancer -Duncanesque- when he met her.
The room is immaculate, with a sitting area and a sparkling bath. A private terra-cotta terrace is flooded with sunlight. Hunched over in a chair, Vera faces the TV, which is blaring Three's Company; an agonized look persists on her face, though she is in fact asleep.
Lou leans down and kisses her forehead, takes her hand in his and rubs it. "Sometimes she'll reach out her hand when I come in," Lou says. But not today. The TV drones on.
The charge for Vera's care is $184 a day; less than a third is reimbursed by Medicare. If Lou can't make up the rest, the fund foots the bill. Lou's own care costs $54 a day, which covers, he tells me, cable TV (34 channels), a refrigerator, three meals, maid service, laundry, $10 a month toward phone bills, a daily newspaper, and TV Guide. Also -he remembers- snacks, activities, recreation, trips, pocket money, and haircuts subsidized at 88 percent. He rattles this off perfunctorily, but it cannot escape him how lucky he is. Though thousands of people meet the requirements for residency -twenty years in the business- there is only room here for 362. It takes months to get into the long-term ward; for the Lodge and the Country House, the wait can be as long as five years.
After a few minutes, Lou adjusts the afghan around Vera's shoulders, kisses her again, and says, "Goodbye, dear. " He remounts his Mallard. "You can't be sentimental about these things," he says. "You have a problem: two plus two. Well, it makes four. The problem's gone."
On the uphill trip back, Lou's Mallard runs out of juice. Huffing a bit, he pushes it up the last incline and into the Country House lobby, where he parks in front of a walnut table to recharge the battery. As if summoned by police radio, Mae Clarke emerges from the library.
"Isn't that a lovely place to park?" she says, her delivery undimmed. "Just where someone could trip? I say this not for myself, of course, but on behalf of all the others."
I excuse myself from this threatening scene and poke my head into the office. A 50-ish redhead is nervously appealing to someone at the desk. "My husband and I are in the business," she says, "and we figure we're going to end up here sooner or later, and we wanted to have a tour if we could."
I am struck by this woman's determination to look so squarely into the future. Though I suppose we are all counting down one way or another -whether we know it or not. You go on, that's all, and hope the final shot will find you doing exact1y what you always did.
Who can say how to confront the lottery? With terror, nonchalance, or even impatience? My grandmother, when I visited her recently, told me she hoped it would be the last time I saw her. Rose Hobart, vibrant though she is, says plainly that she has no goals left except to die as quickly as possible. Last time I saw Anita, she was staring at a clock on the wall. "I don't know whether to believe the time," she said. I think I know what she meant.
The woman who wants a tour can't have one; appointments must be made in advance. When I step back into the lobby, Lou and his Mallard have disappeared. But Mae is in the lounge again, moving the lamp that will not stay put.
Jesse Green has written for 7 Days and GQ. His fiction has appeared in various publications.