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Thalians search for young blood

Groups in danger of disappearing

In May 1955, Nicky Blair, Hugh O’Brian, Jack Haley Jr. and Margaret Whiting, among others, got together to change the image of young Hollywood.

“They were tired of having this reputation of being pot-smoking, hard-drinking assholes with nothing to contribute to society except more tabloid news about their divorces and affairs,” says silver screen grand dame Ruta Lee, who soon joined their endeavors. “So they decided to give something back.”

They called themselves the Thalians, after Thailia, the Greek goddess of comedy, and have since raised over $30 million for mental health charities.

But the Thalians, one of Hollywood’s oldest philanthropic groups, is in serious danger of disappearing.

Lee, who has since become chairwoman of the Thalians, says “(Thalian president Debbie Reynolds) and I can’t find anyone young in Hollywood to take over the organization — and we’re going to die soon. We can’t even get young Hollywood to help out in our shows. It used to be I would pick up the phone and call Frank Sinatra and he said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ Now, trying to get a hold of anyone is impossible.”

Fifty years ago, they put Jayne Mansfield in charge of finding a worthwhile recipient for their dollars. She quickly realized that all the name-brand charities had been taken, but she did stumble across Saul Brown, a doctor who was treating mentally disturbed kids out of a trailer across the street from Mount Sinai Medical Center. The Thalians decided to focus their attention on mental illness.

They built the Thalians’ Mental Health Center at Cedar-Sinai — the cornerstone building that led to the establishment of the entire medical center.

“The Thalians have been instrumental in the development of a world-class child psychiatry division,” says Mark Rapaport, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai. “They not only built the hospital, but their endowment funds all kinds of cutting-edge research.”

“Young Hollywood is surrounded by this massive coterie of lawyers, agents, managers, assistants, publicists,” says Lee. “It seems to me that their main job is to make sure no one talks to the star. And if you do get the star they want to know how much they’ll get paid and will you send a private plane and can I bring 12 of my friends. No one sent a private plane to fetch Gene Kelly or Bette Davis or Shirley MacLaine. No one ever got paid.

“Young Hollywood needs to realize how short and fleeting their careers are, that it’s important to leave something behind that’s really worthwhile. These kids have to inspire other kids — and not just with their beauty and wealth.”

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