MPTF Timeline: More than a house

Nine decades of generosity

There’s no people like show people, as evidenced in these nine decades of generosity:

In 1921, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and others create the Motion Picture Relief Fund, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Before decade’s end, the industry is struck by one of its most wrenching evolutions: the shift from silent to sound film. The change brings plenty of opportunity but also unemployment for those unable to make the switch.

In 1932, as the Depression ravages the country, the movie industry institutes a necessary mandate, the payroll deduction plan in which workers are asked to donate .5% of their earnings to the fund. It’s a harbinger of similar things, both private sector and governmental, to come. By the end of the decade, the fund manifests the dream of one of its most dedicated members, the actor and philanthropist Jean Hersholt: a permanent facility in which the industry would minister to own.

Hersholt’s dream is realized in 1940, when at his insistence the fund’s board purchases 48 acres in what is now Woodland Hills. On Sept. 22, 1941, ground is broken at the site, and almost exactly one year later some 3,000 members of the Hollywood community attend the opening of the completed building, a 50-bed facility dubbed the Motion Picture Country House. Six years later, a hospital is added.

The 1950s prove a difficult time for the film industry, not least because of the challenge presented by television. But movies and TV share plenty, especially when it comes to personnel.

In 1961, a committee is formed to examine the interconnectedness of films and TV, and 10 years later the Motion Picture Relief Fund officially changes its name to its present one.

Throughout the 1960s, some of the most august names in film and TV history lend their names to several projects; it’s a decade in which the MPTF’s Woodland Hills facilities take on much of their present character. In 1966, thanks to a gift from Samuel and Frances Goldwyn, a collection of 16 double cottages with recreation areas augment capacity of the County House. The following year, a 200-seat theater named after Louis B. Mayer opens. And two years later a nondenominational chapel is erected with money from director John Ford.

In 1974, the Samuel Goldwyn Studios are left to the fund following the mogul’s death. The bequest — some $35 million, following the property’s sale to Warner Bros. — becomes the cornerstone of the fund’s present endowment of $120 million. Spurred by Goldwyn’s action, Lew and Edie Wasserman together with Jules and Doris Stein create a separate endowment for campus beautification in 1978.

The decade also witnesses an expansion of who’s welcome at the Woodland Hills facilities, one milestone being the arrival in 1974 of retired agent Henry Willson, who had repped Rock Hudson and Natalie Wood, among many others. Willson is the first agent to enter the home.

The fund’s growing needs catch the attention of Edie Wasserman, who in the mid-1980s oversees a $50 million campaign to expand the hospital by 81 beds. And increasing awareness of the ravages of Alzheimer’s brings an establishing gift of $1 million from Anne and Kirk Douglas for the creation of an expanded care unit called Harry’s Haven.

At the urging of the Wassermans in 1991, Jeffrey Katzenberg spearheads the fund’s next stage of growth. More than $200 million is raised, including a $10 million gift from Ray Stark that results in the creation of a 70-unit residential structure named the Fran and Ray Stark Villa and which opens in late 2001.

The most recent structural addition to the Woodland Hills campus comes in August 2007, with the opening of the Saban Center for Heath and Wellness, made possible by a $10 million gift from producer Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl. Its purpose is to focus on health maintenance and disease prevention. The center includes an aquatic-therapy pool donated by Jodie Foster. Some 650 industryites — many of whom are still working — regularly use the Saban Center.

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