In its 125-year history, the Actors Fund has helped showbiz pros in all professions through all kinds of crises.
When “actors,” as all show folk were called in the 1880s, were so disrespectable that churches wouldn’t bury them, the Fund (then known as The Actors’ Fund of America) offered a cemetery. When AIDS decimated the business 100 years later, the Fund helped when many orgs were barely aware of the new disease.
That depth of experience showed when Hurricane Katrina displaced most of New Orleans’ musical community. Larger institutions were overwhelmed, but the Fund was ready.
“We don’t look at ourselves as a disaster service,” demurs chief program officer Barbara Davis. “We’re available for emergencies on all levels. Most of the emergencies are more on a personal level.”
Davis says the Fund helped some 474 people affected by the storm, 300 of whom got direct financial assistance totaling $195,000.
The Fund’s health-care programs, retirement home and low-income housing efforts are larger, longer-term projects. And the sheer scale of the Katrina disaster dwarfs what an org the size of the Fund can offer.
“Considering the Actors Fund gives out about $2 million a year in direct financial assistance, it wasn’t a big thing,” Davis says.
But the people who were helped by the Fund say those small grants had a big impact.
“The dollar amount is not important,” says Bethany Bultman, program director at the New Orleans Musicians Clinic.
“What’s important is when you call up and you’re a musician and you have a crisis and you’ve lost everything, the Actors Fund and their staff listen, they’re responsive, and they have 125 years of knowledge under their belt about not only what will constitute relief but what professional musicians need to sustain themselves.
“After Katrina, one of the first phone calls I made was to Barbara Davis. I said we have got to find these musicians and create a safety net. A lot of people lost their homes.
“She said, ‘Our social workers are good to go to help them right this minute,'” Bultman says.
One of those musicians is Brice Miller. He was jazz studies coordinator for the New Orleans school system, a second-generation jazz musician and the owner of a music company.
“I had the dream job,” he tells Variety, his voice still tight with frustration two years later. “I never imagined living anywhere else. All that was pulled out from under my feet.”
Miller evacuated to Memphis ahead of the storm with his wife and children, then watched on TV as his life unraveled.
“The city’s flooding, the city’s burning. I have three kids, and I was reaching the breaking point, because I’m watching my entire life, my career, floating away with the water. I was starting to lose it.”
He relocated to Mississippi and began emailing, looking to reconnect with musicians and find other help. A friend referred him to the fund.
“Katrina was unusual,” says fund executive director Joseph Benincasa, “first because a lot of the help we provided was coordinated through all the unions and guilds for people living in New Orleans, and a lot of the requests were processed by email, because email was one of the things that stayed live through Katrina.”
Miller says that while government agencies have put him through demoralizing screenings, the Fund only wanted to confirm that he really was in show business.
“After that, it was whatever we can do to help you, we’ll do it,” he adds.
The Fund quickly got him $750 in direct financial assistance — not enough to repair his house, but enough to keep his family housed and fed in the weeks after the storm.
“It’s the small programs like that that give me the glimmer of hope,” he says.
“I told the staff that I will be forever indebted to them. Because those are the organizations that gave us a sense that somebody out there gives a damn.”
Miller takes that debt seriously enough to have flown to Gotham twice for fund-raisers.
Another beneficiary of the fund is Deidre Erin Alton, an actress and lawyer who was living just north of New Orleans.
She says she wound up stranded in Irving, Texas, with her elderly mother and three children when her fiancee dumped her during the evacuation and left her with no car or credit cards.
Alton was familiar with the Actors Fund because her father, Second City founding member Bill Alton, had spent his final years in its Englewood, N.J., retirement home, but she turned to her union, SAG, first. SAG told her to call the Fund for additional help.
“It was all so crazy,” says Alton. “We were all trying to figure out what to do and who was going where. There was no communicating with banks down here, there was no communicating with anything.”
But she was able to get through to the Fund.
Davis says, “We have 24-hour emergency service, so we were often the first organization that got financial aid to people.
“We were proud of that and thought it was important that no calls went into any voicemail systems. Every call was answered immediately.”
Benincasa says that the Fund moves fast because of capabilities honed through long experience, be it with natural disasters, like the Northridge, Calif., earthquake, or more personal crises.
“We’ve developed a first-rate staff and a good national volunteer network,” he says. “We helped more than 8,000 people in 46 states last year, and we take pride in responding quickly to requests.”
Alton soon had a check in hand from the fund for $500.
“I could not have survived without the Actors Fund, because I had nothing,” she says.
The Fund remains involved in Katrina relief, especially in housing, a staple program area. Staff also stays in touch with clients like Miller and Alton.
“Their people would call and stay in touch to see what’s going on,” Miller says. “It was a follow-up call this week, ‘How are the kids? How are things going, Brice?'”
The follow-up with Alton went even further: “The December after the storm I went out to the mailbox, and there was another check for Christmas. That gave me Christmas, because the kids wouldn’t have had Christmas.”
And the Fund is also working toward the day when New Orleans’ musicians can come home and participate in the unique culture that nurtured Miller and his peers.
“That culture depends on certain families living in certain neighborhoods,” says Jordan Hirsch of Sweet Home New Orleans, which aims to preserve Nola’s musical culture by getting its musicians to return. “(Katrina) threatened a way of life. There was no infrastructure here to address that.”
The Actors Fund has been a calming presence through the tumult, he says.
“They’re interested in staying involved as these things change,” says Hirsch, “because the needs we need to deal with now are not the same needs we had when the levees broke.”