Albert Rosenfelder loved the movies.
He loved them so much that he sometimes watched a triple feature during the day, then went to a studio preview at night. He talked about the movies, collected stars' pictures and autographs and commissioned an artist to paint portraits of each year's Oscar winners.
When a friend asked him why he spent so much time sitting in the dark, Rosenfelder bristled. Everyone should love the movies, he said.
So when he died last January at age 78, he willed the bulk of his estate to "Hollywood . . . for the purpose of a movie museum."
Meant as a final tribute to a world he loved, his $260,000-estate--including property, cash and memorabilia--has become the centerpiece in a dispute among backers of three rival film museums who claim that they are the rightful heirs. Three second cousins from the Midwest, the state attorney general's office and officials in the city and county of Los Angeles also have their own ideas about where the estate should go.
And Roy Rothery, executor of Rosenfelder's estate, said Rosenfelder wanted his money to go toward his own dream museum, since he often talked of converting one of his three Hollywood bungalows into a shrine for his mementos.
A probate hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 15 in Pasadena, so a judge will decide the fate of Rosenfelder's dream.
The one-page, hand-written will is dated May 30, 1982, and leaves the bulk of the estate to "a movie museum." It provides no further details except to call for the donation of a "valuable collection of 164 oil paintings and 20 pastels of movie stars, sheet music, stills, photos, statues and memorabilia for this building."
"I wish I had read the will before he died because I would have told him to rewrite it. . . . He just wasn't specific enough," said Rothery, a long-time movie-going pal.
Rothery's lawyer, Jean Louise Webster, sent letters to 12 parties, including the museums, in which she said she had petitioned the court to interpret Rosenfelder's intentions. "What we have said to the court is, 'We don't know what the will means, please tell us,' " Webster said.
Establishing a major film museum has long been a goal of Hollywood civic leaders, but fund-raising has been a major roadblock. The Rosenfelder bequest would be a tremendous boost for any of the three museums, two of which are open. The third is still on the drawing board.
Representatives of each museum said they are sure Rosenfelder would have wanted the money to go to them.
The Hollywood Exposition and Museum is a pet project of state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who last year helped to secure $140,000 in state money to study potential sites and sources of memorabilia for a museum for the film, recording, radio and television industries.
A Roberti bill making its way through the Legislature would provide $780,000 to design a building and exhibits and to establish a fund-raising committee.
Exposition backers will have to raise most of the estimated cost of $54 million from private sources, according to Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President Bill Welsh, a backer.
'Good Focal Point'
Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, a former Roberti aide, also supports the Expo, as it is called. "I think it would be a very good focal point for Hollywood," Woo said. "It is the largest (of the three museums) and the idea is that it would be a centrally located Smithsonian-type institution."
Marian Gibbons, however, says Rosenfelder wanted his money to go to Hollywood Heritage, the preservationist group that operates the Hollywood Studio Museum near the Hollywood Bowl. Gibbons, the group's president, said Rosenfelder worked as a volunteer when Hollywood Heritage restored the old DeMille Barn, where the first feature-length film was shot in 1913. "I think he had the barn project in mind when he left the money," Gibbons said. The barn houses the Hollywood Studio Museum.
"Why in the world would he have left the money to an entity that hadn't even been thought of yet, like any of the other museums that have been suggested?" Gibbons asked.
The third contender, the Hollywood Museum, opened 15 months ago on Hollywood Boulevard near Mann's Chinese Theatre. A claim filed by the owners said the museum "appears to be the intended entity" in the will because it is the "only presently operating museum on the history of movie making."
But attendance at the privately owned museum has been poor and owners last month filed for bankruptcy, declaring debts of $250,000. They were not available for comment this week.
Assistant City Atty. Norman Roberts said he will argue that the money should go to the Expo, which is a joint venture of the city and the state. And the county, which rents the barn property to Hollywood Heritage, has indicated that it will argue that the money was intended for that project. The attorney general's office has suggested that a charitable group should run the museum.