Albert Rosenfelder died a year ago and left his $260,000 estate to a Hollywood movie museum.
The problem was, he forgot to say which one.
The lonely, aging bachelor meant the bequest as a final tribute to the industry he loved, but instead it became the center of a dispute among three rival film museums. Representatives of all three laid claim to the money, saying that they were sure Rosenfelder would have wanted it to go to them.
As a probate trial was about to begin in Pasadena Superior Court in early January, however, lawyers for the three museums reached agreement on how to divide the estate.
The biggest winner in the settlement is Hollywood Heritage, the preservationist group that operates the Hollywood Studio Museum. It will get 90% of the estate, which derives most of its value from Rosenfelder's savings and three Hollywood bungalows.
Three cousins who live in the Midwest will divide 6% of the estate and the remaining 4% will go to the organizers who plan to open the American Film and Television Museum. The Hollywood Exposition and Museum will get nothing. The Expo is a pet project of state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) that is still on the drawing board.
"I think Al Rosenfelder must be smiling," said Hollywood Heritage founder Marian Gibbons after learning of the settlement.
Gibbons said she is sure Rosenfelder, 78 when he died, wanted the money to go to Hollywood Heritage. He worked as a volunteer for the group and often came to check on the restoration of the DeMille Barn, where the first feature-length film was shot in 1913. The barn opened in December near the Hollywood Bowl as the home of the Hollywood Studio Museum.
Rosenfelder told Gibbons that he wanted his collection of nearly 200 portraits of Academy Award winners to be displayed at the barn, she said. And a fellow movie-memorabilia collector said that Rosenfelder wrote her and said that he wanted his estate to go to Hollywood Heritage.
Lawyers for the two competing museums said their cases were weakened because neither existed in May, 1982, when Rosenfelder wrote his own one-page will. They agreed that most of the estate should go to Hollywood Heritage because of its strong ties to Rosenfelder.
"The settlement allocation was based on what the parties thought . . . the ultimate result (of probate) would be," said Peter D. Gordon, a lawyer for the American Film and Television Museum.
While community leaders have long advocated opening a film museum in Hollywood, securing financial backing has proved difficult. The Rosenfelder estate would have been a tremendous boost for any of the three museums.
Gibbons said the bequest will help support the general operations of the Hollywood Studio Museum and perhaps pay for new exhibits, landscaping and reconstruction of a porch that once surrounded the building.
Gordon said the American Film and Television Museum recently applied to the secretary of state's office to become a nonprofit corporation. He said the $10,000 share of the estate will be used as "seed money" for the museum, which does not yet have a location.
The city of Los Angeles had withdrawn its claim on behalf of Roberti's Hollywood Exposition and Museum project. City officials agreed that the estate appeared to be intended for Hollywood Heritage. They also said the museum would have difficulty winning in court because it was not even on the drawing board when Rosenfelder wrote his will.
The settlement also calls for Hollywood Heritage and the American Film and Television Museum to divide Rosenfelder's 184 paintings of Academy Award winners, as well as sheet music, photos, statues and other memorabilia.
The museums agreed to periodically combine the collection so that it can be shown as a whole.