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Cause Celebre : Penthouse Pair Jean, Casey Kasem Tune In the Homeless --As Only Hollywood Can

September 25, 1989|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

The working conditions are unusual. Even for Beverly Hills.

The boss sits in a marbled-to-the-max kitchen. The boss's wife toils in a satin moire-draped dressing room. The publicists make phone calls from the exercise gym. And the typists pound their keyboards on a priceless buffet table that seats 12.

"This used to be a dining room," explains actress Jean Kasem, staring at the three rented computers sharing space with gilt-edged china. "Now it's a command post for the homeless."

In the beginning, there were Limousine Liberals.

Now, music countdown king Casey Kasem and his wife have taken the concept even further.

Or, specifically, higher. They're Penthouse Progressives.

"It's like during the war in Europe when Eisenhower set up command posts in the most elegant chateaux," Jean Kasem explains. "We're taking his leadership. Why forge a new path? It worked for him, it'll work for us. After all, we're in a social crisis."

Lack of Affordable Housing

The crisis, according to the Kasems, is the national lack of affordable housing. And that's why, since July, they've turned their opulent $20,000-a-month, seven-room apartment at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel into the headquarters for Hollywood's participation in the Oct. 7 "Housing Now!" march on Washington, including a massive mailing to radio stations across the country and a fund-raiser at their other home--a three-acre estate in Holmby Hills--on Oct. 1.

"I didn't think it was going to be like this," admits Casey Kasem, making his way through a maze of boxes stacked haphazardly in his elegant antique-filled foyer. "It just got bigger and bigger. And, before we knew it, we'd become a combination shipping department-computer center-stationery store with 16 people working in three shifts here."

Call it the world's most ostentatious office. Or call it just another day in the life of the Kasems, L.A.'s own Odd Couple of Causes.

First, there's their height: She's 5 feet 10 1/2; he's 5 feet 6. Then there's their age: She's claimed to be 32 for years, he's 58. Plus there's the way they dress: She's head to toe in Ralph Lauren white today; he's dressed toe to head in Italian black.

List of Causes

And, finally, there's their list of causes, which goes beyond even the average garden-variety rich Hollywood leftist's. Their real-life Top 10 includes pro-Nicaraguan activities, Jerry Lewis' muscular dystrophy telethon, Danny Thomas' St. Jude's Research Hospital fund-raisers, the National Cancer Institute, animal rights, vegetarianism, global nuclear disarmament, world hunger, drunk driving and Mideast politics.

While the Mideast remains Casey Kasem's personal obsession because of his Lebanese Druze roots--as a board member of the Foundation for Mideast Communication, he champions the Arab cause, from conducting workshops around the country aimed at bringing Jews and Arabs closer to denouncing Israeli leaders Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Shamir as "terrorists"--he has been as much a fixture of the activist scene as his polyurethane voice is on radios.

No matter if it's participating at Live Aid or the 10th anniversary of the political revolution in Nicaragua, planting trees for peace in the garden of City Hall's south lawn or talking up UNICEF's annual charity Halloween broadcast to feed the children of Africa, joining the last leg of the American-Soviet Walk to End an Arms Race Nobody Wants in Leningrad or being arrested three times on civil disobedience charges for protesting at nuclear test sites, Kasem seems to do anything and be everywhere.

Kasem's 'Flip Side'

For years, Kasem has done his causing by himself, prompting his wife to liken him to Mahatma Gandhi and pronounce that he should run for governor. Even his own press releases talk about this "flip side" of his personality, earning him feature articles in counter-culture publications such as the Vegetarian Times and Mother Jones, which this month declared that Kasem was like one of his own radio anecdotes--"Comin' up, the Detroit shopkeeper's son who grew up to wear diamonds on his fingers and conflict resolution in his heart."

A self-proclaimed American institution by mixing his corny material and crackly voice, Kemal (Casey is his nickname) Kasem co-created and hosted the hit ABC radio show "America's Top 40" until 1988 when he was replaced by Shadoe Stevens. Kasem jumped to the Westwood One radio network, signing a five-year contract for a whopping $17 million. He rakes in even more millions for his sales pitches for everything from cars to ketchup as well as doing the voice of Shaggy on "Scooby Doo" cartoons and the letters and numbers on "Sesame Street." Still, he's more likely to be listening to a speech by Malcolm X on his cassette player than music by Miami Sound Machine.

His wife, the former Jean Thompson, who grew up in Guam where her father was a civil servant purchasing military supplies, claims her good works began when she was 14 and volunteered at a Navy hospital right after the Tet offensive.

'Cheers' Role

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