Ava Bliss, 87, who lives at the Motion Picture Home, says she's happy… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
Three years after a controversial decision to close Hollywood's best-known nursing home, the Motion Picture & Television Fund has reversed course and said it would immediately begin admitting new residents to the historic Woodland Hills facility.
The decision marks a victory for residents and their families who waged a highly public campaign to fight the fund's decision in January 2009 to close the facility, known as the Motion Picture Home, and an adjoining hospital.
It also revives a time-honored charity — created in 1921 by United Artists studio founders Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and others — that has been home to Hollywood luminaries such as actors Johnny Weismuller and Hattie McDaniel and film director Stanley Kramer, whose credits include "High Noon."
At the time, critics accused the fund of losing sight of its motto: "Taking Care of Our Own." Board members said they had no choice. Its facilities were losing millions of dollars and threatening the charity with bankruptcy.
But the decision roiled Hollywood, where stars affiliated with the charity, like Jennifer Aniston, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, each year host an annual pre-Oscar fundraiser called the "Night Before the Oscars" at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Relatives and supporters of the nursing home residents held protests. And many residents refused to leave, retaining the powerful law firm of Girardi Keese to block any evictions.
The saga ended Wednesday, however, when Motion Picture & Television Fund officials said the nursing home's finances had improved under new management, enough at least to justify admitting residents again.
"It's been a long wait, but I couldn't be happier," said Hungarian-born actress Ava Bliss, an 87-year-old resident of the home whose credits under the name Ava Norring include the 1952 film "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." "It means that I don't have to worry any more about whether I have to leave tomorrow or the week after."
The board tapped former Panavision Chief Executive Bob Beitcher last summer to replace David Tillman, who resigned as head of the fund in February 2010 after bitter clashes with residents over his handling of the planned closure.
"I would give Bob Beitcher and his management team really a lot of credit for coming in and getting our house back in order, which it needed," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation and current fund chairman. "The results of it are that we can very comfortably expand our capacity."
The facility is home to only 29 residents, down from more than 130 who lived there in January 2009. The care facility will expand to at least 40 beds for now, with priority given to former residents who moved to other facilities. The nursing home is part of a larger retirement community in Woodland Hills operated by the fund.
"This will be a pivotal moment for current long-term care residents and their families, other campus residents and staff,'' Beitcher said. "It will restore the continuum of care on campus everyone has been hoping for."
Nancy Biederman, founder of the Saving the Lives of Our Own group, which fought the nursing home closure, said: "We applaud the MPTF on its stewardship and vision, and thank all who worked together to uphold the fund's historic mission and move it forward. That the MPTF has strengthened its commitment by embracing long-term care on campus is a victory for everyone."
The fund has been cutting costs by streamlining operations. The nursing home will operate on one floor instead of two, and last week the fund laid off 18 workers.
Fund officials also have spent months negotiating a deal with Kindred Healthcare Inc. of Louisville, Ky. Under a proposed deal, Kindred would invest $10 million to remodel an existing hospital building and would lease hospital and rehabilitation beds from the fund. That would give much-needed revenue to the charity, which, in addition to running the nursing home, also provides various social and healthcare services to entertainment industry workers.
The signing of the deal, originally expected to be completed by the end of last year, however, has been delayed by uncertainty over whether Congress will extend a moratorium on the building of long-term acute-care facilities.
Wednesday's announcement should help benefactors like Katzenberg raise charitable contributions at the annual fundraising event. Host committee members for this year's gala include director Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Katie Holmes, Cameron Diaz and Robert Downey Jr.
"It's been long and it's been hard and very difficult at times, but the good news is that the bad news is behind us," said Katzenberg, who had previously supported the decision to close the nursing home. "Now I feel like this is really a new day."