A retirement home for aging moviemakers brings to mind a caricature of obsolete vanities, illusionists bedazzled by their own illusions — in movies like Sunset Boulevard they even helped create the image — but the Motion Picture and Television Country Home doesn’t really fit that picture.
Gertrude Combs has found nirvana here. A chiseled, spry woman, she’s like a walking advertisement. “I’m just as busy as I can be from the time I get up. … We have theater, entertainment, twice a week. We have a monthly birthday party. And they are fantastic, I want to tell you. Buffet lunch, ooh, my gracious. Valentine party. Every holiday is celebrated. The Wheelchair Parade. And I’m a Ding A Ling [a singing group that performs annually]. And we have transportation to go shopping and to church. Everyone is given a color TV. Hairdressing, laundry, dry cleaning, barbershop, new clothes even — all provided. And the meals are excellent. We have filet mignon. They call it chef’s steak, but it’s really a filet.
“Now before I came here, dear, I thought that — when I would hear on the news of someone dying here — oh, how could they have gotten down to poverty like that? Well you can’t buy your way in here … and as I say, every need is met. Beautifully. And it’s dignified.”
Bill Combs was chief of security at Paramount Studios. Gertrude married him 13 years ago, when she was 70. On the wall is a photograph of Bill with his men in uniform. On the inside of the front door is a photo of Jane Russell autographed to Chief Combs, and below it one of him with Ralph Edwards and Leo Carillo. On the inside door of a cupboard are snapshots of Gertrude and Bill as Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks at the home’s Halloween party one year, and another year of them as Santa Claus and the Christmas tree, for which they won Grand Prize.
Bill is in a hospital in Pasadena. He had a stroke, but Gertrude struggles not to let her troubles get her down. She touches her toes, demonstrating the exercises she does daily, despite two types of arthritis. “Of course, drugs do help,” her smile is so elongated, it nearly pushes her eyes closed, “and I take a lot of drugs.”
Hollywood has discreetly retired to a cluster of pink cinder-block buildings in Woodland Hills, in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. The fastidious grounds are planted with every flower and tree you can name. One hundred volunteers, the Blue Ladies and Blue Men, assist the regular staff here, providing everything from medical care to daily deliveries of Variety for these 300 survivors of the motion picture industry. There is a sense of self-sufficiency here, in the range of services contained within the 41-acre compound, in its provisions for the stages of old age — the cottages for those who are independent, the lodge for those who need assistance, and the hospital — and especially in the people who live here. Except when annual wingdings like the Wheelchair Parade attract today’s celebrities and the media, the generation that created Hollywood carries on here, graciously withdrawn.
“On the wall facing you there, dear, the yellow sweater. She wrote Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch — Jane Storm — quite a gal. Then the heavyset woman there, Babe London. She was a big comedy star. We have people who go right back to Birth of a Nation.” May Hoffman performs a dozen or so jobs here, as administrative assistant. One of them is distinguishing the 60-odd cottage residents for visitors who might have difficulty, considering that all the heads are gray, that the average age is 81 and there are no minorities. May Hoffman now scans the Country House dining room from the staff table, with the deserved self-satisfaction of someone who has just turned down apple cobbler in favor of seasonal fruit salad.
“This lady facing us here with the polka-dot dress, Miss Wilson, she made all the fancy hats. The Parnells, they were character actors — Life of Riley, Ma and Pa Kettle. Herb Sterne, in the brown suit there, was a publicist.
“The gentleman sitting by himself by the doorway is Clint Urtubees. He was a cameraman for John Ford. Before that he was in charge of properties, and hired a young man by the name of John Wayne in his department. Now when Clint was a young man in Milwaukee, he was a projectionist, in the old silent days.” With this unobtrusive lead, May recounts the story that Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the stomach in Clint’s theater. Clint tackled and held the assailant. “He carries an old article in his wallet that is just brown with age, and unless he’s known you for a long time he never shows it to you …
“All of the paintings you see hanging on the walls here, with two exceptions, were done by our people.”
I expect to meet a few of these people, before they return to their cottages. But suddenly the room is empty. “I’m sorry dear,” one lady tweaks my hand, hurrying right off, “but they have me on diuretics and I really must go, if you know what I mean.”