The Merry Mailman (a.k.a. Ray Heatherton) lived here. So did comedians Dody Goodman and Joey Faye, singers Margaret Whiting and Carrie Smith, and B-movie actress Pamela Duncan. And let’s not forget the vaudevillians Smith and Dale, who inspired Neil Simon’s 1971 Broadway play, The Sunshine Boys.
Each of these entertainers—now deceased—was a resident of the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, an assisted-living facility and nursing home operated by the Actors Fund, a nationwide organization serving the needs of professionals in the performing-arts community.
“I am in awe each time I visit the home,” says Tony Award-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, chairman of the Actors Fund. “It is a national treasure of talented artists under one roof, with so much to share with us and with one another.”
In show-business terms, the Actors Home is a smash. “There is a waiting list,” says Lucy Seligson, director of social services. Currently, there are 42 residents in assisted living and 82 in the nursing-home section. Residents pay what they can; the monthly fee can be supplemented by insurance or the Actors Fund.
“We service people from every aspect of the performing arts and entertainment community,” says Seligson. “It is a broadly defined group that includes musicians, lyricists, stage hands, camera crews, set designers, dancers, choreographers, theater ushers and more.” Family members are also welcome.
Among the current residents is 91-year-old Gene Feist, playwright and founding director of New York’s Roundabout Theater Company, which he launched in 1965 with his late wife, actress Elizabeth Owens. Attired in a black track suit and red sneakers, the silver-haired Feist greets a visitor in his modest room on the first floor of the home. Showbiz memorabilia covers the walls. Shelves overflow with books on the theater. Swiveling to and fro in his leather chair, Feist shares a lifetime of memories. “Stop me if I talk too long,” he advises his visitor.
Feist cast many of the biggest names in the business for his Roundabout productions. “I hired the best professionals I could find and afford,” he says. Feist replaced some big names, too. Such was the case when he canned Stockard Channing during rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. “She just couldn’t play a wispy Russian,” Feist declares. But the story has a happy ending. “She owes me some gratitude,” says Feist. “A week later, she got the role of tough-talking Rizzo in the Broadway production of Grease.”
The Actors Home first opened on Staten Island in 1902, at a time when there was no Social Security or other provisions support for actors in need. Recognizing their plight, the more successful members of the theatrical community had started the Actors Fund in 1882 to assist those who had fallen on hard times.
In 1928, the Actors Fund acquired the home’s current site in a hilly section of Bergen County, a short drive from the bright lights of Broadway. The original home on the site had belonged to Hetty Green, a wealthy financier once considered America’s richest woman. In 1961, Green’s mansion was replaced by the current structure. A 50-bed extended-care nursing home wing was added in 1988. An additional wing constructed in 1993, was named for film and television actress Natalie Schafer—best known for her role as “Lovey” Howell in the TV series Gilligan’s Island. Through her estate, Schafer left more than $1.5 million to the Actors Fund.
In 1998, the operation was converted from a retirement home to an assisted-living facility, and in 2007 it was renamed in recognition of a $2 million gift left to the Actors Fund by IBM heiress Lillian Booth, who lived in nearby Alpine.
The hallways of the Actors Home reflect the commitment of theater people to each other, with brass plaques honoring donors such as Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Natalie Cole and Tony Randall. The artist Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures adorn the walls, along with Broadway posters and other show-business ephemera.
Common rooms include the Aaron Schroeder Playspace, a center of activity for those who want to watch television, work a puzzle or read. Schroeder, a former resident who passed away in 2009 at the age of 83, wrote more than 2,000 songs, including five number 1 hits for Elvis Presley. The room is decorated with gold records from his songs.
On a lower level former Broadway dancer Robert Evans sits in his sparse room with the door ajar, waiting in a wheelchair to tell his story. Evans’s room was donated in memory of the actor Tom Dillon, who appeared with Elizabeth Taylor in the 1946 film Black Beauty.
Evans, 91, has scant memorabilia in his room, but he has no shortage of memories.
He eagerly recalls the days when he danced in the chorus of top musicals such as The Music Man with Robert Preston. “Mr. Preston was a great actor on stage and a wonderful person off. He always greeted the cast and chorus with a big hello and even knew each of our names.” On the other hand, Rex Harrison, the star of My Fair Lady, was not so nice. “In the seven years I danced in that show, he never once said hello to the chorus,” says Evans. “He was only nice to the stars.”
The toughest routine he ever danced? That would be the sewer scene in Guys and Dolls. “The crap game number lasted nine minutes without a break,” he says.
The Actors Home has given Evans a chance to reconnect with old colleagues. He recently ran into a choreographer he had worked with and a former Broadway chorus girl. Now, she and Evans eat their meals together every day in the dining room known as the Stage Door Canteen.
The dining room and the MusiCares Salon across the hall are favorite gathering places. On any given day you can hear Joan Stein, the Juilliard-trained concert pianist, playing an antique grand piano. Health issues have taken their toll on Stein—in the 1950s, she was the accompanist on Sid Caesar’s TV hit, Your Show of Shows—but she still makes beautiful music. Stein and fellow resident Larry Woodard, an award-winning cabaret artist, often join forces in four-handed piano duets.
Memories swirl throughout the Actors Home—and were captured by Curtain Call, a 2000 documentary cablecast on HBO. Nominated for an Academy Award, Curtain Call featured interviews with performers, now deceased, including Bernard Flood, who played trumpet with Louis Armstrong; Dalton Dearborn, a Ringling Brothers clown; Tessie Moreno, a Ziegfeld girl; and Rosetta LeNoire, who starred in the television series Family Matters.
Another documentary, the soon-to-be-released Still Dreaming, follows residents as they rehearse their version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Among those featured are Evans, Stein and former Broadway actress Charlotte Fairchild.
All of which is reassuring to Stokes Mitchell. “It is a good thing to know that the people whose shoulders we stood upon are being taken care of.”
Sharon Hazard wrote about the state’s Carnegie libraries in the April 2013 issue of New Jersey Monthly.
Editor’s Note: Playwright Gene Feist, quoted in the story above, died Monday, March 17 at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. According to the obituary in the New York Times, the cause was complications of pneumonia.