It’s showtime at the Motion Picture Country Home. A crowd of 30 or so has filled a room with a view of the verdant grounds, which are located just off Mulholland Drive, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. At a table in the front of the room, two actors, Dena Dietrich and Jerry Sedley Kaufmann, take their seats, scripts in hand; they’ll be performing the inaugural reading of a play Kaufmann has written, called Signals, which he hopes to soon produce as a short film. Dietrich is elegant and slender; Kaufmann is dressed in a blazer, topped by a mop of curly gray hair.
After Kaufmann delivers some brief remarks, the play begins. It chronicles a date between his character and Deitrich’s, in which Kaufmann makes a case for a relationship between the two, while Dietrich demurs again and again. Ribald and witty, Signals riffs on Uber and blow jobs, courtship and friendship, and the criminally large cost of a night out in the greater Los Angeles area. The crowd loves it, laughing throughout, and the two performers, obvious professionals and frequent collaborators—the Nichols and May of the Motion Picture Country Home—play their parts with an enthusiastic authenticity. The crowd gets it, because it’s real: it deals with important elements of their lives, namely their relationships.
Dietrich is 89. Both she and Kaufmann are, technically, retired. And there’s a designated spot by the home’s entrance for audience members to place their walkers—many of them need the help getting around. This is a Channel 22 production, and it’s one small part of a larger effort to reconsider how we should grow old.
The relationship between Los Angeles and the entertainment industry is complex: the city exists, quite literally, beneath a sign that says “Hollywood,” but of the 141,400 jobs the entertainment industry accounted for in 2015, the vast majority are miles away from not only the sign itself but also the fame and fortune associated with it. If the world looks at Los Angeles and sees The Rock’s smiling mug, what it doesn’t see is a population of people roughly the number of medium-sized American city doing the work that made it possible for The Rock’s smiling mug to earn $124 million over the past year.
The Motion Picture & Television Fund, or MPTF, is one of the engines that help keep that city running. A nonprofit public-benefit corporation founded in 1921, MPTF has functioned as a safety net for workers in the entertainment industry, providing health care, financial help, and support services. According to MPTF’s 2015 annual report, the foundation provided community social services to 3,793 industry workers and their families that year, as well as nearly $3 million in financial assistance. One of the primary goals of those efforts is to ensure the continued support of a retirement community created specifically for former employees of the industry, along with their spouses and partners.
Located on MPTF’s 23-acre Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, the community currently accommodates around 230 residents ages 70 and up, and it has a unit for individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia and a 40-bed long-term care facility. The campus is both bucolic and state of the art, featuring rows of cottages shaded from San Fernando Valley sun by tall trees, a network of walking paths connecting the living quarters to a health-and-wellness center, a greenhouse, and, of course, a movie theater—a 200-seat venue that plays first-run films, often introduced by their principal actors. If the facilities (excepting that movie theater) might seem typical of a high-end retirement community—though you’d be hard-pressed to find many as well outfitted as this one—the names of the buildings are not: the Jodie Foster Aquatic Pavilion, the Louis B. Mayer Theater, the John Ford Chapel. It is, unmistakably, a place with a legacy, an environment dedicated to the art form that its residents once practiced.
Another feature that differentiates the Motion Picture Country Home, as residents call it, from your run-of-the-mill retirement community: it has a TV channel. Founded about a dozen years ago, Channel 22 is a closed-circuit station run by and for MPTF residents, with assistance from a dedicated staff and hundreds of volunteers, including film-school students and current members of the industry. Its programming, which runs 24-7, is composed of older movies and TV shows and 12 hours of original content a day, including interviews with the residents about their experiences in entertainment—like a popular series called Behind the Silver Screen, in which folks will recall their work on a specific film or show before it airs on the channel—as well as documentary programs about goings-on on campus and original short films written, directed by, and starring the residents.
The man who came up with the idea for Channel 22 was an MPTF board member named Mel Shavelson. “He was a writer, producer, and director, and at the age of 90, he couldn’t understand why people weren’t hiring him,” says Jennifer Clymer, MPTF’s director of media. “He wanted them to have an opportunity to not just do what they were passionate about in the industry, but also do things that they weren’t given the opportunity to do.” (Shavelson, a two-time Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay, passed away in 2007.)
Walking around campus with Clymer feels like exploring a small town with a particularly popular mayor; every few steps she is drawn into spirited conversation. By the time she arrived in Los Angeles in 1999, she was already a communications veteran, having moved from Chicago, where she was a producer of talk radio and improv theater, to pursue a career like that of her idol, the producer-director Stanley Kramer. After working on the production side at Sony and in the world of independent film, including as a production assistant for the 2000 Mike Figgis movie Timecode, she started volunteering at MPTF, then contracted with the organization to help plan and run fund-raising events. When Shavelson came up with the idea for the channel, which he first envisioned as a radio station, he approached MPTF Foundation CEO Ken Scherer, who suggested that they make a TV station instead. Scherer soon brought Clymer on to research what it would take to make the station work, and later he invited her to come on full-time, overseeing production and broadcast. (Scherer left this past year.)
As Clymer explains it, all the channel’s efforts stem from one primary function: to improve its audience’s quality of life, helping to connect residents to one another and fostering a greater and more intuitive sense of community. While the short films and plays might be the channel’s more eye-catching work, the bulk of its content consists of interviews with the residents and pieces that document life at the Motion Picture Country Home. This can create unexpected and delightful meetings. A former editor might discover that another resident served as the gaffer—the crew member who handles the lighting—on a film that he worked on; two women might realize they worked at the same studio at the same time. By calling attention to these unseen connections, Channel 22 helps transform the community from a place where former industry folks can retire into a still-thriving network of individuals with shared experiences and interests.
Perhaps even more importantly, the channel creates an opportunity for residents to nurture the creative gifts that qualified them for inclusion in the community in the first place. Funded by grant money and aided by younger volunteers, who help with the physically demanding aspects of filmmaking, like moving sandbags and hot lights, residents can continue to pursue their professional trades as well as try out the jobs they always wanted to explore. The combined presence of current industry students and professionals alongside veterans of storytelling in the medium makes for work that is impressively polished, particularly on the small budgets Channel 22 has to work with—though it also maintains a looseness and sense of play that comes from an emphasis on experimentation and trying out new ideas.
“People come here, and if they were a gaffer, they want to be an AD,” Kaufmann says, referring to assistant directors, who are usually responsible for keeping a film’s production on track. “And the ADs here want to direct or produce.”
“We have people who were doing set construction who are now voice-over artists,” Clymer adds.
Clymer relates the story of residents Tony Lawrence and Larry Kelem. In 2008, Lawrence, a veteran of TV shows such as Bonanza and Hawaii Five-O, approached Kelem, who’d had a career as a music arranger and pianist, after seeing the episode of Behind the Silver Screen about him. Lawrence asked Kelem if he’d want to compose music for poems he’d written that he thought might make good song lyrics, and so began a partnership that resulted in a 25-song musical, complete with an accompanying 200-page book, called The Son of the Invisible Man. An abridged version was performed on campus and at an event hosted by the Writers Guild of America. In 2013, MPTF put out a documentary about their collaboration, Alive and Kicking, all 11 episodes of which are available on YouTube.
For the 87-year-old Anne Faulkner, Channel 22 has provided a full-time job. Faulkner, who grew up outside Cincinnati in the 1930s and ’40s, wrote her first play as a teenager: it was about her father, who served in World War II. Although Faulkner knew she wanted to pursue writing and acting following the play’s successful debut at her high school, her ambitions were delayed by marriage, at age 18, and the demands of raising two children.
After her husband abandoned the family in the 1950s, Faulkner returned to her interest in performance, winning roles in shows put on by community theaters around Cincinnati. It was through that theater work that she met the man she would later marry; he worked at a media company called Metromedia, which owned a number of TV and radio stations. Faulkner joined him there in the 1960s and rose through the ranks, graduating from compiling traffic logs—the records of what airs on a station and when—to serving as the first female vice president of the company. When that marriage ended, she moved to New York City, at the age of 50, to pursue a career as an actor. She performed in theater productions in New York for five years before deciding to make the move to Los Angeles, where she soon booked a regular part on Roseanne. (Even as a working TV actor, Faulkner continued to hold down a more stable job, overseeing school reunions at Notre Dame High School in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Sherman Oaks.)
Considering her track record, it seems inevitable that Faulkner would end up running the programming at Channel 22. “Jen exaggerates, but she tells the story that I came in and said—well, I won’t say what she said, because I didn’t say that, but she says I said, ‘Who does your TV scheduling? It’s terrible,’ or something like that,” explains Faulkner as she sits at her desk in the Channel 22 building, next to walls covered by photographs of her posing with famous men like George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., and John Krasinski. “Jen tells people that she told me, ‘There’s a seat—if you think you can do better and you want to do it, you’re welcome! There’s only three of us here—we can’t do it all.’ And I’ve been here now for almost seven years.”
At Channel 22, Faulkner, who comes to the office four days a week, determines what airs and when; she keeps track of residents’ birthdays, ensuring that any content they are featured in, whether short films or interviews, airs on those days; and she scouts out potential new stories, talking to residents, especially those who have just arrived on campus, and learning what they did in a previous life. She also still writes and acts: she can be seen on YouTube, accompanied by a pillow stuffed under her jacket, in The Bench, a 2016 short film that was written and directed by Kaufmann.
The diverse scope of Channel 22’s productions can best be understood through the work of its most active participants. Kaufmann, who moved to MPTF in 2015, had childhood aspirations to be a concert pianist but switched to writing when he reached the limits of his musical talents as a young boy, partly because he found the rhythm and flow of language similarly moving. He’s a gifted talker and a clear cultural omnivore, referencing J. D. Salinger, Cole Porter, and Michael Cimino (director of the notorious film Heaven’s Gate), who had an office next to him during their respective days directing commercials. From ads he went on to writing for prime-time soaps like Hotel, as well as writing essays and short stories, and then to teaching film at Marist College, in upstate New York; when his teaching days ended, he made the move to MPTF.
“I didn’t want to live with my daughter, I didn’t want to teach anymore, so what’s the best thing? This place!” Kaufmann exclaims. But unlike many of the other residents, who often venture into the aspects of filmmaking they’ve yet to explore, Kaufmann had another idea in mind: he wanted to tap-dance. His first piece for Channel 22 featured him tap-dancing in a chair while lip-synching; the piece was a “hit,” as he puts it, and afterward he returned to writing. In addition to The Bench, he wrote the script for other short films, including The Call and The Oral Biography of the Bishop of Myra, a comedic eight-character history of Santa Claus, aka the bishop of the ancient Greek city of Myra.
Both of these also featured Kaufmann’s frequent acting partner, Dena Dietrich, a career actor who performed in a number of Broadway plays, including The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which starred Peter Falk and ran from 1971 to 1973—she still mourns a drawing Falk gifted her that she lost somewhere in her travels. “Peter Falk was so sweet,” she says. “He was always at his studio on 57th Street, where he could draw and paint and do all the things that he really wanted to do. He didn’t care about acting, but he was always drawing things.” Dietrich eventually moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career in TV and film, and, in addition to booking featured roles in a large number of sitcoms, she spent ten years playing her best-known character: as Chiffon Margarine’s Mother Nature. The ads, anchored by the catchphrase “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” ran from the early ’70s into the ’80s; she still gets fan mail because of them.
Jon Huntley has a very different story. He went to graduate school at the University of Southern California, emerging in 1997 with the intention of becoming a screenwriter. But after working for a few years in film development, he eventually returned to his earlier career as an accountant, where, he says, his degree in film actually seemed to boost his appeal. After Huntley was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, his wife, Rebecca, heard about MPTF through DreamWorks Animation, where she works as an associate producer. Thanks to Rebecca’s experience and longevity in the industry, MPTF accepted Huntley into its long-term care facility, where he’s been living for over four years.
Now 46 years old and in the advanced stages of ALS, Huntley communicates using a technology called Eyegaze, which allows him to manipulate a keyboard and cursor via the movement of his eyes. With the assistance of the technology, he can talk and use a computer. And with his computer, he can use the programs Final Cut Pro and Final Draft—meaning he can make films.
“I knew about Channel 22 [before I arrived],” Huntley writes in an email. “They knew about my documentary film called FACE ALS and they asked me to volunteer my time. Thankfully, they agreed to let me edit a short film about the renovation of two cottages. They liked my work and I edited two more shorts. I love editing for them. I spend hours editing; it gives my life purpose.”
When Clymer asked what else he might want to do in film, Huntley responded with an idea for a script: Matt + Maya. “It is inspired by my relationship with a wonderful couple,” Huntley says. “It is also a love letter to MPTF for making my life wonderful and giving me the chance to be a husband and father to my daughters. I am eternally grateful to MPTF and Channel 22 for making this film.”
Huntley wrote the script in two weeks, which was followed by a month of rewrites with Clymer and the short’s director, Burt Bluestein, another resident and a veteran of movies such as The Godfather: Part II and Point Break, on which he served as an assistant director and production manager, respectively. The film was shot over the course of six days, with a crew of nearly 50. When we visit Huntley in his room, which is filled with pictures by—and of—his wife and two daughters, we see a scene that he is in the process of editing. Afterward, he shows us a home video he’d cut of a family trip to Banff, Canada. As he watches it, he weeps.
There is a way to look at Channel 22—the wrong way—which is to dismiss it as a localized project, a closed-circuit TV station for a singular retirement community, a sort of extracurricular activity for Hollywood veterans.
And then there’s a right way to look at it: as an example of what’s possible in your golden years. There are currently 46 million Americans who are 65 or older, and that demographic is expected to more than double by 2060. In a country—whose titular dream centers around the ability to work one’s way up through, well, work—that seems to define its citizens by their jobs, retirement has come to represent a terminus: it’s the point at which you slide out of the workforce, and because the workforce is so tied to our conception of ourselves, it’s also the point at which you slide out of the culture, and maybe even your community. An endeavor like Channel 22 recasts that dynamic. It provides a means for the residents of MPTF to continue their lives’ pursuits in a manner appropriate to their circumstances. It introduces them to their peers and helps foster a new community that can help mitigate the challenges of the profound shifts in their lives. And most importantly, it curbs our cultural tendency to see retirement as the end of a person’s active life. For those reasons, it’s also at the forefront of a growing movement nationwide.
[W]hat people are looking for in their retirement is the right to continue to pursue their passion—that’s what people want.
“Retirees today don’t want to sit around and do nothing,” says Andrew Carle, a professor at George Mason University and the founding director of the school’s senior housing administration concentration. “If you look at the surveys of what retirees want, they want three things: they want active, they want intellectually stimulating, and they want intergenerational—they don’t want to be placed on what I call an ‘elderly island,’ out in the middle of nowhere.” In addition to communities like the one at MPTF and the NoHo Senior Arts Colony and Burbank Senior Artist Colony, also based in Los Angeles, as well as The Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, Carle points to a host of others founded around these three ideas, including some four dozen university-based retirement communities—a term that Carle coined about a decade ago—around the country; there’s one for retired NFL players in Canton, Ohio; and there’s even a community for former postal workers in Florida. “This is a driving movement that goes way past now just the original Motion Picture Home,” Carle says. “There are niches out there for everybody, and what people are looking for in their retirement is the right to continue to pursue their passion—that’s what people want. If you can move into a community with peers who have the same passion, then it’s called peer pressure: you’re going to push each other to keep pursuing your passion, and that’s a good thing.”
Carle’s words are inadvertently affirmed by just about everyone I talk to at the Motion Picture Home. “See, when you come here, you have the time, there’s no deadline, there’s no pressure from big producers who get in your way, you know?” Kaufmann says. “You do what you want to do, and you have that freedom, and you have your dreams, so you do it. It’s either that, or getting a six-pack and watching the ball game, you know? I can’t do that.”
“When residents work with Channel 22, they spring, they get younger,” Faulkner adds. “It’s a perfect place to be and to stay alive and well in this industry, because we’re like a big family. I may have worked on a film that somebody else was an editor on that I never met, didn’t know, and if I see his Behind the Silver Screen, we can go and chat.”
Clymer doesn’t think that Channel 22, or programs like it, has to be an isolated phenomenon. “The fact is, in the entertainment industry, to set up something like a television station, or an area where people can be podcasting or sharing stories—ultimately, even if you were a grip or a script supervisor, you’re still part of the storytelling process—everybody contributes to that,” she says. “There are lots of other industries that could gather their community and offer them the chance to continue doing things that gave them drive and purpose. It would be amazing for this to be picked up as a model in other places.”
If there’s any embodiment of that idea, it’s Huntley, who is already in the process of writing more scripts. “Channel 22 gives my life purpose,” he says. “I appreciate their love and support. Jen and the entire team are amazing professionals and love working with us, residents. I love them back.”