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.
Best known for her recurring role on "Cheers" and a short-lived spinoff as ditsy blonde Loretta Tortelli, she has earned a spot on several "worst-dressed" lists over the years, thanks to outfits like the $3,000 Hawaiian print mermaid sheath trimmed with turquoise tulle she wore on the talk-show circuit one season, or the outrageous cobra costume with a rhinestone in her navel she wore to a St. Jude fund-raiser.
Evidently, the Kasems have learned that the couple that causes together, stays together. They have been married for 10 years, since Dec. 21, 1980, when Kasem's close friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, performed their wedding ceremony. (Kasem claims credit for helping to persuade Jackson to run for the presidency.)
Usually, the Kasems spend an estimated two to three hours a day on their activism with relentless optimism. That's more than the 12 hours a week Kasem himself spends taping on his radio and TV countdown shows. Some is interrelated; it's hard not to overlook the fact that by offering to contact 5,000 radio stations about the Housing Now march, Kasem is also assuring a burst of publicity by getting his name out to the DJs and general managers.
Nor has their caring meant denying themselves creature comforts. They drive matching black Mercedes equipped with car phones. They're regulars at celebrity parties and Spago. Kasem's own press kit shows him in a snappy double-breasted tuxedo. And this summer, Kasem bought his wife a little something for her birthday--specifically, a three-bedroom, five-bath mansion in Holmby Hills complete with tennis court and swimming pool and $6.8-million price tag.
'Lawn Circus Festival'
Their "Lawn Circus Festival" to raise money for the homeless--Jean Kasem claims she already has $25,000 in donations in hand and is hoping to raise a total $100,000--will serve as their house-warming party. Not open to the public, or the homeless for that matter, invitations have gone out to 5,000 celebrities, media or both, with entertainment by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, plus a bronze sculpture exhibit and arts auction.
"At first, Jeannie and Casey said, 'We've got to do a fund-raiser. Let's do a yard party at our place,' " recalls co-worker Valerie Harper. "It's now become a grand fete."
The way the Kasems see it, by organizing parties like this they can do more to help the homeless than if they were to work in shelters--though they do participate in the celebrity-studded Christmas Eve dinner served by Mitch Snyder's Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington, and Casey (without Jean) did sleep on the sidewalk at First and Spring streets in downtown L.A. one night along with a small group of other stars as his contribution to Snyder's Great American Sleep-Out demonstration. (Kasem also has been known to sign autographs for the homeless when he's arrested with them.)
"Because we're moving mountains, we don't need to go down there and ladle soup," explains Jean Kasem, as she perches on a heart-shaped peach silk chair beneath a mirror decorated with ceramic Cupids. "Sending out 5,000 radio packets to the whole nation and 5,000 invitations to a fund-raiser from a few days in a hotel room is far more important than going down and ladling soup. That wouldn't be good time management or using our expertise to the fullest."
The Answer Woman
Noting that their intent is to "move heaven and Earth and Congress," Jean Kasem, whose Yorkshire Terrier puppy, "Beeper," is always at her heels, is the answer woman for the constant questions from the "worker ants." That's the name she has given to the attractive men and women dressed in rhinestone suspenders and silver sneaker laces who man the phones and computers oblivious to the lavish surroundings of tufting and tassels, chandeliers and chintz.
Are there enough portable toilets? "It's all right," she reassures. "We've got potties that serve 3,000 people. They've got fresh water flush, they've got stereos inside and they're air-conditioned."
What to do about TV producer Fred Silverman, who doesn't want to serve junk food at the booth he is sponsoring? "We give him tofu hot dogs," she replies. (After all, the Kasems send out copies of John Robbins' "Diet for a New America," espousing the benefits of vegetarianism to their friends, along with taped speeches by ex-CIA agent John Stockwell on the dangers of covert operations overseas.)
Using military terms to describe their "operation," the Kasems say they have given up their privacy to work alongside volunteers from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m., dressing in closets, leaving Post-It love notes on mirrors for each other.
'It's Very Stressful'
"It's very stressful. We have people working in the bedrooms, in the kitchen, in the bathrooms sometimes," Casey Kasem says. "The dog never used to bark and now she barks all the time. The poor thing must think this is an insane asylum here."
At first, the Kasems didn't tell the hotel what was going on, though management must have had an inkling when a tray filled with gleaming silver urns of coffee, pots of imported jams and delicately made pastries became a fixture in the hallway outside their penthouse.
"I didn't tell them a thing because behind that door is my business," Jean Kasem declares. "But eventually I did feel that it was getting so big that they were going to start noticing the unbelievable traffic and the unbelievable room service bills. So what I did was I asked them to come on board." Since then, the hotel has sponsored several events and offered to underwrite rooms and transportation for the Thunderbirds' performance.
"What we're doing is historic," Jean Kasem maintains. "I mean, how many times has the Beverly Wilshire been used like this as a bunker for homeless fund-raising? Sure, people can have meetings at the Bistro. Sure, they can have a wonderful confab session at Ma Maison.
"But we're talking here about rolling up our sleeves and opening boxes and manually stuffing envelopes. It's pretty incredible."
Still, the question remains whether the hotel would be as cooperative if the Kasems' homeless activities included visits from actual homeless.
"I'm not sure," Jean Kasem admits. "Nor am I sure why homeless people would gravitate towards here."
And yet, she herself likes to tell the story of how she found her way to the hotel when she was a struggling actress newly arrived in Los Angeles and barely making ends meet.
"I was hungry and borderline homeless. So I went down to the Cafe of the Pink Turtle that used to be here and ordered hot water to make ketchup soup. Because I had seen it in an old black-and-white movie and I knew that you could do that there."
In her view, "what you put out always comes back to you. And the irony of this whole thing is that now I'm helping the homeless while living in the top of this hotel."