COLUMN ONE : The Best Years of Their Lives : A mad scientist, a vamp and a 3-D pioneer are among the eclectic cast of residents at 'the Lot,' show business' retirement home. They savor the glow of the golden age of Hollywood.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The beauty queen and the mad scientist are cozied up at their regular table in the cafeteria they affectionately call "the commissary."

Her hair worn in a platinum pageboy, Anita Garvin Stanley bats her long lashes--a siren sending out her well-rehearsed call. Whit Bissell's eyes glint back, profoundly blue.

They are actress and actor, eating hamburgers with knives and forks, talking about the Movies, about directors they have known and roles they have played--about that glamorous, cameras-rolling show business world that is now, lamentably and inescapably, at least two generations gone.

Garvin Stanley remembers those crazy Depression-era days playing the long-legged love interest in Laurel and Hardy films. Bissell was a chameleon-like character actor best known as the mad scientist in such 1950s sci-fi thrillers as "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Strangers in their Hollywood heyday, they are now good friends, companions at the Motion Picture and Television Fund's retirement community in Woodland Hills--a tree-shaded tract where movie industry veterans live out their days as a tightly knit family.

It's known as the Lot, a Hollywood movie set of sorts where former gaffers and designers, producers and performers, directors and artists, secretaries, security guards and their spouses all move about, albeit a bit more slowly, with the same sense of purpose that guided their working days.

Facing off in their matching chrome wheelchairs, Garvin Stanley and Bissell embody the feisty spirit of old Hollywood and famous couples such as Burns and Allen or Bogie and Bacall.

Take the way talk turns to the look Garvin Stanley cultivated in many of her 400 film roles--a marathon career that started in the silent days.

Was it more sexy or more glamorous?

"I'd say it was more slinky," Bissell, 83, deadpans.

As if on cue, Garvin Stanley produces an ornate fan from her lap and flaps it coquettishly about her 87-year-old face.

"Oh, Whit," she purrs. "I love it when you talk like that."

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Pushing their walkers about the manicured grounds, playing bingo, doing group aerobics, reminiscing about projects past--the facility's 280 residents are among Hollywood's first generation, a group that still is consulted for guidance by the industry they helped create.

In a show business world obsessed with youth, the aged hold a revered place. Through its umbrella Motion Picture and Television Fund--founded in 1921 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. to aid disadvantaged entertainment workers--the industry provides for those no longer able to help themselves.

Built in 1941, the Lot has been home to luminaries ranging from Mary Astor to Burgess Meredith, as well as to actress Theresa Saldana, who recuperated there after she was stabbed by a stalker in West Hollywood in 1982.

Other residents included Mae Clarke, the feisty 1930s star best remembered as the gun moll smashed in the face with a grapefruit by James Cagney in "The Public Enemy." Two movieland Stooges--Joe DeRita and Larry Fine--also lived there.

Bolstered by philanthropy and an industry-wide payroll deduction plan, the Woodland Hills community serves as a national role model for how an industry can take care of its own, Hollywood insiders say. Kirk Douglas and George Burns have each donated at least $1 million to an intensive care unit and an Alzheimer's ward there.

But insiders warn that the industry's newest generation must continue this tradition because the Hollywood they know today was built by these retirees. And these old-timers still play a role in show business. They serve on committees that have examined such issues as sex, violence and the portrayal of the aged in film--providing a strong, sensible voice that harks back to Hollywood's past.

The community looks more like a lavish country club than a home for the aged. Among the well-tended gardens sit a 256-bed hospital, the Country House with 62 cottages for independent living and the Frances Goldwyn Lodge, with 52 apartments for assisted living.

Everywhere, there are flourishes reminding residents of the old Hollywood. The Louis B. Mayer Theater shows first-run films. And the John Ford Chapel, donated by the director, is a replica of the little church he built at his home.

The facility displays priceless movie stills and glass-encased collections--Oscars included--devoted to actors and directors. The original Norman Rockwell painting of Dorothy and her dog, Toto, hangs in the hospital lobby. Around the grounds hang plaques bearing the names of benefactors, reading like famous movie credits.

One plaque outside a cottage bears the names Billie Burke and Frank Morgan--who played the Good Witch and the Wizard in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz."

These days on the Lot, little remains of the old Hollywood hierarchy, where gaffers and grippers rarely rubbed elbows with producers and their like. Residents stroll about in everything from plaid pajamas to tailored suits. Former directors who pay their own way live next door to penniless studio guards whose expenses are covered by the fund. Costs per day are $54 to $66 for singles, $90 to $100 for couples, including lodging, food and most medical coverage.

Of the several hundred residents, only 15 ever stood before a camera. The rest made their contributions behind the scenes. Most are in their 80s and 90s. Some have lived here for 20 years.

The wait for admission can sometimes stretch to a decade or longer. Residents' reasons for coming are varied. Some are in dire financial need, others are just tired of being alone.

But once inside, they join a fraternity of plucky characters still interested in hearing--sometimes again and again--about the satisfaction of accomplishments during good old days that, at least around here, are still very much alive.

"You don't have to be forgotten just because you're old," said resident Fred Engel, who directed Sidney Poitier in "Lilies of the Field."

"When you get right down to it, this place exists for one reason: helping people retain their dignity."

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Mae Clarke once said that living here was like dying and going to heaven. Screenwriter Henry Ephron quipped that it was living as prisoners of the rich.

Either way, some movie veterans worry that the philanthropy that helps keep the place going is not bottomless.

Moreover, they say, Hollywood's newest generation has little knowledge of the retirement community or of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which also bankrolls other nonprofit services, such as child care and emergency financial assistance for show business workers of all ages.

As a result, philanthropic donations, bequests and voluntary payroll deductions have stalled while the fund's operating expenses have soared.

Between 1985 and 1990, annual payroll deductions dropped from $1.8 million to $1.6 million, while annual operating expenses for the fund rose from $22.7 million to $34.3 million.

Such figures make some veterans bristle.

"There are young people in our own industry who don't think about what may happen to our aging veterans," Kirk Douglas said. "In our business, certain people get to astronomical heights while others have a tough time getting along. The lucky ones should contribute to those who make less. The young should start taking care of the old."

The industry, proud of the retirement community and its 72-year tradition of providing for its own, recently launched a new fund-raising arm: The Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation raised $2.5 million in its first benefit, a June premiere for the film "Sleepless in Seattle."

And in a year in which health care concerns are topping the presidential agenda, Douglas has asked Hillary Rodham Clinton to tour the facility to learn how government costs could be cut if other industries were to provide health care for their aging veterans in the Hollywood fashion.

Residents agree that their lifestyle deserves to be spared--even imitated as an example of how an industry can take care of its own.

"This place works," director Engel said. "I have no idea what I contributed to the place in my career. But for the care I've received here, it was a drop in the bucket."

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He is known as the Father of 3-D, but Lothrop Worth knows better.

"I'm really the father of the 1956 revival," says the 90-year-old with a flat-top haircut. "Because 3-D's been around for eons, even before my time."

Without Worth, Hollywood would never have made such classics as "House of Wax," "Bwana Devil" and "Moonlighters."

In the 1940s, the out-of-work cameraman proposed a system of camera and mirror applications for 3-D, calling his method "natural vision."

The technique became the rage of Hollywood. But something bugged Worth.

"All that directors wanted to do was the same old gag of throwing things at the camera," he says. "These techniques should come as startling climaxes, but in those early 3-D films all you had was things flying at your head--axes, leaping lions, African spears, anything they could think of."

And too many filmmakers cut corners with 3-D, producing cheap applications that hurt the eyes, eventually spelling the end for wide use of the method. "Done right, it doesn't hurt your eyes," Worth says. "I love 3-D. And I still think there's a place for a theater running nothing but 3-D films."

Although 3-D was the height of his career, Worth went on to direct cinematography for such television series as "The Donna Reed Show" and "Real McCoys," and he coordinated the smoky scenes in which Barbara Eden wisped to and from her bottle in "I Dream of Jeannie."

When the real-life Jean--his wife of 58 years--died three years ago, Worth donated his $700,000 home to the fund and moved to Woodland Hills.

"At times I think Hollywood has forgotten about people like me," he says. "Then I'll get a visit from some producer who tells me about hearing something on the set like, 'Gee, I wish we had Lothrop here now.'

"That's respect. And that makes me feel good."

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On the Lot, news of a death travels fast. Many remember the day Henry Ephron died. Screenwriter of the films "Daddy Long Legs," "Carousel" and "Desk Set," and father of writer Nora Ephron, Henry was a real character.

"He'd come every day to talk with us girls," says resident Helen Balker, a former studio secretary. "He always wanted to marry somebody. He brought in reviews of his children's work. Whenever he got a card from his daughters, he was so ecstatic. He read them aloud to everybody."

Henry had his good days and his bad. Then, two years ago, news hit that he had been moved from his apartment into the hospital.

"He just began losing his faculties," Balker recalls. "It was hard to watch. Because we all know it could happen to anybody."

Ephron's condition became so bad that friends were no longer allowed to visit his hospital room. Then one day, at 81, he was gone.

Bissell knew Ephron from the 1930s, when Ephron was a stage manager in New York and Bissell was an actor. "Henry's death saddened me," he says. "I mean, how do you prepare for it?"

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These days, Whit Bissell and Anita Garvin Stanley--who both moved here in the '80s--do not long for the show business lifestyle. The pair say it is the work and the people that they miss.

She pines for the friends she met in vaudeville and as a dancer for Ziegfeld Follies. And those boys, Laurel and Hardy!

Especially Stan Laurel.

"He was such a sweetheart," she says. "That dumb, blank look he always wore was just an act. He was a genius."

Bissell misses the characters he portrayed--from presidents to priests, murderers to mad scientists. In more than 100 roles, he made some classics, some cult films and some real clangers.

His most crucial lessons came from an eternity of hard work: Good acting isn't how you read the lines--it's how you read between them.

"It was a good life--the challenge of breathing something special into every role you played. For an actor, just being at work made you feel alive.

"And I miss it. I miss it very dearly."

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