Plan to close nursing home for film workers stirs emotions

The longtime secretary to the most powerful man in Hollywood said he “would roll over in his grave.”

Melody Sherwood, who served as Lew Wasserman’s executive assistant for nearly three decades, said that the legendary studio mogul who died in 2002 would have strenuously opposed the decision to shut down the long-term-care facility known as the “motion picture home,” a fixture of the entertainment industry for more than a half a century.

“He would have been absolutely furious over this decision,” said Sherwood, whose 93-year-old mother is a resident of the home where Sherwood herself one day hoped to retire.


The head of Universal Pictures’ former parent company, MCA, Wasserman was not just any Hollywood chieftain. Regarded as the most influential executive in the movie and TV industry, he and his wife, Edie, were tireless fundraisers on behalf of the place that cares for industry workers in their senior years. The 44-acre retirement community in Woodland Hills was named the Wasserman Campus in a 1998 dedication that drew the likes of Steven Spielberg and Kirk Douglas.

“The idea of caring for those who were not big names in Hollywood -- that meant a lot to him,” said Sherwood, 65, daughter of the late songwriter George W. Meyer, a founder of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. “This was his legacy.”

Sherwood’s mother, Kay Howard Meyer, a vaudeville tap dancer, has been a resident for five years. Like others with whom she shares the dormitory-style building, Meyer is bewildered and confused about where she will live.

“I thought I would be here till I died,” Meyer said. “I don’t want to leave. This is my home.”

Meyer’s flamingo pink second-floor room is named the Judy Garland Room, fitting given that Garland starred in the musical “For Me and My Gal,” whose score was written by Meyer’s late husband. The shelf next to her bed is lined with stuffed bears she won playing bingo and pictures of her with stars including George Burns. Meyer also keeps a photo of Lew Wasserman hugging her daughter on his 65th birthday, when Sherwood gave him a surprise birthday party.

Sherwood’s comments mark the most pointed rejoinder yet to the decision by the board of the Motion Picture & Television Fund to shut down the nursing home and adjoining hospital, a move that unleashed an uproar among many of the 100 residents and their families.

The stance also places her squarely at odds with Wasserman’s widow, Edie, and grandson, Casey, both of whom strongly back the decision. Both serve on the board that heads up fundraising for the Motion Picture fund.

Her former boss “never would have allowed this to happen,” Sherwood said, holding up the picture of Wasserman hugging her. “He would have been hands on, sitting down and saying, ‘How do we fix this?’ ”

But those sentiments aren’t shared by Edie Wasserman, as Sherwood learned during a recent visit to her secluded home in Beverly Hills. The house has been a venue for fundraising events, business meetings and presidential dinners.

“I always call [Edie] when I’m in town,” said Sherwood, who lives in New Mexico. “I said I didn’t want to talk about the motion picture home because I didn’t want it to come between us.”

But as she drove past the security guard and up the long driveway to the modern, glass-walled house, Sherwood said, she was uncertain what to expect. A maid answered the door and invited her into the den overlooking the gardens that slope down into a koi pond on the estate. Wasserman, who was resting in a chair, asked if she wanted something to drink. Sherwood politely declined.

The two usually chatted about her grandchildren and Wasserman’s fundraising activities. But this time the conversation began on a more somber note when Wasserman asked how Sherwood’s mother was doing. That inevitably led to a topic Sherwood had hoped to avoid.

“She said no subject was out of bounds and that if I didn’t want to talk about the motion picture home, I could leave,” Sherwood said. So Sherwood shared her frustrations, explaining that her mother didn’t want to be forced out and was having a difficult time finding another nursing home. Sherwood called the closure a “betrayal of the promise” by the fund to provide lifetime care.

“She told me that I was wrong, that nobody came there expecting to be cared for life,” Sherwood said.

When Sherwood interjected she was hearing only one side of the story, Wasserman grew agitated.

“We’re out of money, we have no choice and we have to close,” Sherwood quoted Wasserman as saying in a raised voice. “I could tell her mind was made up.”

A representative for the Wasserman family said neither Casey nor Edie Wasserman would comment.

But in an earlier interview, Casey Wasserman said the decision would keep the fund viable. “What we’re doing will allow us to thrive for generations,” he said.

Board members and hospital administrators say shutting down the facilities was unavoidable in order to enable the charity to support other programs, including healthcare centers that serve more than 65,000 entertainment industry workers annually.

The small hospital and nursing home, they said, have been losing almost $10 million annually over the last five years because government reimbursements have not kept pace with rising medical and labor costs. Additionally, the recession had eroded investment income and philanthropic contributions that had been used to cover losses. Without drastic cutbacks, the fund’s reserves would fall an estimated 80% to $16 million by 2013, according to a study by Camden Group, a consulting firm retained by the Motion Picture fund.

Those explanations, however, have been met with skepticism by families of the residents, who questioned why the board authorized hefty pay raises for administrators and allocated millions toward construction projects and consulting fees when a financial crisis was looming.

Sherwood has emerged as one of the most public critics of the fund’s board and management. During a meeting with residents and families in January, she drew loud applause when she confronted the fund’s chief executive, David Tillman. Sherwood called him “delusional” for thinking that closing the nursing home would not discourage others from moving into the assisted and independent living facilities on the Wasserman campus, which will remain in operation after the nursing facility closes.

She has also faulted administrators over their handling of the relocation process.

“I have been to 15 homes all over town,” she said. “Everyone has said to me, ‘You better have a plan B, because we’re full.’ ”

Susan Poprock, the fund’s chief of nursing, says her staff has spent two months vetting surrounding nursing homes.

About a dozen have agreed to work with the fund in relocating residents and to allow care teams of social workers and medical staff to make follow-up visits, she said.

So far, only 15 of about 100 residents have moved to other homes, while nine have been moved into other facilities on the Woodland Hills campus.

“This is happening in an orderly and compassionate fashion,” Poprock said. “We’re not walking away from the residents.”