Despite America's long theatrical tradition, it's hard to find anything in the present-day New York theatre that predates the 20th century. The plays of Clyde Fitch and other leading playwrights of the 1900s are not performed frequently. The oldest extant working Broadway theatre, the Lyceum, dates only to 102. Even the Tony Awards are only 60 years old.
So it comes as a bit of shock to hear that the Actors' Fund of America will celebrate its 125th anniversary on April 30. The organization came into being in 1882 by way of a campaign led by drama critic Harrison Fiske—who published an editorial in the New York Dramatic Mirror titled "Who Will Start the Actors' Fund?"—and actress Fanny Davenport, who quickly jumped on the bandwagon. By June 8 of that year, New York State officially incorporated the Fund.
Since then, the Fund—working out of offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—has helped countless performers, playwrights, directors, backstage personnel and other professionals through its myriad programs. (The Fund employs the broad, 19th-century definition of "actor," meaning basically anyone who works in show business.) These programs include: financial assistance and guidance; health care programs such as the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative and the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic; employment training for professionals embarking on alternate or parallel careers; and affordable housing in Fund facilities such as the Aurora residence hall on E. 57th Street in Manhattan and the Lillian Booth retirement and nursing home in Englewood, NJ.
The Fund even maintains five cemeteries for the use by the community; the first plots, in Brooklyn's Cemetery of the Evergreens, were purchased in 1886. (In times past, churches would not allow actors to be buried in consecrated ground.) "We help anybody who can demonstrate that they are dedicating their lives to the entertaining or performing industry," explains Actors' Fund executive director Joseph Benincasa. "Last year, we helped 8,000 people in 46 states."
The official commemoration of the Fund's anniversary will kick off on April 30 with its annual Gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. Instead of honoring an individual, as in past years, the 2007 event will honor the Fund itself. Broadway showman Kevin McCollum will produce the occasion and Tony-winner Walter Bobbie will direct. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will declare that 24-hour period "Actors' Fund Day"—125 years (and a few weeks) after the first "Actors Fund Day," which was held on April 3, 1882.
The celebration won't stop with the gala. On Oct. 15, Actors' Fund president Brian Stokes Mitchell will make his Carnegie Hall solo debut, presenting the evening as a celebration of the 125th Anniversary.
Between the gala and the concert, the Fund will collect honors from nearly every award-giving body in the city, including the Lucille Lortel Awards, the Outer Critics Circle and the Theatre World Awards.
"I guess if you hang around long enough," laughed Benincasa, when asked if there was anybody that wasn't giving the Fund an award this year. Benincasa came to the organization in 1988 and attained his present rank two years later. In that time, he's seen the Fund expand in all directions. The Edwin Forrest Society was established in 1993 to encourage planned giving to the Fund. The Aurora opened in 1996, the same year The Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative was established. The Hirschfeld clinic opened its doors in 2003.
And the growth continues. A new affordable-housing residence is being built in downtown Brooklyn. It will shelter 217 working artists, who will be admitted based on income and need. It will be completed by the end of 2008. The Englewood facility is expanding by 15 beds and there is talk about building a second retirement home. "We're looking at places like Las Vegas or Nashville," he said.
Special Performances and Special Gifts The money to pay for these enterprises comes from a variety of sources. Perhaps the Fund's most visible fundraising activities are the frequent benefit "Special Performances" given by Broadway shows to benefit the institution. "It's a major source of income," said Benincasa. "This year our budget is about $22 million and about $1 million will be raised by special performances for the Actors' Fund." The tradition goes back 80 years to 1927, when the Theatre Guild's production of Porgy became the first Special Performance.
Benincasa calls the Special Performances the natural descendent of the Actors' Fund Fairs, one of the outfit's first moneymaking programs. The first of these annual events was held in 1892. Actors and artists would entertain and sell handcrafted items at booths. In attendance were President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Mr. & Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, J. Pierpont Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Future Fairs were opened by Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.
Another major source of income are bequests and planned gifts. Again, the practice goes back decades. Actor Edwin Booth left $5,000 to the Fund when he died in 1893. Playwright Clyde Fitch left his entire estate, $150,000. Mildred Natwick bequeathed $100,000, Eva LeGallienne over $300,000 and Dorothy and Lillian Gish left the Fund more than $1 million. Composer George M. Cohan left a portion of his royalties, a bequest that pays out $10,000 a year to the institution. And $50,000-a-year comes from playwrights Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who left the Fund 50 percent of the royalties of their play The Diary of Anne Frank.
Money can sometimes come from the most unexpected corners. Natalie Schafer, Mrs. Thurston Howell III of the television show "Gilligan's Island," of all people, left a bequest of a whopping $1,500,000.
Wally Monroe, a former actor and dancer who came to the Fund as volunteer in 1977, has been director of planned giving since 1993. "It's really quite fascinating," he said. "I know a lot of the people. The bad part of the job is I lose lots of friends. I get to know people pretty well. It's the nature of this business that I do. I probably know more about some people than their families do."
One of Monroe's most cherished memories of working at the Fund involves his accompanying Helen Hayes to a Fund-related event in Chattanooga, TN. The occasion coincided with the seventh game of the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox—something that irked Hayes, a diehard Mets fan. Following the benefit, Hayes returned with Monroe to the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel (that was its actual name). Monroe was about to depart when Hayes asked, "You're not going to stay and watch the game with me?" Hayes changed into pajamas and a bathrobe and the two drank beer and watched the game. "When we got back to New York," recalled Monroe, "whenever she came into the office she would say, 'Now, Wally, if we're in the World Series again, don't forget, you and I have a date.'"
Monroe is one member of a New York staff that number more than 75. While some, like Monroe, have a performing arts background, many of certified social workers, like chief program officer Barbara Davis. Davis came to the Fund 23 years ago, only the second social worker the Fund ever hired. She oversees every one of the institution's many programs and services. It keeps her busy.
"I think people don't always realize how comprehensive our services are," said Davis. "We really are here to take a look at the unique needs of people working in the performing arts industry and help them address those needs throughout their professional lives and afterwards as well as prevent some of the problems that occur because of the nature of the work. What people often don't know is the amount of prevention work that we do and education that we do."
If those people still don't realize after all the fuss being made over the Fund this year—well, they're just not paying attention.