Whenever some worthy cause needs funds, it's often the performers and their associates who contribute their time and talents. This is the time of year the Actors' Fund of America passes its "Bread Baskets" in theaters from coast to coast.
Now in its 96th year, the Actors' Fund is one of our theater's few lasting traditions, but tradition doesn't keep it from new experiments.
Next time you're on New York's West 44th Street, look in at 210 where playwright Joseph Connolly Jr. runs the Actors' Fund Bazaar, a combined memorabilia store and thrift shop. You'll find programs, records, posters, autographed materials, clothing, jewelry, window cards, small furniture and household items, all contributed on a tax-deductible basis, with the store's profits going into the fund.
What does the fund do?
Its most visible achievement is the Actors' Fund Home in Englewood, N.J., where 38 guests (more or less) live. Less visible are others supported in nursing homes and hospitals across the country. Visits to doctors and dentists are paid by the fund; each week more than 150 persons are directly helped in some way.
Some 20 years ago an unknown but diligent actor named Conrad Cantzen died with scarcely a ripple, but he left a surprising legacy to the fund, a small fortune, the interest from which would go, as he put it, "to actors who need shoes." During his career Cantzen had worn out hundreds of pairs "making rounds" and he was aware that managerial impressions were formed from such irrelevant but basic necessities as shoes. Actors who never heard of him have come to bless the Conrad Citizen Memorial Shoe Fund, which last year donated 684 pairs of shoes to unemployed actors.
Another area is the fund's bank, and there is a funeral fund and cemetary committee, which regulates and sees to the care of plots in Westchester County and on Long Island.
The fund was begun in 1882 by such ruling stars as Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Lawrence Barrett and Lester Wallack and such managers as Augustin Daly and Albert M. Palmer. The idea stemmed from the will of actor Edwin Forest, who endowed his Philadelphia home for elderly and indigent actors and actresses in their retiring years. Accomodations in Forrest's home were limited, so his younger peers decided to create a fund for other homes.
Another tradition began when after a hundred performances, cast and crew would perform free on Sunday evenings, with the proceeds going to the fund. Now, though the 100-performance mark has gone up, hit productions skill have Sunday night Actors' Fund benefits, and the audiences are exceptional indeed. Though performers are supposedly riddled with small jealousies, they can be the best audiences in the world. No one appreciates good acting more than the professionals, and they can be highly enthusiastic when aroused. Such audiences, too, if you can latch onto tickets, give offstage glimpses of the famous on their nights off.
Because Sunday performances are now common, these benefits don't attract the general attention they once did, and the fund's income from that area is not what it was.
Too, Social Security and the Equity retirement plan have softened the basic needs somewhat, but expenditures run over a million dollars a year. Stars, producers and lesser players have left considerable sums for an endowment fund, interest from which helps revenue immensely. For the year ending last April special performances and events contributed over $163,000 and the Bread Basket campaigns totalled over $70,000.
For some years, the fund's president has been Louis A. Lotito, whose booking of Washington's National Theater from New York before the theater's change of ownership in 1972 made the National one of the land's major playhouses.
A trustee since 1937, actor-director-manager Warren P. Munsell has been general manager of the fund for 23 years, a fulltime administrative role he has played with calm, steady zeal. Producer Alfred de Liagre Jr. is first vice president, Helen Hayes is second vice president and Samuel H. Schwartz is treasurer. On the board are such theater leaders as Harold Prince, Lillian Gish, Alan Hewitt, Richard Rogers, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Max Gordon, Beatrice Straight, Armina Marshall, Maurice Evans, Frederick O'Neal, Nedda Harrigan Logan and Mrs. Martin Beck.
Meetings are held every Thursday at noon in the fund's office, suite 2600, 1501 Broadway, at the 44th Street corner, and every year the Shubert organization loans one of its theaters for the fund's annual report.
Close liaison is maintained with other theatrical organizations such as Equity, the Players Club and, with actor Iggy Wolfington as its head, the recent Western Region Office in Los Angeles.
The fund's aid is not limited to actors. All connected with the entertainment world are eligible for its donations, including stage hands, wardrobe persons and allied crafts. Though such stars as Tony Randall or Lynn Redgrave may wait on you at the Bazaar, that doesn't mean lesser lights don't contribute as well. All are aware that many a famous name of one era has been helped by the fund on nearing the end of the line.