The assisted-living home where stars live out their golden years

New York Post
The assisted-living home where stars live out their golden years
By Barbara Hoffman January 3, 2017


Nearly every Sunday, until she was too weak to walk, Katharine Hepburn visited friends at the rambling retirement home in Englewood, NJ. She was hardly alone: Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones and many more have made the pilgrimage to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home, to entertain or simply reminisce.

Just a river away from Broadway, it’s where showpeople go when they can’t afford to spend their sunset years in “Sunset Boulevard”-like splendor. People like cabaret singer Margaret Whiting; the vaudeville team Smith & Dale, who inspired Neil Simon’s “Sunshine Boys;” actress Sheila MacRae; TV newsman Earl Ubell; and Aaron Schroeder, who composed some of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits — and left the home a wall full of The King’s gold records.

With seven well-played pianos, frequent guest concerts and the occasional Shakespeare performance, the home’s been the subject of two documentaries (“Curtain Call” and “Still Dreaming“) and a music video. Not surprisingly, lots of people want in — some 20 applicants a month are forced to go elsewhere.

That’s about to change, thanks to a $34 million renovation and expansion project set to finish in 2018, says Joseph Benincasa, CEO and President of the Actors Fund. Once completed, the expansion’s expected to help more than 7,500 people in the next 20 years.

But no matter how big the place gets, there’s no containing the memories.

Eileen and Allan Pepper at the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home.Stefano Giovannini
What began in 1902 on Staten Island as “a pleasant retreat” for entertainment professionals, opened on six tree-filled acres of Englewood in 1961. Funded by private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid and the Actors Fund’s fundraising efforts, it’s a safety net for showbiz professionals of 20 years standing and their spouses or parents; admittance is based on need and is first come, first served.

Today it’s home to 124 musicians, actors, designers, directors and their nearest and dearest, including the Peppers: Allan, once co-owner of the legendary Village club, The Bottom Line, and his guitar-playing wife, Eileen.

“Think of us as Ricky and Lucy,” Allan Pepper told The Post. “Eileen would always call and say, ‘Oh, you’re doing songs. I could do some!’ And I’d be, like, ‘Lucy, you can’t come down to de club!’”

They’ll never forget those who did. Especially Prince, who made his New York stage debut there: “He walked out and did the whole thing in a loincloth!”

Allan Pepper was co-owner of the legendary club The Bottom Line.Stefano Giovannini
There were so many newcomers: Leonard Cohen, Suzanne Vega, Chris Botti and k.d. lang, who got signed from the stage, and Bruce Springsteen, who played the club just before landing the covers of Time and Newsweek. Flying high on “American Pie,” Don McLean donated his fee to the Bottom Line’s staff. Twice.

The classiest act of all, Allan said, was Dolly Parton, who waited in the lobby until her opening act finished because “she didn’t want to upstage him.”

But the club’s days were numbered. NYU was expanding, and the bottom line was no more Bottom Line, though Springsteen put up $100,000 to help save it.

“We made a lot of money, we lost a lot of money,” Allan said. “When the club needed more, everything went to that.”

Two years ago, Eileen suffered a seizure. After decades of living with multiple sclerosis, the mother of four required 24-hour care, which the Peppers couldn’t afford.

Now 72, she lives here with a roommate, her guitar and walls papered with photos of her grandchildren. This year, after visiting her every day from their home a town away, 74-year-old Allan moved into the assisted- living wing, one floor above hers.

“Now I don’t have to worry about him,” said Eileen. And yes, she finally played the Bottom Line: For six years before it closed on Jan. 22, 2004, she sang in the chorus of its “Downtown ‘Messiah’” with soloists like David Johansen, Dar Williams and Jane Siberry.

“They’ll think I’m only there because I’m the boss’ wife!” she protested at first. But Allan insisted.

“She fit right in,” he said, proudly. “That was my New Year’s gift to her. ‘Yes, Lucy, you can come down to de club.’ ”

Larry Woodard remembers the first time he set foot in the home. “It was about 15 years ago,” the cabaret performer said, “when I played Celeste Holm’s third husband’s memorial service!”

Ten years, one back operation and two hip replacements later, Woodard moved in here himself. The pianist and singer cops to being 67, which makes him one of the home’s youngest residents, and he’s still going out on gigs to places like 54 Below.

He says that one of the greatest voices he ever heard, he heard here: It belonged to Charlotte Fairchild, Angela Lansbury’s standby in “Mame.”

“Angela’s such a pro, Charlotte never went on,” Woodard recalled. “Even in her declining years, she could still belt!”

There’s another resident he misses, too: Joan Stein, the Juilliard-trained pianist who performed on Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows.”

“She would ask every new resident what part music played in their lives,” he recalled. When she died, she left the home her piano.

These days, there’s still no shortage of characters, he said, chuckling. “Oh yes. A lot of individuals!”

He might well be talking about Allan Rich. Bronx-born, his voice as gravelly as the expressway, the longtime character actor borrowed a Holocaust survivor friend’s accent to score a role on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“I played an old Jewish man,” said the 90-year-old, his blue eyes lively under a snappy brown fedora. “It was all ad-lib, no script! Larry David was wonderful to me.”

Not so a certain star of a ’70s sitcom Rich knew, but would rather not name in print.

“He was a pain in the ass!” Rich said. “A very pompous man. Don’t use his name — I don’t want to hurt him!”

Bette Midler is probably the most famous of John Mace’s students. She came to him about four or five years ago, he said, to “line up her voice.”

“She was a delight to work with,” recalled the man who’s taught hundreds of singers. “She talked mostly about her daughter.”

The other day, another student was visiting: a klezmer singer and violinist named Alicia Suigals. “If she had a mind to do it, she could do opera,” said Mace. At 96, he’s still on the lookout for a good voice. Since moving into the Actors Fund home from the city, six months ago, he believes he’s just discovered another.

“Lucy has a good voice,” he said. “I heard her singing behind me.”

That would be Lucy Vance Selliger. Before she became the home’s director of social services, she was an Equity actor who performed on Broadway. Her musician husband still does. After their two children were born, she “transitioned” out of acting and into the Actors Fund home.

“I really wanted to be a social worker,” she said. Since she started here, in 2004, she’s seen many of the actors she used to work with, including Billy Porter. Years before he won the Tony for “Kinky Boots,” the two of them were in “Miss Saigon.”

Now Porter comes to the home to see his mother, Cloerinda Ford, and entertain.

“I don’t know if anyone’s happy in any nursing home,” Porter told The Post. But his mother couldn’t live by herself in Pittsburgh any longer, so he and his sister, New York City residents both, moved her here.

“She’s right across the bridge,” he said. “I’ve seen her more in this last year than I have for the last 25!”

Two weeks ago, he performed at the home’s holiday party, singing the song he’d written for her:

“Jesus had a momma like mine
To keep him from the cold ….
Holding him, holding him
Every momma’s child is divine …”

He choked up at that last part. Nearly everyone did.

So who was Lillian Booth? The Sardi’s-like caricature of her in the hall shows a smiling woman with dark hair and pearls. A canny investor and philanthropist, Booth lived in neighboring Alpine, NJ, giving lavishly to charity. When she died, in 2007, she left $2 million to the home, which in turn took her name.

She probably felt about entertainers the way volunteer Harry Roselle does. Before he went to medical school, the retired physician told The Post, his first love was the theater.

The other day he stopped by the nursing-home wing, knocking on doors and saying hello. In a pinch, he’ll supply medical advice, but for the most part, he said, he gets much more than he gives.

“My only reward,” he told The Post, “is the happiness of seeing all these people.”

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