With all this free time, I decided I would work as a volunteer at the Motion Picture Home. I thought I might enjoy working with the aging and forgotten people in the home, especially those in the hospital, most of them never receiving any visitors and who needed someone to keep them company, fix their hair, read to them, talk and joke with them and make what was left of their lives worth living. For the healthy seniors, we had many activities like the wheel chair parade, costume parties, and arts and crafts in the occupational therapy room. Dennis Weaver’s wife Gerry was especially good at bringing people out of their shell and making them laugh.
One day, Gerry pointed to a beautiful lady who had an ethereal look about her. She asked me, “Do you know who that is?” I immediately recognized Norma Shearer. I remembered seeing her on forbidden TV at Lorna and Nancy’s in M.G.M.’s Romeo and Juliet when I was young and thought then that she was exquisite. Amazingly, it seemed that she had hardly changed. But Norma always had a strange, far-off look in her eyes. One of the other volunteers told me she was almost blind because of the harsh lighting that had been used on set early in her career. When I or anyone talked to Norma she had a habit of suddenly grabbing our arm and not wanting to let go. She seemed desperate to cling to us and keep us close. After every visit by her husband, who was younger than she by 12 years, she seemed especially depressed. I didn’t know what passed between them but gossip had it that he had a younger girlfriend whom Norma was aware of. I thought of how Norma and her former, then deceased, husband, Irving Thalberg, back in their day, were at the very top of the Hollywood “A” list, living lives of wealth and glamour with all of Hollywood at their feet. Now, here she was, alone and sad, dependent on strangers for companionship and comfort.
Another patient I saw on a regular basis was Lincoln Perry. He mostly laid on his bed and stared at the ceiling, looking extremely despondent. Sometimes he would come out into the hallway and sit, and Gerry and I would try to talk to him but even she, who had been known to make stroke victims smile, couldn’t coax a word out of him. She asked me one day if I knew who he really was and I told her I didn’t have a clue. “That’s Stepin Fetchit,” she said. And I was shocked that he was still alive and still looked so young. He was one of the most successful black actors who had worked in the 30s and 40s. He always played a stereotypically lazy character and slowly drawled out his words. I had seen him many times on TV as a child. I had no idea he was still alive and I would have loved to hear his stories. But there was never any response to our questions and eventually we gave up trying to crack open up his self-imposed cocoon. Later I read his biography about the many ups and downs of his career. No one now who hasn’t studied the history of movies can fully understand how difficult it was to find employment as a black actor in those days and in order to work he latched onto a character that enabled him to earn a living acting in movies. He did what he had to do within the limited parameters in which society and movie goers found it acceptable for a black actor to function. Later, some people, including a few African Americans, came to look upon him as an object of scorn. I believe that is patently unfair and wish someone would make a movie of his turbulent life and give him the respect due him. I’ll never know what made him stare at the ceiling so sadly day after day, but for him or anyone else, it is never easy to be at the top of the world for years then find yourself alone and disrespected at the end of your life.
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