Actors' Fund of America

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The Actors’ Fund of America was founded in 1882 largely through the efforts of Harrison Grey Fiske, the owner of a theater trade publication, the New York Dramatic Mirror. The Fund got off to a rousing start, fueled by Fiske’s enthusiasm; by the “instinctive generosity of show people” (Simon, p. 3); and – most important – by the backing of the nineteenth-century theatrical elite, the actor-managers who owned and operated the theaters and from whose ranks the Fund’s officers and trustees were drawn. Notable donors and founding members of the Fund included: Albert M. Palmer, Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Edward Harrigan, and P. T. Barnum. In the founding year, the New York Herald generously donated $10,000. The primary mission of the Actors’ Fund was to care for members of the theatrical community when they fell ill and to bury the dead. Its unstated goal was to bring respectability to a profession that was scorned by moralists, and whose members were often refused aid by church-run charities.

As early as 1880, Fiske wrote a series of impassioned editorials criticizing the practice of running theatrical benefits for non-theatrical causes. The benefit performance had been a long-standing theater tradition, though in the late nineteenth-century, proceeds were often filling the pockets of only one individual, usually the lead actor or actress in a particular theater company. Fiske was a crusader for changing the nature of the benefit performance, broadening its purpose to provide assistance to the larger theatrical community. He proposed the establishment of a “Sinking Fund,” which would differ in one important respect from other theatrical relief organizations; while the latter were funded by membership dues, effectively shutting out the neediest individuals who could not afford to pay, Fiske’s fund would be underwritten by benefit performances – one per theater per year.

In the early years of the Actors’ Fund, benefit performances were held annually, generally taking the form of vaudeville style multi-performer revues. Attractively illustrated souvenir programs were produced for each annual Benefit Show. In 1927, a significant breakthrough in fundraising was achieved when the Actors’ Fund and the Actors’ Equity Association reached an agreement whereby theater companies would put on special performances of productions, sometimes a ninth show during any given week. All proceeds were to benefit the Fund. In addition to annual and special benefit performances for generating revenue, the Actors’ Fund also held festive and extremely popular Fairs. The first was held at Madison Square Garden in 1892. Not only was the Fair successful financially, it also brought a new level of respectability to the theatrical profession, as socially prominent individuals flocked to the event. The second Actors’ Fund Fair, held fifteen years later in 1907 at the Metropolitan Opera House, was commenced by President Theodore Roosevelt and opened with a speech by Mark Twain.

In the late nineteenth-century, when the Actors’ Fund began, actors and actresses often ran away from home to join the theater and cut ties or were estranged from their families. Consequently, if an actor did not gain fame and fortune, and then as now most did not, and death came early or in the midst of a tour, there was often no one to claim the body or make funeral arrangements. Thus the Actors’ Fund from its onset considered burial and funeral arrangements as a central and necessary component of its work. The Fund purchased a section of the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn in 1885, a monument was erected through a special fundraising drive, and over 800 theater notables have been laid to rest there. The need was so great that another location was soon required, and another tract was bought at the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York in 1904. Using funds from the sale of jewelry donated to the Actors’ Fund by Miss Georgie Caine, an obelisk monument was established at the Kensico Cemetery in 1940.

Under the leadership of Actors’ Fund presidents Albert M. Palmer and Louis Aldrich, the Fund took on the important charge of caring for members of the theatrical community who were past working age. Thanks in part to the proceeds generated by the 1892 Fair and from additional donations from the New York Herald as well as from trustee Al Hayman, the Actors’ Fund purchased a beautiful home on Staten Island to serve as a retirement facility for elderly members of the theatrical community. The Actors’ Fund Home officially opened its doors in 1902. New York City decided in 1928 to expand a park adjacent to the Actors’ Fund Home, and so the Fund acquired the former six-acre country estate of female Wall Street tycoon Hetty Green and relocated the facility to Englewood, New Jersey. By the 1950s, the Home was already in need of expansion and when other homes that provided similar services such as the Percy Williams Home located on Long Island and the Edwin Forrest Home located in Philadelphia closed their doors, the Actors’ Fund accommodated growing needs by adding the Percy Williams and Edwin Forrest Wings to its facility. Today the Actors’ Fund Home, now called the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home, consists of a retirement residency and an Extended Care Facility and provides comfortable assisted living and highly skilled nursing care.

Fundraising and relief work remain the organization’s chief activities. In addition to benefit performances, the Fund fills its coffers through bequests and contributions, special fundraising drives, and bazaars and auctions. For their 100th Anniversary in 1982, the Fund hosted a massive gala called the Night of 100 Stars to benefit the Extended Care Facility of the Actors’ Fund Home. With a red carpet covering four blocks of Sixth Avenue and television coverage provided to more than 250 countries around the world, the event held at Radio City Music Hall was an extravaganza. Similar fund raising gala shows were held in 1985 and 1990.

Through its myriad services and programs, the Actors’ Fund acts as a safety net for all professionals in the performing arts. In addition to offering emergency grants for essentials like food, rent, and medical care, the Fund provides a range of social services to its community, including senior and disability services, mental health and chemical dependency services, youth services, career counseling and housing advocacy. All areas of this relief have been marked by scrupulous concern for discretion and confidentiality for those individuals requiring help.

When the AIDS crisis hit in the mid-1980s, the Actors’ Fund took responsibility for providing care for its constituents who were newly diagnosed, for those who were living and working with the disease, and for those who were already ill. In 1988, the Actors’ Fund created the AIDS Initiative and helped found Broadway Cares. Today, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS remains the Fund’s strongest partner in caring for people with this devastating disease and related health issues.

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is not only a major donor to the AIDS Initiative, it is also one of the largest sources of financial support for some of the Fund’s other programs, including the Actors Work Program, the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, and the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative. In 1998, the Actors Work Program, originally founded by the Actors’ Equity Association, came under the umbrella of the Actors’ Fund; it provides services for the establishment of secondary careers for actors through job and skills training. The Actors’ Fund runs the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic in New York City that offers a range of urgent, primary, and specialty health care services for free to those who need it. To address the particular medical needs of women, the Fund created the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative to provide guidance and counseling to women who have been diagnosed with a serious medial condition. The Initiative draws financial support in a variety of ways. These include the Actors’ Fund’s annual Nothing Like a Dame event produced by staff from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS as well as the Entertainment Industry Foundation Revlon Run/Walk for Women.

The administrative structure of the Actors’ Fund since its founding has consisted of a President, Treasurer, Secretary, General Manager and Board of Trustees; this structure has remained virtually unchanged to the present. The Fund maintains regional offices in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Annual meetings are held every May.

Under the leadership of President Brian Stokes Mitchell and Executive Direct Joseph P. Benincasa the Actors’ Fund has continued and expanded its proud traditions of service to the theater community in the new millennium. In 2004, for example, the New York state legislature passed a pioneering bill that offers health insurance premium payment assistance to workers in the entertainment industry; this measure was the culmination of four years of intensive grassroots organizing and lobbying by the Fund. The Fund’s “Looking Ahead” project, based in Los Angeles, was established in 2003 to provide special services to young performers and their families. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Fund turned its attention to the need for affordable and special needs housing. Since then the organization has acquired and renovated two residential buildings, the Aurora on 57th St. in New York City and the Palm View Residence in southern California, and constructed the Schermerhorn House in Brooklyn (opened in 2008). Between them, they provide more than 400 units of affordable housing, many of them designated for elderly or disabled tenants.

Sources:

Simon, Louis. A History of the Actors' Fund of America . New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1972.

The Actors Fund. Curtain Call: 125 Amazing Years of the Actors Fund . Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company Publishers, 2008.

From the guide to the Actors' Fund of America Photographs and Audio-Visual Materials, 1880-2006, (Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives)

The Actors’ Fund of America was founded in 1882 largely through the efforts of Harrison Grey Fiske, the owner of a theater trade publication, the New York Dramatic Mirror . The Fund got off to a rousing start, fueled by Fiske’s enthusiasm; by the “instinctive generosity of show people” (Simon, p. 3); and – most important – by the backing of the nineteenth-century theatrical elite, the actor-managers who owned and operated the theaters and from whose ranks the Fund’s officers and trustees were drawn. Notable donors and founding members of the Fund included: Albert M. Palmer, Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Edward Harrigan, and P. T. Barnum. In the founding year, the New York Herald generously gave $10,000. The primary mission of the Actors’ Fund was to care for members of the theatrical community when they fell ill and to bury the dead. Its unstated goal was to bring respectability to a profession that was scorned by moralists, and whose members were often refused aid by church-run charities.

As early as 1880, Fiske wrote a series of impassioned editorials criticizing the practice of running theatrical benefits for non-theatrical causes. The benefit performance had been a long-standing theater tradition, though in the late nineteenth-century, proceeds were often filling the pockets of only one individual, usually the lead actor or actress in a particular theater company. Fiske was a crusader for changing the nature of the benefit performance, broadening its purpose to provide assistance to the larger theatrical community. He proposed the establishment of a “Sinking Fund,” which would differ in one important respect from other theatrical relief organizations; while the latter were funded by membership dues, effectively shutting out the neediest individuals who could not afford to pay, Fiske’s fund would be underwritten by benefit performances – one per theater per year.

In the early years of the Actors’ Fund, benefit performances were held annually, generally taking the form of vaudeville style multi-performer revues. Attractively illustrated souvenir programs were produced for each annual Benefit Show. In 1927, a significant breakthrough in fundraising was achieved when the Actors’ Fund and the Actors’ Equity Association reached an agreement whereby theater companies would put on special performances of productions, sometimes a ninth show during any given week. All proceeds were to benefit the Fund. In addition to annual and special benefit performances for generating revenue, the Actors’ Fund also held festive and extremely popular Fairs. The first was held at Madison Square Garden in 1892. Not only was the Fair successful financially, it also brought a new level of respectability to the theatrical profession, as socially prominent individuals flocked to the event. The second Actors’ Fund Fair, held fifteen years later in 1907 at the Metropolitan Opera House, was commenced by President Theodore Roosevelt and opened with a speech by Mark Twain.

In the late nineteenth-century, when the Actors’ Fund began, actors and actresses often ran away from home to join the theater, and cut ties, or were estranged from, their families. Consequently, if an actor did not gain fame and fortune, and then as now most did not, and death came early or in the midst of a tour, there was often no one to claim the body or make funeral arrangements. Thus the Actors’ Fund from its onset looked on burial and funeral arrangements as a central and necessary component of its work. The Fund purchased a section of the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn in 1885, a monument was erected through a special fund raising drive, and over 800 theater notables have been laid to rest there. The need was so great that another location was soon required, and another tract was bought at the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York in 1904. Using funds from the sale of jewelry donated to the Actors’ Fund by Miss Georgie Caine, an obelisk monument was established at the Kensico Cemetery in 1940.

Under the leadership of Actors’ Fund presidents Arnold M. Palmer and Louis Aldrich, an important charge the Fund took on was caring for those members of the theatrical community who were past working age. Thanks in part to the proceeds generated by the 1892 Fair and from additional donations from the New York Herald as well as from trustee Al Hayman, the Actors’ Fund purchased a beautiful home on Staten Island to serve as a retirement facility for elderly members of the theatrical community. The Actors’ Fund Home officially opened its doors in 1902. New York City decided in 1928 to expand a park adjacent to the Actors’ Fund Home, and so the Fund acquired the former six-acre country estate of Hetty Green and relocated the facility to Englewood, New Jersey. By the 1950s, the Home was already in need of expansion and when the Percy Williams Home located on Long Island and the Edwin Forrest Home located in Philadelphia closed their doors, the Actors’ Fund accommodated growing needs by adding the Percy Williams and Edwin Forrest Wings to its facility. Today the Actors’ Fund Home, now called the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home, consists of a retirement residency and an Extended Care Facility and provides comfortable assisted living and highly skilled nursing care.

Fund-raising and relief work remain the organization’s chief activities. In addition to benefit performances, the Fund fills its coffers through bequests and contributions, special fund raising drives, and bazaars and auctions. For their 100th Anniversary in 1982, the Fund hosted a massive gala called the Night of 100 Stars to benefit the Extended Care Facility of the Actors’ Fund Home. With a red carpet covering four blocks of Sixth Avenue and television coverage provided to more than 250 countries around the world, the event held at Radio City Music Hall was an extravaganza. Similar fund raising gala shows were held in 1985 and 1990.

Through its myriad services and programs, the Actors’ Fund acts as a safety net for all professionals in the performing arts. In addition to offering emergency grants for essentials like food, rent, and medical care, the Fund provides a range of social services to its community, including senior and disability services, mental health and chemical dependency services, youth services, career counseling and housing advocacy. All areas of this relief have been marked by scrupulous concern for discretion and confidentiality for those individuals requiring help.

When the AIDS crisis hit in the mid-1980s, the Actors’ Fund took responsibility for providing care for its constituents who were newly diagnosed, for those who were living and working with the disease, and for those who were already ill. In 1988, the Actors’ Fund created the AIDS Initiative and helped found Broadway Cares. Today, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS remains the Fund’s strongest partner in caring for people with this devastating disease and other health issues.

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is not only a major donor to the AIDS Initiative, it is also one of the largest sources of financial support for some of the Fund’s other programs, including the Actors Work Program, the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, and the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative. In 1998, the Actors Work Program, originally founded by the Actors’ Equity Association, came under the umbrella of the Actors’ Fund; it provides services for the establishment of secondary careers for actors through job and skills training. The Actors’ Fund runs the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic in New York City that offers a range of urgent, primary, and specialty health care services for free to those who need it. To address the particular medical needs of women, the Fund created the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative to provide guidance and counseling to women who have been diagnosed with a serious medial condition. The Initiative draws financial support in a variety of ways, from the Actors’ Fund’s annual Nothing Like a Dame event produced by staff from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS as well as from the Entertainment Industry Foundation Revlon Run/Walk for Women.

The administrative structure of the Actors' Fund since its founding has consisted of a President, Treasurer, Secretary, General Manager and Board of Trustees; this structure has remained virtually unchanged to the present. The Fund maintains regional offices in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Annual meetings are held every May. The Fund has had nine presidents, one of whom, Daniel Frohman, served the Fund for some 60 years, 40 of them as President (1904-1941). The work of Frohman and another long-serving president, Walter Vincent (served 1941-1959), is well represented in the archival collection.

Under the leadership of President Brian Stokes Mitchell and Executive Direct Joseph P. Benincasa the Actors' Fund continued and expanded its proud traditions of service to the theater community in the new millennium. In 2004, for example, the New York state legislature passed a pioneering bill that offers health insurance premium payment assistance to workers in the entertainment industry; this measure was the culmination of four years of intensive grassroots organizing and lobbying by the Fund. The Fund's "Looking Ahead" project, based in Los Angeles, was established in 2003 to provide special services to young performers and their families. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Fund turned its attention to the needs for affordable and special needs housing. Since then the organization has acquired and renovated two residential buildings, the Aurora on 57th St. in New York City and the Palm View Residence in southern California, and constructed the Schermerhorn House in Brooklyn (opened in 2008). Between them, they provide more than 400 units of affordable housing, many of them designated for elderly or disabled tenants.

Note to the researcher : In 2007 the Actors Fund dropped the use of the apostrophe in its name. This guide has adhered to the older form, in accord with most documentation in the collection itself and with Library of Congress practice.

Sources:

Simon, Louis. A History of the Actors' Fund of America. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1972. The Actors Fund. Curtain Call: 125 Amazing Years of the Actors Fund. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company Publishers, 2008.

From the guide to the Actors' Fund of America Records, 1880-2005, (Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Museum of the City of New York. Benefit performances collection, 1879-1985, 1879-1930 (bulk) Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
referencedIn R.H. Burnside Papers, 1893-1949 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
creatorOf Barrymore, Ethel, 1879-1959. Richard L. Coe Theater Programs Collection playbill advertisements and miscellany. Library of Congress
creatorOf Kissin, Rita. Rita Kissin papers 1900-1981. University of Southern Mississippi, Regional Campus, Joseph Anderson Cook Library
referencedIn Actors' Fund of America [clippings] New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Alexander H. Cohen papers, 1880-2003, 1938-2003 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Actors' Fund of America Photographs and Audio-Visual Materials, 1880-2006 Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives
creatorOf Actors' Fund of America Records, 1880-2005 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
referencedIn Paul Muni papers, circa 1920-1967 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Lucille Lortel papers, 1902-2000 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Actors' Fund of America scrapbooks The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Cohen, Alexander H. Alexander H. Cohen papers, 1880-2003 (bulk 1938-2003). New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Museum of the City of New York. Performing arts organizations collection, 1891-1985. Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
referencedIn Edwin Forrest Home. Edwin Forrest Home records, 1792-1990 (bulk 1872-1988) Historical Society of Pennsylvania
referencedIn Vera Zorina papers, 1910-2001 (inclusive), 1933-2001 (bulk). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
creatorOf Actors' Fund of America. [Annual reports], 1937- Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis, IUPUI
referencedIn Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (Organization) [clippings]. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Speech for the dedication of the Actors' Fund Home, 1902 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
Role Title Holding Repository
Direct Relationships
Relation Name
associatedWith Abbott, George, 1887-1995 person
associatedWith Actors' Equity Association. corporateBody
associatedWith Actors' Fund Home (Englewood, N.J.) corporateBody
associatedWith Adams, Bob person
associatedWith Adams, William P. person
associatedWith Albee, Edward, 1928- person
associatedWith Aldrich, Louis, 1843-1901 person
associatedWith Alexander, John, 1897-1982 person
associatedWith Astor, Philip person
associatedWith Barrymore, Ethel, 1879-1959 person
associatedWith Beck, Louise person
associatedWith Beck, Martin person
associatedWith Benedict, Paul, 1938-2008 person
associatedWith Benham, Earl person
associatedWith Benincasa, Joseph P. person
associatedWith Birsh, Arthur T. person
associatedWith Booth, Edwin, 1833-1893 person
associatedWith Bradin, Nicole person
associatedWith Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (Organization). corporateBody
associatedWith Brown, A. O. person
associatedWith Bullock, Jim J., 1955- person
associatedWith Burnside, R. H., 1870-1952 person
associatedWith Caron, Leslie person
associatedWith Caruso, Anthony person
associatedWith Catholic Actors Guild of America. corporateBody
associatedWith Charles, Richard person
associatedWith Cohan, George M. (George Michael), 1878-1942 person
associatedWith Cohen, Alexander. person
associatedWith Cohen, Alexander H. person
associatedWith Cohen, Alexander H., 1920-2000 person
associatedWith Cooley, Hollis. person
associatedWith Cronkite, Walter person
associatedWith Cronyn, Hume person
associatedWith Davion, Alexander, 1929- person
associatedWith De Liagre, Alfred, 1904-1987 person
associatedWith Del Tredici, David person
associatedWith Dewhurst, Colleen person
associatedWith Dillon, Tom. person
associatedWith Di Tolla, Alfred W. person
associatedWith Drescher, Fran person
associatedWith Duncan, Pamela person
associatedWith Dupuy, Diane person
associatedWith Edwin Forrest Home. corporateBody
associatedWith Eisenberg, Alan person
associatedWith Eric, David person
associatedWith Evans, Maurice, 1901-1989 person
associatedWith Factor, Mallory person
associatedWith Famous People Players person
associatedWith Fiske, Harrison Grey, 1861-1942 person
associatedWith Frohman, Daniel, 1851-1940 person
associatedWith Gish, Lillian, 1893-1993 person
associatedWith Glover, Savion person
associatedWith Goldberg, Whoopi, 1950- person
associatedWith Hayes, Helen, 1900-1993 person
associatedWith Hayman, Al, 1852-1917 person
associatedWith Henderson, Florence. person
associatedWith Hughes, Bernard. person
associatedWith Hutchinson, Muriel person
associatedWith Jefferson, Joseph, 1829-1905 person
associatedWith Keeler, Ruby. person
associatedWith Kissin, Rita. person
associatedWith Ladd, Diane person
associatedWith Lester, Edwin. person
associatedWith Lillian Booth Actors' Home of the Actors' Fund of America corporateBody
associatedWith Logan, Nedda Harrigan person
associatedWith Lortel, Lucille person
associatedWith McGlinn, Frank person
associatedWith Miner, Henry, 1810-1828 person
associatedWith Mostel, Zero, 1915-1977 person
associatedWith Muni, Paul, 1895-1967 person
associatedWith Munsell, Warren P. person
associatedWith Museum of the City of New York. corporateBody
associatedWith Nichols, Mike. person
associatedWith Pacino, Al, 1940- person
associatedWith Prince, Harold, 1928- person
associatedWith Rathbone, Basil, 1892-1967 person
associatedWith Rathbone, Ouida Bergere, 1887-1974 person
associatedWith Reynolds, Debbie. person
associatedWith Saddler, Donald person
associatedWith Shaw, Rosette. person
associatedWith Simon, Louis. person
associatedWith Simon, Neil. person
associatedWith Smith and Dale corporateBody
associatedWith Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (U.S.). corporateBody
associatedWith Sponder, Wanda. person
associatedWith Swayd, Lester. person
associatedWith Tompkins, Don. person
associatedWith Williams, Percy. person
associatedWith Wolfington, Iggie person
associatedWith Wood, Lynn person
correspondedWith Zorina, Vera. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York (N.Y.)
New York (N.Y.)
New York (State)
Los Angeles (Calif.)
Los Angeles (Calif.)
Subject
Entertainers--Services for--United States
Benefit performances
Endowments--Finance
Theater programs
Endowments
Actors' Fund of America--History
Theater--New York (State)--New York
Entertainers--United States
Charities--United States
Actors--United States--Portraits
International labor activities
Actors--United States--Economic conditions
Theater--United States
Performing arts--Employees--Services for--United States
Endowments--Statistics
Entertainers--United States--Economic Conditions
Bazaars (Charities)--New York (State)--New York
Actors--United States
Correspondence
Photographs
Occupation
Function

Corporate Body

Active 1937

Information

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