During the late 1800’s, the United States was still recovering from the devastating effects of the Civil War. Although the theater business was booming, the theatrical profession suffered a tremendous setback when President Lincoln was assassinated by an actor, John Wilkes Booth.
Prejudices against the profession existed prior to that time, but Lincoln’s death rekindled the old hatreds and added more fuel to the fire. Because of their low standing, members of the profession were regularly denied charity from most institutions, including many religious organizations. It was not unusual for them to be refused a decent burial.
In 1879, a new theatrical paper—the New York Dramatic Mirror—arrived on the scene. A young NYU freshman, Harrison Grey Fiske, submitted an article and soon after was writing regularly for the paper. When one third of the Mirror’s stock became available, his father bought it and Fiske became the paper’s editor. Knowing the critical problems facing the profession he immediately began a campaign for an “Actors Fund.” Thanks to Fiske’s persistence and foresight, The Actors Fund was founded on June 8, 1882.
A Strong Start
This newly created charity immediately began providing assistance to individuals and families. By 1887 it purchased a cemetery in Brooklyn ensuring that no one would be without a proper burial. The first Actors Fund home on Staten Island was dedicated in 1902. This was made possible in part by the successful 1892 Fair held at Madison Square Garden, which raised over $163,000. This was the first time that the profession was overwhelmingly accepted by society. In attendance were President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, J. Pierpont Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Special Benefit Performances around the country and a series of hugely successful fairs filled the coffers of The Fund so it could continue to provide assistance to entertainment professionals. The 1907 Fair opened by President Theodore Roosevelt raised $63,941.60. The 1917 Fair was opened by President Woodrow Wilson, who pressed a button in Washington, D.C. The button unfurled flags of the United States and its Allies. The performance was the Star Spangled Banner sung by Louise Homer.
In 1916 the Motion Picture Campaign for The Fund created a “Roman Spectacle” production of "Julius Caesar" in the natural amphitheatre in Los Angeles. There were two Roman Legions and hundreds of dancing girls in the cast headed by William Farnum, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks. $15,000 was sent to The Fund. The Actors’ National Memorial Day was organized in 1919 to thank the entertainment profession for giving so freely of their time and talent to sell war bonds. $400,000 was donated to The Fund.
1927 brought the first Fund benefit under the Actors’ Equity Contract. The play was Porgy. In 1928, The Actors Fund Home was relocated from Staten Island to Englewood, New Jersey. By 1959 The Home needed to be expanded. It was rebuilt as a modern structure, which was dedicated in 1961. The Percy Williams Home closed its Long Island facility and constructed a new wing at The Actors Fund Home in 1975, further expanding The Fund’s ability to provide services to seniors.
By The Fund's Centennial there was a tremendous need for a nursing facility as well as for professionalizing the delivery of human services to the entertainment community. Thanks to two spectacular productions of "Night of 100 Stars" in 1982 and 1984, which featured hundreds of artists, The Fund raised $1,801,000—most of the money needed to construct a new nursing wing in Englewood. The new wing opened to great fanfare in 1988 as Philadelphia’s Edwin Forrest Home merged with The Actors Fund Home and contributed $1,750,000 for construction and endowment.
When the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980’s, The Fund was there to help people in the industry who were affected. It helped found Broadway Cares in 1988, and established its own HIV/AIDS Initiative. In 1990 the third edition of "Night of 100 Stars" raised $390,000 to help meet the needs of those suffering with HIV/AIDS. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS remains The Fund’s strongest partner in caring for people with this devastating disease and other health issues.
A Period of New Growth
The 1990’s was a dynamic decade for The Fund. The Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative was created. The Free Health Clinic was founded to provide health care to the uninsured and under insured. The Dorothy Ross Friedman Residence (formerly The Aurora) in New York City and The Palm View in West Hollywood were developed to provide affordable housing to needy clients. The Career Center (formerly The Actors Fund Work Program) was brought under The Fund umbrella in 1998 and the Artists Health Insurance Resource Center (AHIRC) was created to provide a comprehensive web-based informational guide to health insurance.
In 2003, The Actors Fund launched the “Looking Ahead” program to advise younger performers on how to plan for their future. The Free Health Clinic in New York was expanded and renamed The Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic in honor of that great theatrical artist.
The Fund continues to evolve with and respond to the particular needs of the entertainment community. The Dancers' Resource, a program founded by Trustee Bebe Neuwirth in 2007, provides services that address the distinctive needs of dancers facing health problems and injuries. In 2008, The Howl Emergency Life Project (HELP) was created to provide emergency financial assistance and social service support to artists who have participated in the annual Howl Festival or who make their careers in New York City’s East Village and Lower East Side arts community. In 2009, The Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation was established as a subsidiary of The Fund, with a mission to develop affordable, supportive and senior housing for the performing arts and entertainment community. In 2015, the services of Career Transition For Dancers were intergrated into the ongoing programs of The Actors Fund, further enhancing the services available to dancers across the country.
Today, The Actors Fund is the national nonprofit human services organization that provides for the welfare of all entertainment professionals. The Fund helps people in film, theater, television, music, opera, radio and dance. It assists performers as well as those who work behind the scenes. Its broad spectrum of programs include comprehensive social services, health services, supportive and affordable housing, employment and training services, and skilled nursing and assisted living care. The Fund also makes emergency grants for essential needs. Administered from offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, The Actors Fund’s mission is to help "all professionals in performing arts and entertainment. The Fund is a safety net, providing programs and services for those who are in need, crisis or transition."
The Fund’s future is bright and the new projects and programs under exploration are exciting. To quote founder Harrison Grey Fiske, “Even in prosperous times, the need for an Actors Fund arises.”