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.
In May 2022, the Actors Fund changed its name to the Entertainment Community Fund to better represent all performing arts and entertainment professionals that they support.
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.