The Will Rogers Memorial Hospital, was built in 1928-29 as the National Variety Artists Lodge. It was an offshoot of the efforts of the National Vaudeville Association's (NVA) efforts to provide subsidized care to aging and unwell variety performers.
The NVA formed under the leadership of theatre impressario Edward F. Albee after World War I. They started by providing care in a number of different cure cottages at Saranac Lake— the Gonzalez Cottage, the Kennedy Cottage, and the Northwoods Sanatorium. In 1925, they acquired forty acres on the south side of the village, on a hill (part of an esker) called "Spion Kop," where they built a large cottage for their patients. In 1927, the National Variety Artists Fund was created in order to build a larger hospital. They commissioned architect William H. Scopes to design the hospital, which was designed to provide a comfortable, non-institutional environment, believing that such an approach would aid recuperation. The design emphasizes the wooded environment set among the nearby Adirondack mountains and lakes.
The Tudor revival-style building resembles an English country estate or lodge, with private rooms and sleeping porches with common dining and recreation facilities; it was named the National Vaudeville Artists Lodge. It was the last of the large, institutional sanatoria to be built in Saranac Lake.
The rise of the motion picture industry, combined with the effects of the Great Depression, caused a major decline in the audience for vaudeville. In 1935, the NVA transferred the hospital to the newly established Will Rogers Memorial Commission, established after the death of the popular humorist, and broadened its services to all entertainers; funding was provided in part by nation-wide "Will Rogers audience collections". In 1936, the institution was renamed as the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital.
Financial difficulties arose again during World War II, and forced the Hospital to restrict admissions. Funding was solicited from motion picture heads, allowing the institution to continue until 1974, when it was closed.
It was used briefly six years later as a press headquarters for the 1980 XIII Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid. In 1996, the county sold the property to Alpine Adirondack Limited Partnership for $92,500 for renovation as an independent living community, Saranac Village at Will Rogers. 12
The following article was published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in February, 2008. The article, written by Linda Jackson, was one of a series of articles written by Historic Saranac Lake on that year's Winter Carnival theme, "Hooray for Hollywood."
Will Roger’s Hospital: A Haven for the Stars by Linda Jackson for Historic Saranac Lake
The glamour and limelight of Hollywood was not enough to prevent those in the entertainment business from being stricken by illness in the days of the tuberculosis onslaught. Many of its victims found a haven at the Will Rogers Hospital, on an esker overlooking Turtle Pond here in Saranac Lake.
Employees and retirees of the entertainment industry and family members over age fourteen received free, quality care regardless of their position. Patients included employees from movies, radio, television, and the stage: performing artists, technical and backstage personnel alike.
Actors who were treated here include Maurice Gosfield (Doberman on the Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko program), Veronica Lake, Lila Lee, Jack Norton (TV co-star with Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle), Lionel Stander, and Jack Pearl. Other renowned patients include Charles Jackson, who wrote The Lost Weekend; Larry Kaye, Danny Kaye’s brother; Collier Rogers, wife of Will Rogers, Jr.; and Vincent Sardi, Sr., of Sardi’s Restaurant in New York City.
Patients often put on impromptu shows in the hospital dining room, and other entertainers would arrive to help raise funds to support the hospital. Visitors and ambulatory patients were known to visit the Elks Club and if asked, would demonstrate their talents there. Bill McLaughlin, writing in the Enterprise, reported humorous visits with Kane Helen_Kane who visited several times to entertain the patients with her songs, such as “Get Out and Get Under the Moon.” She was best known as the voice of Betty Boop, the sexiest star in animated cartoons from 1932 until WW II.
In the 1920s, Will Rogers hospital began as a small cottage called Spion Kop on about forty acres. A place of healing for vaudeville performers ill with tuberculosis, it was supported by an association called The National Vaudeville Artists. In 1927 the NVA Fund decided to build a larger hospital. According to Wilder Harvey, Ed Harvey moved the cottage down the hill to Lake Flower Avenue -– where it houses Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters today -– using one donkey that turned a windlass.
The new Tudor style building was designed to resemble a country estate or resort and reflected the philosophy that patients would heal more quickly in a “cheery, comfortable, and non-institutional atmosphere.” The architects William H. Scopes and Maurice M. Feustmann, both former patients, designed Will Rogers Hospital, the last of the big institutional sanatoria built here.
So that patients felt like welcomed guests, rather than society’s outcasts, the hospital included private rooms, a beauty parlor, a billiard room, solariums and balconies. The ground floor housed storage rooms, clinical labs, an operating room, a dentist examining room, maintenance shops, and radiology rooms. On the first and main floor was a large lounge and dining room, research labs, examining rooms, a bakeshop and food preparation rooms, a projector booth, stage with a screen, medical records library, conference rooms and an outdoor patio. Offices and patient care were laid out on the second and third floors and an attic and roof solarium could be found on the fourth floor. Off the main floor was a rotunda with a circular staircase whose handrail was made of decorative iron with wood. The arched stained glass windows, made in France, incorporated test tubes and beakers. Placed in the rotunda was a large bronze statue of Will Rogers. The stone foundation and slate roof refined the appearance. About forty cure porches and many windows aided the fresh air treatment.
The hospital was named the “National Variety Artists Lodge” until 1936 when it was rededicated as the “Will Rogers Hospital,” in memory of the actor and humanitarian who played so many benefits for charity. He died in an airplane crash in Alaska in 1935. At this same time, due to the Depression and decline in the vaudeville entertainment industry, the Will Rogers Memorial Commission took over the running of the facility. The commission obtained financial support from the motion picture industry and initiated the Will Rogers Audience Collections where such actors as Shirley Temple and Bing Crosby made filmed appeals to theater audiences all over the country. With the advent of WWII, this major source of revenue dried up. Knowing from experience the success of the treatment at Will Rogers, Abe Montague, vice-president of Columbia Pictures, and Gustav Eyssell, director of Radio City Music Hall, pursued contributions from leaders in the motion picture industry to save the hospital and secure its future. For some twenty years a column entitled "Saranac" appeared regularly in Variety, a newspaper covering news of the entertainment industry. The column, which reported on facility inmates and on entertainers who stopped by to offer good cheer, always ended with the line, "Write to those who are ill."
By 1952, the facility was well known for its research. The R. J. O’Donnell Memorial Research Laboratories were developed for clinical and exploratory research in all pulmonary cardio-vascular diseases. To make space for the labs, three new apartment buildings were constructed to house staff, nurses, and doctors. In following years a summer institute for training and research enhanced the programs. An X-ray unit was added, and the labs were shared with the Saranac Lake General Hospital and, later, with North Country Community College technician courses. A Library and Study Center was designed by William G. Distin and built in memory of the hospital’s late president, Abe Montague.
With the advent of drug treatment for tuberculosis after WWII, the spotlight on Will Rogers Hospital began to fade. By 1975 the facility closed, but the Will Rogers Institute is still in business, based now in Toluca Lake, California.
Initial attempts to develop the Saranac Lake facility into a resort or apartments were unsuccessful. During the 1980 Olympics, it was operated as the Hillside Hotel, housing service workers.
Thanks to the determination of many, however, the facility ultimately underwent intense renovations and in 1999 it emerged as Saranac Village at Will Rogers, a lovely retirement community, housing many of our local “stars.” The former library is now the North Country Christian Center, and the three buildings that housed hospital staff are offices and apartments. The integrity and beauty of the historic complex have been preserved and the main building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, November 28, 1992
Actors’ hospital opened 1925
by Kathleen Scott Vaughn
SARANAC LAKE —- On October 29, 1975, officials at Will Rogers Hospital announced that the facility would close at the end of that year.
The reason given for the closure was state codes requiring the old building be renovated and improved. It was estimated that the project would cost between $60,000 and $80,000, which the hospital could not afford.
There had been rumors for several months prior to the announcement that the facility would close since for several years the annual fund drive was falling short of the $1.5 million operating expenses.
The hospital grew from a cottage opened in 1925 and supported by the National Variety Actors [sic: Artists] for tuberculosis patients. Over its years of operation, the facility expanded and served people with various respiratory diseases instead of only TB, which diminished after a cure was found.
The Will Rogers building, which still stands today across from [the former] Ames Department Store, was built in 1928 and fully complete in 1929. It was first called the NVA Lodge, after the National Vaudeville Artists, which was a small group of vaudeville actors, and it was built to take care of ailing and aged performers. In 1936, its name was changed to Will Rogers after the late actor.
Patients at Will Rogers, which was partly supported by the movie industry, included many famous people, such as . . . comedian Bert Wheeler. The movie industry conducted audience participation drives to raise money for the hospital.
The hospital had employed 140 full-time and 20-25 part-time employees.
Adirondack Enterprise, December 6, 1973
Country Club Atmosphere at Will Rogers
BY FRANK SHATZ
SARANAC LAKE - Each year 5,000 movie houses all around the country spread the word by flashing images on the screen, that Saranac Lake, a community tucked away in the Adirondacks, is a place of blissful tranquility, surrounded by great natural beauty.
All this comes through, loud and clear, from a short film (a "trailer") shown in all U.S. movie houses during the annual Will Rogers Audience Collection campaign. The appeal for voluntary contributions to the hospital and research center was started in 1936. Since then movie stars like Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby and May Robson have volunteered to inform the public of the work of Will Rogers Hospital and Research Center. The emphasis on its location in Saranac Lake amid natural beauty has become an important part of the message.
Will Rogers Hospital was born in 1925 as a cottage type treatment center for vaudeville performers afflicted by tuberculosis. It has become one of the country's most advanced and important treatment, research and teaching center for respiratory diseases. The hospital is maintained to give free medical care to any person employed in or retired from the entertainment-communication industry, and members of their families.
Will Rogers Hospital is considered quite unique in its field because, beyond specialized care, it provides a kind of country club atmosphere. Experience has shown that the latter helps greatly to hasten recovery not just in physically, but mentally.
Beyond treatment and care specialization, the institution has evolved into a first class research center in the fight against respiratory diseases. From its laboratories, have emerged the INH-Resistant BCG Anti-TB Vaccine which permits a noninfected individual to achieve immunity while remaining in an infectious environment. The vaccine reduces the case rate by about 80 per cent of the amount which would occur without vaccination.
Sharing the findings of the Will Rogers Research Center with the world's medical profession, to benefit all humanity, is a basic principle of the institution.
In 1962 the Will Rogers Summer Institute of Teaching and Training was inaugurated. Its prime objective is to bring more doctors into active medical research.
The program also enables promising young medical: students to work under the tutelage of respected scientists recruited from many institutions. During an 8-10 weeks' summer program senior scientists and their students; work in the Will Rogers laboratories, attend seminars,: and take part in discussions related to prevention and treatment of respiratory diseases.
All this can be accomplished only by expending considerable amounts of money. The Will Rogers Hospital and Research Center's yearly budget amounts to about $1.5 million. To secure this amount, year after year, two major fund raising campaigns are staged.
Part of the annual drive is the Salute to Will Rogers, directed at every employee in the industry. It is an appeal to the "owners" of Will Rogers for contribution. The second part of the annual drive is the Audience Collection. Through the informative short film the audience is acquainted with the Will Rogers research, teaching and training program. The viewers are urged to help finance the program.
The fund raising drive for Will Rogers has been, since 1971, in the hands of Fred Schwartz of Lake Placid. Mr. Schwartz, a former member of the board of directors of the Will Rogers Foundation, travels more than 20,000 miles a year and spends unaccountable hours on the phone to raise the necessary funds.
"It's not an easy job," he says, "especially in times of economic difficulties such as we have experienced recently." Fortunately for Will Rogers, Mr. Schwartz is an entertainment industry insider. He was practically born into it. His father used to own the Century Theater chain of 40 movie houses and his sons helped to run it. Later, working in production and distribution for the Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, Mr. Schwartz developed even more extended ties with the entertainment-communication industry and the people in it.
"Knowing a lot of people in responsible positions can be helpful in find raising," said Mr. Schwartz, "but it surely isn't a substitute for the accomplishments for which Will Rogers is so well known. Because of those we are able to raise 40-50 percent of our yearly budget from audience collections. The largest upcoming event of this sort will be the New York benefit premiere of the movie Papillon, starring Steve McQueen."
Mr. Schwartz's latest project, as fundraiser and public relation man for Will Rogers, is using TV and radio in the Audience Collections campaign. Thirteen different TV and radio spots explaining the work of Will Rogers, narrated by the best known movie and TV stars, are broadcast daily. In them the words, "Will Rogers located in Saranac Lake amidst great natural beauty," is a message hardly detrimental to the image of our community.
Leslie Hoffman, a native of Saranac Lake, and former HSL Board Member who is quite familiar with the original Will Rogers statue now housed in the California headquarters of the Will Rogers Foundation, tells us that it is made of plaster with a "bronze" finish, not actually of bronze metal. (9/2/2009)
Also the fireplace screen that was given to William Morris by his friends, which was at Will Rogers, is also in California.
Some of the better known people who were patients at Will Rogers Hospital over the years:
- Carl Ballantine, billed as The Amazing Ballantine, a magician who later took the part of Gruber on '"McHale's Navy"
- Happy Benway wrote columns from Will Rogers that were published in "Variety" in the 1930s
- Al Birnbaum, a brother of comedian George Burns
- Benny Fields, Broadway "hoofer" - burlesque
- Maurice Gosfield, "Doberman" on the Phil Silvers' "Sgt. Bilko" program
- Charles R. Jackson, writer - "The Lost Weekend"
- Larry Kaye, brother of entertainer Danny Kaye
- Veronica Lake, known for her "peek-a-boo" hairstyle
- Lila Lee, well-known actress
- Lester Mack, comedian in burlesque
- Conrad Nagel, well-known actor
- Micheal Nagel, actress, wife of Conrad Nagel
- Jack Norton, famous "drunk" in many movies and television programs
- Eileen O'Dare, dancer-actress
- Jack Pearl, actor
- Collier Rogers, wife of Will Rogers, Jr.
- Vincent Sardi, Sr., of Sardi's restaurant in New York
- Lionel Stander, well-known actor
- Lylah Tiffany, pianist and singer
- Arthur Tracy, "The Street Singer"
- Bert Wheeler, actor in numerous movies and stage plays
From a press release by Albert I. Evans: August 14 :
"Notables of theatrical world here today for ground breaking for Northwoods sanitarium [sic] at which will be treated theatre folk suffering from tuberculosis. Upon arrival here this morning in special cars they were breakfast guests of William Morris of New York at his camp at Colby pond. Later they went to White Pines camp at Osgood lake and were received by the president. Luncheon followed at Paul Smith's hotel. At three P.M. ground breaking and tree planting ceremonies took place at tract recently purchased on Lake Flower here where sanitarium is to be erected. Those taking part and organizations they represented were as follows— Daniel Frohman, Actors Fund of America— Charles Coburn, Players club— Colonel Reginald Barlow, Lambs club— S. Jay Kaufman, Green Room club— William Morris 2nd., Friars club— Brandon Tynan, Catholic Actors guild— Rev. Elmer P. Miller, Episcopal Actors guild— George Howard, Actors Equity guild— Miss Nellie Revell, New York Newspaper club— Walter K. Hill, Press Agents association— David Seymour, Theatre Manager associations— Henry Berlingholl, American federation of Musicians."
See also: Helen Antalek
2011-01-28 23:18:49 Hello, My father was in the room next to Mr. Sardi. Across the hall was Mr. Al Birnbaum, he was a brother of George Burns. My father was Lowell Heath, he owned the non-union film distributorship in Indiana... It was called Bradford Film Transit; my father owned it from 1928 until 1966. He died at Will Rogers in Feb. 1969. —126.96.36.199
- Thanks! — MWanner
2012-11-12 22:03:40 My father, Charles Schwartz, was the personal lawyer for and close friend of Al Jolson. Although Jolson is not mentioned in either of these articles as having been a patient there, my recollection is that my dad told me Jolson was. Also, in Jolson's will there is, among many charitable bequests, a $50,000 bequest to the Northwoods Sanitorium, which is one of the pre-Will Rogers names of the facility. We had for many years a summer home on Lake Placid, and I recall my dad visiting the Will Rogers Hospital to meet with its administrators more than once. Also, Fred Schwartz, mentioned at length above, as the head fund raiser there from 1971 on, was another friend and client of my dad, who had represented Fred's dad and the Century exhibition chain since its inception. Fred and my family became neighbors in the summer on Lake Placid, and we socialized almost daily for many summers, waterskiing together, usually behind his super fast Century inboard rather than our larger but good deal slower Chris Craft. Lastly, my dad was the corporate Secretary and General Counsel of Columbia Pictures, and Mr. Montague was its corporate Treasurer, and also a friend of ours. My main point is that, while I am looking now for my copy of Jolson's will, it is my distinct recollection that I was told by my dad that Jolson left money to Will Rogers Hospital not only because it was a movie industry haven, but because he had actually been there early in his career. Interestingly, although I have read several biographies of Jolson, and while I have met and talked about Jolson with members of the International Jolson Society, no one seems to be aware that he was, even if only for a few months, a patient there. Perhaps because it might have been construed as a reflection on Jolson's health, he never sought to mention it publicly. And yet, in 1949, when he and my dad drew his will, he chose to put it in. Ernie Schwartz, 11/11/2012 —188.8.131.52
2013-03-22 16:52:31 I have a key chain with the logo from the hospital on it and it has numbers stamped in the back "21023". If lost you could drop it in a mail box and it would be sent to the owner. I was wondering if there are records of patients with such numbers. The Father of the man who gave me the key chain worked for MGM for over 20 years. Thank you for any help. Regards, John —184.108.40.206
1. National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form
2. Adirondack Daily Enterprise, "PILOT plan for Will Rogers property OK'd", May 16, 1995