Pioneering entertainment reporter has new passion
The defining moment came when her father didn't remember who she was.
Rona Barrett walked into the home she shared with her dad Harry Barrett and said, “Hi dad. How are you?”
He didn't answer.
Then, she said, “Dad. It's Rona.”
He said “I don't know any Rona. What are you doing in my house?”
“Daddy, it's Rona,” she said.
“I don't care. You don't belong here. Get out of this house,” Harry Barrett said.
“I went to put my arms around him,” Rona Barrett says. “He fought me. This was the moment I became a parent to my parent. I eventually realized to be a good parent I had to learn patience. I had to learn not to yell at him, even though he was also losing his hearing. I had to try and discuss things in a clear, simple way, but not in condescending baby talk. It was difficult for me in the beginning not to respond negatively, which caused him to get agitated. I was readying myself to ride out the emotional ups and downs ahead.”
Because of this experience, Barrett chose to become a seniors' advocate.
The pioneering entertainment reporter, commentator and producer with a career spanning more than 30 years — interviewing such notable celebrities such as Cher, Sylvester Stallone, Carol Burnett, David Bowie, John Wayne, Sally Struthers, Hugh Downs and Rock Hudson — is making her mark through another passion. She is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Rona Barrett Foundation, the catalyst behind the Golden Inn & Village in California, which opened in December 2016.
This development of 60 apartments provides affordable units for low-income seniors to reside in a comfortable, supportive environment that meets their needs as they age. Phase II will consist of more low-income senior housing that will provide a host of wellness services — making the entire Golden Inn & Village a campus where seniors will never have to move again as they age in place.
It will be called “Harry's Place.”
Working on many levels
Her foundation is dedicated to finding support for the growing number of low-income and invisible seniors — those isolated, homebound, orphaned and alone for extended periods of time, and disconnected from their family, community and available human/health services.
Barrett talked about that mission on a recent trip to Pittsburgh where her foundation was recognized by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials on Oct. 29, at its annual convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
The idea for Barrett's foundation began in 2000, when her widowed father came to live with her. As his health failed, so did the health system that supported him.
With her “Gray Matters” column that she's been writing for more than three years, she continues to shine a spotlight on the day-to-day issues confronting all seniors and their loved ones who care for them. In the fall of 2016, her large-print book “Gray Matters” was published, with proceeds benefitting her foundation.
“We all have problems, and I began to realize that to just put a roof over a senior citizens head is not all we should do,” says Barrett, who turned 80 on Oct. 8. “This is like a tsunami where we do not have enough affordable housing, caregivers and wellness programs for our seniors. My people are hurting, and when they hurt, I hurt. And you can't categorize every senior citizen the same. All of my friends have problems — some can't afford to hang on to their homes. There are people living in cars and deciding between medicine and food. These are people who helped make this country wonderful.”
Seeing the changes in her father before his death at the age of 96 (she thinks, since they never found his birth certificate) and in her mother Ida Barrett, who died at age 80, got her to thinking about how to handle those changes and move forward. There are many children caring for their parents.
“I hope that the fame and notoriety that surrounds me is enough to grab the attention of what I am saying,” Barrett says. “There is an aging process. We will all go through it. And it doesn't matter if you have $500 million or 50 cents, aging is a process no one escapes. It's going to happen to you. You might not know when or where, but it's going to happen. I just turned 80, and I have lot of things to say about what happens during this process.”
Her desire to help seniors is an ongoing process. She is planning to launch a healthy eating program in 2018 because that can make a tremendous difference in longevity. The California facility is a pilot program for Myndvr, which provides virtual reality experiences to seniors.
Hollywood's Variety Magazine has called her “the lady who turned entertainment coverage into big biz.”
Rona Barrett's career began at age 13 when she organized the first international fan club. From the time she became the youngest entertainment columnist ever to report on Hollywood in 1957 for the Bell-McClure newspaper syndicate and through her introduction on “Good Morning America” in 1975, Barrett has blazed the trail for entertainment reporting and for women in the media industry.
In 1966, after 7½ years of trying to bring her entertainment reports to television, Los Angeles station KABC-TV, gave her the big break. Her reports went to their five owned and operated stations, syndicated around the world and then back to the ABC network with the inauguration of “Good Morning America” in 1975.
Barrett developed the first in-depth personal TV specials about film, television, music, sports and political celebrities. She also published six top-rated magazines on the entertainment industry including “Rona Barrett's Hollywood.”
One of the top network executives told her she would never make it because of her Brooklyn, N.Y., accent.
“I wasn't from Brooklyn, and I didn't have an accent,” says Barrett, who grew up in Manhattan. “But he told me I sounded like a Jew and middle America will never accept me. I said, ‘What if I told you I wasn't Jewish — I am Italian. Thank you for nothing.' ”
Barrett says she never saw the executive again, “but he definitely saw me … on television.”