March began with trepidation, then transformed into mass confusion, and finally fear. The world outside looked bleak because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it wasn't much different inside at Hebrew Home at Riverdale, especially with visitors barred from the 5901 Palisade Ave., campus since March 16.
Enter Billy Crystal. Well, through a little bit of YouTube technology.
"Hi, staff and residents at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale," Crystal said, sitting at his dining room table at his California home.
"We've been in isolation for over two weeks. My wife Janice has been teaching me mahjong, which is a game I'm sure you're all familiar with — and probably great at. I'm not."
In front of Crystal, in the video shot by his wife, the comedian — who starred in the ABC comedy "Soap" as well as critically acclaimed movies like "When Harry Met Sally" — revealed a mahjong setup in front of him, complete with three players. One of them was Janice, who doesn't appear on camera, but the other two spots were in front of empty chairs.
"It's just the two of us, and it's too hard to play with just two, as you can see," Crystal told the Hebrew Home residents in the video. "So I thought it would be really good to play with two of my favorite relatives who are very good mahjong players in their heyday — my Uncle Harry will be on my right, and my Aunt Sheila will be on my left."
But as the game gets going, viewers realize something very peculiar about Uncle Harry and Aunt Sheila — they happen to look a lot like Billy Crystal, but in disguise.
The video was part of Hebrew Home's social media hashtag campaign, "Senior Smile." The institution invites anyone — famous or not — to submit videos that can be played for the hundreds of residents there, who aren't able to receive visits from their loved ones in the middle of the pandemic.
"Billy Crystal did a tremendous mitzvah, right when our residents and staff need it," Daniel Reingold, Hebrew Home's president and chief executive said, in a release. "Laughter is the best medicine, and that's what Dr. Billy Crystal has prescribed."
But Crystal didn't just call it a day with his three-minute video. Instead, he called up some of his other Hollywood friends to record videos for Hebrew Home residents — like Robert De Niro.
"I want to send my love and support to all of the residents and staff of the Hebrew Home in Riverdale," said De Niro, the director of 1993's "A Bronx Tale" who last year filmed scenes for his Oscar-nominated film "The Irishman" just down the road from Hebrew Home, at the American Legion on Corlear Avenue.
"Please listen to your wonderful caregivers and follow their advice in these difficult times," De Niro said. "Everyone, lots of love. And stay well."
Jimmy Kimmel, the late-night ABC talk show host, recorded a message from his living room.
"I'm on a couch right now, but usually I'm on television," Kimmel said. "I'm sure there is no argument going on — there's a lot going on here in my house, but I hope none in yours. Sending love from California, we hope you guys are OK. And we hope we all get through this very soon."
One other celebrity Crystal recruited might not be well known among younger movie watchers. But many who got to experience cinema in the 1980s would know Steve Guttenberg, not only from the Police Academy film series, but later "Three Men and a Baby" as well as the Wilford Brimley science-fiction drama "Cocoon."
"Remember, wash your hands, don't touch your face, be safe, because you are our most precious asset," Guttenberg said, alongside wife Emily. "Please be safe, we love you. We're both New Yorkers, and we miss you and love you."
As the Hebrew Home carefully monitors the health of its residents and the mental well being of its families and staff members, Crystal's parting words may hold true for many at the home.
"We're just trying to occupy our time," Crystal said. "That's what you guys got to do now. Please have a good time with all the staff there, do the best you can in these difficult times. We're thinking about you."
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