Friday, August 8, 2014

Former Actress Hopes To Open Possum Sanctuary In Canoga Park

By Blythe Moorcraft, Quilt staff


In her bright pink hat bedecked with artificial flowers, Evelyn McMartin is a familiar sight every evening at the corner of Jordan and Cohasset in Canoga Park’s tight-knit Jordasset neighborhood. And she’s been coming for over six years now, rain or shine, through winter chill and stifling summer heat, to see her friends, talk with them, even have dinner with them. Though they don’t know her by name and can’t talk to her, they’re always glad she came. 

You see, Evelyn McMartin’s friends are possums. 

A sexy "glamour shot" from
early in McMartin's career.
Photo: Evelyn McMartin 
“I love ‘em. They’re my special friends,” says the 83-year old former actress whose most recent role was that of a crowd scene extra in a 1988 "Charles In Charge" episode. “I take care of the possums, my babies I call them, and they take care of me, by making me happy. And being happy keeps me young.”

It all started nine years ago when McMartin was living in a little bungalow a few blocks away on Remmet. 

“Oh, I’d been there for years. And I had a number of cats - both my own, and what I call community cats. They don’t belong to anyone. Some people call them feral cats, but I call them community cats because it’s up to us to take care of them.”

“Well, I’d put out food for my kitties. And then one day I noticed a possum was out there eating the food,” smiles McMartin, who counts her scene as panicked diner patron #3 in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” as a high point of her career. “And the next week, there were two.  Soon the possums outnumbered the cats - and between you and me and this No Trespassing Sign - they’re quite a bit cuter than the cats.”

Unfortunately, neighbors didn’t agree with the early ‘60s starlet. Someone filed a complaint first with the landlord, and then with Animal Control.  “Oh, I know who it was, too - that awful Téodor Pasternak. He’s always complaining about something - what a miserable, nasty person he is.” 

The 83-year old actress says that her part as Panicked Diner Patron #3 [circled in red] in the 1963
Alfred Hitchcock horror classic "The Birds" was "really the role of a lifetime." Image: Universal
Since Canoga Park falls under the jurisdiction of the City of Los Angeles - where due to a resolution passed by the LA City Council, renters cannot legally be held accountable for anything whatsoever regardless of how irresponsible, intrusive, malicious or dangerous their actions or behavior may be - nothing was done. It wasn’t until McMartin’s toilet stopped working and a plumber had to be called to fix the problem that the landlord saw evidence of a chronic hoarding problem. Eviction proceedings were begun against McMartin, and three years later, the property owner gave up and offered the veteran actress a sizable cash settlement to move.

“The day I got the money, I was at the library checking my email and a wonderful opportunity presented itself: a chance to invest my windfall and help a deposed leader of a West African nation. He’s worth trillions, and once he cuts through the red tape to free up his cash, I’ll be sitting pretty.”

In the short term, however, the investment left her completely broke - and without a place to stay.

But thanks to the help of her one living relative - a nephew in Long Beach who declined to be interviewed for this story - McMartin, who never married and doesn’t have children of her own, managed to secure Section 8 subsidized housing just around the corner at the Carriage Wheel apartment complex.

“They allow you two cats. Don’t tell anyone, but I have six now.”  But she needs them, the retired thespian insists. “The possums love cat poop.”  As though to prove her point, she reaches into the blue plastic bucket she’s been carrying, grabs a handful of litter-studded dried cat feces, and flings them over the fence into the vacant lot.
In her signature floppy pink hat and colorful wardrobe, Evelyn is a well-known
presence to both humans and possums alike in the neighborhood. Here she throws
desiccated cat feces over the fence to feed the local possum population. Staff photo.
“Here, babies! Time for dinner! Bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip!” she calls out in what she says is an approximation of the chittering sounds a mother possum uses to call her babies, or possumlets.

When none show, she tries another tack. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true,” she sings. “They love when I sing ‘Bicycle Built For Two,’” she quietly confides, but after two complete choruses and still no possums, she shrugs. “They’re notoriously shy.  Oh, so very shy. With you here and the photographer, oh, no, they’ll stay hidden until we leave.”
A 'Sign' of Things To Come? Evelyn McMartin worries for
"her babies" should the lot be sold and developed. Staff photo.
While she’s not too concerned that they don’t show tonight, she is worried for their future: A realtor’s For Sale sign has gone up on the lot recently, and she doesn’t know what will become of them if the lot is developed. “This is the only home they know. If they build something here, where would they go?”

That’s when she got the idea of turning the lot into a possum sanctuary. “The Cohasset Preserve” would protect the current population of possums living there as well house, feed and care for up to 10,000 more, she says. 
The vacant lot as it currently appears.  Image: Google.
“There’ll be a visitor center, of course, so people can come and see my babies, and little possum houses like this one, only nicer,” she says as she gestures with her foot to the formerly wall-mounted cabinet she found in an alley three blocks away and dragged to the curb of the lot. “I couldn’t get it over the fence.”

The only thing standing between her and realizing her dream is something she doesn’t have a lot of: money. The block-long lot is listed for $379,000 and McMartin unfortunately comes up short. “I usually have about eight dollars left over each month from my Social Security check after I do my shopping. So I can swing it, only it’s going to take a little time. I was hoping maybe they’d come down a bit since it would be non-profit and it’s for the possums....Oh, here comes one now!  Bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip...  ...No, wait, it’s a rat."
Artist's conception of the proposed "Cohasset Preserve" possum sanctuary. Image courtesy Evelyn McMartin.
The Quilt contacted the listing agent for the lot, Joyce Holliman of Canoga Park Premiere Properties, to inquire as to the viability of turning the area into a wildlife refuge. “Is she over there again throwing cat crap?" Holliman demanded. "We’ve had her cited twice for littering. She needs to stay away from that property. The owner’s about ready to get a restraining order or have that woman arrested.”

Meanwhile, it’s hard to restrain let alone arrest McMartin’s enthusiasm for her proposed sanctuary. 

“There’s going to be a pool with a grotto, in case the possums want to go for a swim, and then I’m thinking about a little train to go around the perimeter, possum-sized of course, for my babies to ride, and a little millinery where we’ll make hats for the possums to wear and--” she stops mid-sentence as she squints in the waning light at a plastic bag tumbling across the ground in the breeze.  “Oh, that’s one heading over here now. C’mere sweetie! Bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip...”

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