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Ian McKellen helps bring theater to sick kids

Ian McKellen shows off his singing skills while walking the red carpet for Only Make Believe’s 10 anniversary gala in New York City on Nov. 2.
Ian McKellen shows off his singing skills while walking the red carpet for Only Make Believe’s 10 anniversary gala in New York City on Nov. 2. Giacinta Pace
/ Source: NBC News

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we interview Tony award winner and two-time Academy Award winner about his work with the . 

Founded in 1999 by Dena Hammerstein (daughter-in-law of Broadway legend Oscar Hammerstein), OMB is a nonprofit that brings the joy of theater to children in hospitals and care facilities, training young patients in theatrical basics and putting them into a show. McKellen hosted OMB’s 10th Anniversary Gala in New York City on Nov. 2, with an array of stars including Jude Law and Alan Cumming. McKellen spoke with us about OMB and why the cause is so important to him.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what Only Make Believe is?

McKellen: It was founded 10 years ago by a friend of mine who recently lost her husband and didn’t know how to make sense of her life. Her two big passions were her children and other people’s children — she visited hospitals — and the theater — she used to be an actress. She put the two together and had the idea that groups of entertainers could go into long-stay hospitals where they desperately need a distraction from several things that were happening to their bodies.

Only Make Believe goes in with a little basket for skits, full of props and costumes that the kids put on, even if they’re in wheelchairs. They all gather around and have half or three quarters of an hour of entertainment. When that goes on for a number of weeks, the astonishing, but unsurprising thing is that the medics say that kids get better quicker.

But it’s not just that, it passes their time — parents sometimes come along and join in, and so do the nurses. The happiest rooms in New York were those wards where Only Make Believe goes in. It’s been going on for 10 years, they’ve been in 43 different hospitals in the state, and I think it should spread around the world.

Q: Can you tell me how you specifically became involved with the organization?

McKellen: Well, because I know Dena, she used to talk to me about it, Dena Hammerstein, that was the friend.

Q: Why is an organization like this important to support?

Q: So tell me some of the different ways you’re involved with the organization.

McKellen: I presented their first gala in a small theater off-Broadway 10 years ago. This year we’re at the Shubert Theater, which is a big gala, and I’m doing the same thing again. I’ve visited hospitals a couple of times, but of course I don’t live in New York so it’s not something I can do regularly. I’m just one of the supporters, I’m not on the board or anything, well, I beg your pardon, I am on the honorary board, which means I don’t have to do anything. But what I can do on occasion is like this: come in and help organize a big event.

Q: When you did get a chance to visit the hospitals, was there a moving moment that you can tell me about?

McKellen: All moving, it’s all moving! It affects all the kids. Just watching them smiling, and coming out of their shells a bit is lovely. You always have to take a big handkerchief with you, because it can be very emotional. But then, it appears to me, because this is theater, traveling theater, of course, theater that goes to where the audience is doesn’t expect the audience to come out to them.

But at the bottom of it, you’re changing people’s lives by giving them a good time, in the company of other people who are having a good time. There’s something very, very human about it. You don’t get that with the mechanical media, you don’t get that with TV. But theater, when it’s live, it goes right to people’s hearts, that’s the spirit I behold in the hospitals every time.

Q: Personally speaking, what are some of the current projects you’re currently working on?

McKellen: Well, I’m also in New York having the public premiere of AMC’s new miniseries, called "The Prisoner," in which I play a leading part. So we’re doing work on that, but I’ve finished it now, and it’s just a bit of publicizing it. ["The Prisoner" debuted on AMC on Nov. 15]. I’ve just been doing "Waiting for Godot," in London, and I’m probably going to revive that for a couple of months in the new year. Then, I should be going off to New Zealand to do two films based on "The Hobbit," which is the precursor to "The Lord of the Rings" films. So that’s my future, mapped out.

Q: Any plans to perform in a "panto" in the near future [pantos or pantomimes are a theatrical production using musical-comedy]?

McKellen: I have no plans, but desire, yes. I really enjoy those “end-of-term romps,” as it were. I’d be sorry to think I wouldn’t do it again sometime.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add, in closing, about the organization?

McKellen: I don’t think there is, people can find the Web site. But it’s so simple, it’s such a simple idea. It’s just such a cheap thing to do. It doesn’t cost much, but Dena pays her actors. These aren’t bum theatergoers, these are professional performers. They can sing, they can dance, they’ve got great senses of humor, and they’re very, very good with kids. But once you’ve identified and cast those parts, with the scripts done, it just goes with a swing. I hope there’s going to be more Make Believe. In 10 years' time, it’s going to spread right across the United States. I think it’d be wonderful.