Hollywood be thy name...
Episcopal Church marks 100 years of mission, ministry in movie mecca

Hooray for Hollywood and the Episcopal Church, which is now marking 100 years of parish ministry on the fabled film frontier. Both on the set and at the altar, good theater continues to unfold, and many Episcopalians agree that the best lines remain unscripted and the most memorable scenes unrehearsed.

One such gem is the true story of a youngster learning the Lord’s Prayer in Sunday school some years ago at All Saints’ Church in Beverly Hills. Lifelong parishioner Kilbee Brittain relishes the tale; she reports that the little one put it this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hollywood be thy name.”

So inspired did Doris Day feel at All Saints that she affirmed her advocacy for animals by once bringing an ocelot to the parish’s annual blessing of pets. Fellow parishioner Fred Astaire is said to have done a few dance steps around the church patio, and TV’s Robert Young could have said the sermons helped explain why “Father Knows Best.”  Dixie Carter of “Designing Women” has been among the faithful at All Saints, where Gabri Ferrer -- son of the late Rosemary Clooney and the late Jose Ferrer (and whose wife is singer Debbi Boone) -- is a lay associate on the parish staff.

Recently, when Bishop Jon Bruno needed a narrator for the diocesan “Hands in Healing” violence-prevention documentary, he turned to actor Tony Shaloub, TV’s amiable Monk” and a parishioner of All Saints’ Church, Pasadena. Not far away in North Hollywood, the much-publicized Olsen twins, Ashley and Mary-Kate, were two of this June’s graduating seniors at Campbell Hall Episcopal school.

It was also in the Diocese of Los Angeles that “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, wed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the office of Los Feliz priest-actor Neal Dodd. She later mailed Bishop Eric Bloy funds to assist in the seminary education of her former film production partner Malcolm Boyd, and she is also remembered for a quiet visit to Santa Barbara’s hilltop Mount Calvary Retreat House.

Nat “King” Cole once sang in the choir at L.A.’s historic Church of the Advent. He sang in a 1957 benefit for the diocese, and his daughter Natalie was among the young parishioners who made regular trips to the diocese’s Camp Stevens, where the dining hall was given in her father’s name. After his too-early death in 1965 at age 46, his funeral was held at St. James’, Wilshire, which serves the Hancock Park neighborhood where the family bought a home in 1949 and succeeded in breaking through the racial segregation previously enforced by area residents.

Elsewhere in the Southland, actors including Julie Harris have enjoyed a happy association with St. Michael and All Angels Church in Studio City, while the family of the late John Richmond Carradine attended St. Thomas the Apostle Church on Hollywood Boulevard. There, the late Beatrice Boyd, longtime parish secretary at St. Thomas, was a close friend of Hollywood legend Lillian Gish.

Among L.A. clergy impresarios is the late George Davidson, who was from 1913 to 1951 rector of L.A.’s St. John’s Church, located near USC and ranked through most of those years as the diocese’s largest and most prosperous parish. One of Davidson’s pastoral calls was a visit to the set of an “Our Gang” movie for memorable conversations with -- among others -- Spanky, Alfalfa, and  (“a’member me?”) Buckwheat

Olivia de Haviland once paid a call on Bishop Robert Rusack at the old Diocesan House on Fourth Street, where years later staff members walked next door to meet Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, who were filming one of their “Lethal Weapon” movies next door at the former Chamber of Commerce building.

At Pasadena’s 1889-vintage Church of the Angels, English-born actor Michael York provided eloquent narration for a story of Anglicanism series produced by Cathedral Films. York also gave the eulogy at the 1997 Los Angeles memorial service held for the late Princess Diana at St. James’, Wilshire, where pop star Michael Jackson was in attendance. (Footage of Jackson’s departure from the church has been aired frequently on national television in relation to news of his current court proceedings.)

Some 25 years earlier, with the full resonance of Moses, Charlton Heston taped several public-service radio announcements for the Diocese of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the same red-granite tablets used in the 1956 epic movie “The Ten Commandments” were displayed for about 40 years in the narthex of St. Stephen’s Church, Hollywood. The props were loaned by none other than Cecil B. DeMille, longtime friend and member

of St. Stephen’s, whose funeral service was held in the parish’s white stucco church -- located just west of the storied “Gower Gulch” filming zone, and just east of Capitol Records’ landmark circular tower -- in 1959.

While credits could roll with the names of still more stars of Episcopal Church history in Hollywood, the action begins with the stories of St. Stephen’s parish, and with DeMille.

God and the Gower Gulch: St. Stephen’s keeps the faith

An estimated 40 million Americans were going to the movies each week in the 1920s and ‘30s. Even amid the financial devastation of the Great Depression when most folks were watching every nickel, moviegoers still filled theaters in cities across the nation, not a few of these viewers seeking the sense of escape provided by the silver screen. To match supply with this unprecedented demand for new pictures, the Hollywood studios reached new heights of power, glamour, and influence.

As head of Paramount Pictures, Cecil B. DeMille, like other studio brahmins, was shaping not only a wildly profitable business empire, but also to an absolutely new set of cultural lenses through which people around the world would view and measure their own life experiences. DeMille’s  worldview was a factor in this mix.

DeMille’s father, Henry, was an Episcopal lay reader who is said to have read daily from the Bible, and sometimes from romantic novels, to his sons, Cecil and Henry, during their upbringing in Brooklyn, New York, and in New Jersey. DeMille’s father died when Cecil was 12, and it is believed that by this age the mogul-to-be had in mind the themes that would be expressed in his epic films, some of which recounted biblical narratives.

Also swirling in DeMille’s boyhood mind were the visions for future movie sets drawn from a treasured childhood book that featured Gustave Dore’s illustrations of biblical scenes. From these beginnings would follow such DeMille movies as “The King of Kings” (the 1927 extravaganza for which, it is reported, some 300 miles of film were shot), “The Sign of the Cross” (1932), “Samson and Delilah” (1949), and his final work, “The Ten Commandments’ (1956).

It is not immediately clear when DeMille and his wife, Constance, and their family first visited Hollywood’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church upon their arrival in Southern California in 1913. The parish was nine years old at that time; DeMille was about 32. The church at the time was a brick-and-beam chapel, evocative of Tudor architecture, built on the northwest corner of Ivar Avenue and Prospect Avenue, an unpaved, pepper-tree lined road which was later renamed Hollywood Boulevard. A brook ran through the churchyard, and neighbors lived in landmark Victorian mansions.

Although he later gave the pulpit and other furnishings for the parish’s sanctuary later built on Yucca Street, DeMille called himself “not a churchgoer.” Indeed, several Episcopalians long involved with St. Stephen’s, including one of its longtime parish priests, have confirmed that DeMille’s connections with the congregation and the diocese were minimal. Yet he and his wife were, with Mr. and Mrs. Howard Ahmanson among others, patrons of the parish’s 1954 50th anniversary, and it was from St. Stephen’s that DeMille was buried. In addition, one of the parish’s longtime priests, the Rev. Forrest Riek, officiated at a memorial service for the filmmaker’s sister, the famous choreographer Agnes DeMille.

Biographers recount that on Jan. 20, 1959, the night he died, DeMille wrote on a piece of paper the opening words of the Burial Office from the Book of Common Prayer. Some writers suggest that in the days leading up to his death DeMille reflected on the scope of his 77 years, a lifetime shaped by a working-class childhood, glittering success, and, among other factors, some extramarital affairs, according to reports.

On the same paper, DeMille wrote: “After those words are spoken, what am I? I am only what I have accomplished. How much good have I spread? How much evil have I spread? For whatever I am a moment after death—a spirit, a soul, a bodiless mind—I shall have to look back and forward, for I have to take with me both.”

A few days later, pallbearers including fellow filmmakers Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zucker assisted in guiding DeMille’s casket into St. Stephen’s Church, packed with a Hollywood “who’s who” of mourners. The Rev. Charles Perry, rector of St. Stephen’s at the time, officiated while in the narthex were displayed the same granite tables of the law which Charlton Heston as Moses had wielded in DeMille’s final film, “The Ten Commandments.”

These same tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially as interpreted by the Methodist Church, also figured prominently in the development of Hollywood’s residential neighborhoods and business districts—a fact little known to many today. Historians have reported that Daeida Wilcox—who with her husband, Harvey, in 1886 bought the area of Rancho La Brea they later developed into Hollywood—preferred the new community to be “dry,” or free of liquor. It has also been reported that at one point, Mrs. Wilcox, herself a devout Methodist, offered land to anyone wishing to build a place of worship.

Such was the context in which Episcopalians, meeting in area homes for services in the late 1890s, laid the foundation for the congregation that would become St. Stephen’s Church.

Hollywood Be Thy Name

Parish starts second century within local, global nexus
"...those Hollywood nights... in those
Hollywood hills... it was looking so right..." -- Lyrics, Bob Seger's 1978 pop hit

By Bob Williams

Fast forward to Hollywood a century ahead -- in the year 2104. Today's digital wonders of entertainment technology will likely be antiques, as clumsy as 8-track audiotapes, dial telephones, film strips. "Industry" big business will surely be fully redefined, and pre-1950 studio glamour an even more distant memory. But what may seem unchanged is human fascination with fantasy and myth, appreciation for true talent and grace, identification with great themes and archetypes -- and the human quest for wholeness and meaning.

Looking back, the last century in Hollywood brought to world consciousness an unprecedented sense of celebrity -- a globe-spanning notoriety pioneered by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, reinterpreted by Madonna and by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and handed on to icons who will follow Beyonce and the next generation.

Mass media became massive media, and in terms of geography, a small, picturesque hillside community -- surprisingly established by prohibitionists and other politically and fiscally conservative neighbors -- rose to fame as a film mecca, hit bottom with urban blight, and stabilized a key piece of the Los Angeles metro-scape that is the nation's second most-populous city.

Future, past and present, Hollywood is also a parish of the Diocese of Los Angeles, which this year celebrates the 100th year of St. Stephen's Church-- a Hollywood institution that, like its neighboring houses of worship, predates not only the sidewalk stars on the nearby Walk of Fame but also the entire socio-psychological construct that emerged as Tinseltown.

Coming attractions, classic features

When members and friends of St. Stephen's Church gather during the weekend of Oct. 22-24 to celebrate the parish's centennial (see calendar of events LEFT/RIGHT?),they will affirm realities of ministry now, not nostalgia.

Current challenges include how best to tailor the parish's ongoing outreach -- which is bilingual in Spanish and English -- to locals who span the spectrum of young and old, longtime residents and transients, starving artists and wealthy entrepreneurs.

Together these neighbors confront rising community problems that include homelessness among adults and youth, traffic and development issues, and economic disparities as stark as the contrast of million-dollar homes in the Hollywood Hills and the shrinking amount of affordable housing in the flatlands.       

Overarching these concerns is the parish's call to connecting Christian faith and practice with real life while dispelling myths entertainment-culture fantasy. At the heart of this process are gospel imperatives underscored by the Rev. Jamie Edwards-Acton, 40, rector of St. Stephen's since 1999, who seeks a "synergy" of ministries (see related article).   

The parish's core initiatives derive from a history in which the congregation has been at times small and at times larger, at times vestry-managed and at times rector-dominated, at times prosperous and at times financially challenged.

Through the congregation's past 100 years of history, themes recur, including the parish's longstanding tradition of hospitality and service, development of unique buildings and gardens on various sites, and its willingness to declare a fresh start when necessary.

Such a new beginning came in 1904 when the church's first rector, the Rev. Angus McKay Porter, led the congregation to parish status -- and to laying in 1903 the cornerstone of a new brick church at the corner of Ivar and Prospect Avenue (later Hollywood Boulevard). Around this time, Porter collaborated with Bishop Joseph Horsfall Johnson to change the church's name to St. Stephen's, Hollywood, from St. James' Mission, Colegrove.

The mission dated from 1897 when Episcopalians began meeting regularly for services at the Pass School and eventually built a church at Santa Monica Boulevard and Afton Street in the Colegrove area. Like Hollywood's Cole Street, the neighborhood recalls the family of Senator Cornelius Cole, whose son, Seward, was married to Eleanor Bridges inside the small, rural mission church, to which people came by horse and carriage. The couple's daughter was the first to be baptized there in 1899. Recalling these early years of mission, the shell symbol of St. James is carved into the wooden altar table later crafted for St. Stephen's.

While waiting for their new church to be completed uptown, Episcopalians held services in a hall shared with local Roman Catholics, who went on to became Hollywood's Blessed Sacrament Church. This year, clergy and laity from the two parishes have come together to mark the centennial of their mutual beginnings and to celebrate their current cooperation in ecumenical and outreach activities.

After his departure in 1903 to become rector of Trinity Church in Redlands, Porter was succeeded at St. Stephen's by the Rev. John Arthur Evans, a Welshman whose wife, was a granddaughter of America's Admiral Perry, known for his encounter with Japan.

Evans was rector for "15 fruitful years," as one account reads, before departing in 1919 to serve the then-forming congregation of All Saints', Beverly Hills. "Dean Evans," as he was called then served as All Saints' rector.

During the couple's years in Hollywood, Mrs. Evans, who is said to have "had a more than ordinary green thumb," began the tradition of "showplace gardens" at St. Stephen's Church and rectory. The parish's nearby Ivar House was noted for its lush and fragrant plantings. Photographs of neighboring garden spots, including painter Paul DeLongpre's fabled home, are featured in a scrapbook to which Mrs. Evans contributed, and which was recently secured for the parish archives after it was spotted for sale on Ebay. 

While the Evanses were at St. Stephen's, Hollywood's fledgling film industry is emerging; in 1913 director and Episcopalian Cecil B. DeMille arrived in town and is said to have made his first visit to St. Stephen's small brick church.

The son of a devoted Episcopal lay reader, DeMille was apparently not a regular church-goer during his years in Hollywood, according to the accounts of fellow parishioners. But he did make several financial gifts, including the parish's current pulpit and other furnishings in the sanctuary where his funeral was held in 1959. He and his wife also joined Mr. and Mrs. Howard Ahmanson among principal patrons of the parish's golden anniversary celebration in1954 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Indeed, while few film celebrities have actually been regular parishioners of St. Stephen's through the years, actors received an early welcome there, much as they did at New York's Transfiguration Church, the "Little Church Around the Corner."

The latter parish was so named when, in 1870 one Joseph Jefferson was rebuffed in arranging for the funeral of a friend, George Holland, an actor. "Told that there was a little church around the corner where 'they do that sort of thing,' Jefferson fervently exclaimed, 'God Bless the Little Church Around the Corner' and that famous benediction has echoed down through the years," a parish history recounts. "This brought about a close relationship with the people of the theater which has continued to this day. It also brought about the founding, in 1923, of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, which carries on an active program at its national headquarters in the Guild Hall.

Because of our work in the Church and Theater, the Church of the Transfiguration was designated a United States Landmark in 1973."

For the Hollywood parish, a fresh start was needed in the 1920s when – for reasons that need documentation (readers of The News, please write in on this matter) -- a sizeable group of parishioners left the congregation to form the Parish of St. Thomas the Apostle, recognized as a parish in 19XX and whose Gothic-inspired church, built in 1930??????, stands at the northwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Gardner Street, not far from the city of West Hollywood. Their rifts long since forgotten, the two parishes enjoy a cordial relationship.

The turmoil at St. Stephen's fomented at some point after the Rev. Philip Ayers Easley began his 27-year tenure as rector. During this time the church also moved twice, from Ivar and Hollywood Boulevard to Vine and Yucca – an intersection marked today by Capitol Records' well-known circular building -- to the parish's current location on Yucca near Gower. There, after the Rev. Charles Howard Perry began as rector in 1947, the cornerstone was laid in 1954 for St. Stephen's current white stucco church. The new church's tower was soon visible from the Hollywood Freeway, built at roughly the same time. 

Hollywood be thy name

Parish ministry enters second century in movie mecca

Hooray for Hollywood! That screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood ... Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple to Aimee Semple is equally understood ...          —Johnny Mercer, 1937

Faith and film continue to intersect in Hollywood; just ask Brad Pitt. It was he who told Vanity Fair earlier this year of his skepticism about organized religion.

But ask Mel Gibson, and he will recall 2004 as a year of partnering with church groups to achieve the box-office success of his “Passion of the Christ,” a film praised by many after its Holy Week debut, yet panned by others for its violence.

Then ask L.A. Episcopalians—who are this year marking the centennial of parish ministry in Hollywood—and the intersections come closer to home: one family will describe living next door to Pitt; others recall the experience of meeting Gibson and Danny Glover while the two were shooting the “Lethal Weapon” films next door to the old Diocesan House. So go the stories, which span six generations and interweave with church history, too.

Bishop Bertrand Stevens was hailed as “Charlie Chaplin’s bishop,” and his successor, Bishop Eric Bloy, raised funds for post-war church building by making a cartoon film “The Bishop and the Genie” with the help of Hanna Barbera studios.

“When we came to Los Angeles in late 1937,” recalls Elaine Friedrich a former president of the Episcopal Church Women, “my husband, newly priested James K. Friedrich, offered to assist at St. Stephen’s, Hollywood, while he explored the possibility of creating biblical audio-visuals, non-existant in those days.

“While there, and at All Saints’, Beverly Hills, the next year, the seeds were were sown for Cathedral Films,” a pioneering and soon well-known studio.

“Later, for two and a half years during World War II, we held a neighborhood Sunday school in our backyard projection room in the Valley, experimenting with the use of Cathedral’s teaching films. That pioneer venture became St. Michael and All Angels Church, Studio City.”

The Friedrichs’ son, the Rev. James L. Friedrich, later succeeded his father in running Cathedral Films, and wrote for this newspaper in 1988 “The Quest for the Cinematic Jesus,” a commentary on Martin Scorcese’s newly released and controversial “Last Temptation of Christ.”

Friedrich listed 12 “Cinematic Lives of Jesus,” ranging from “From the Manger to the Cross” (1912) through DeMille’s “King of Kings” (1927 and 1961 remakes) up to “Last Temptation.”

Looking back to Hollywood’s glamour era, 1930s-’50s actress Dorothy Lamour gave a talk for the 1978 celebration of the Hollywood community’s 75th year. Lamour spoke at her parish, St. Thomas the Apostle, formed in 1920 after a group split from St. Stephen’s for reasons undocumented (readers, write in?) and now forgotten; the two parishes collaborate today.

In 1954, when St. Stephen’s Church reached its golden anniversary with a new ly renovated stucco church and parish hall at 6128 Yucca Street, a banquet was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with patrons including the C. B. DeMilles and the Howard Ahmansons.

Also on hand were two true St. Stephen’s “stars,” Betty and Frosty Riek, who served the parish for some five decades. The couple met in Hollywood and were married in 1955 in the new parish church. An engineer by profession, Forest “Frosty” Riek was ordained from St. Stephen’s and pastored the congregation for some 25 years before retiring in 1999. It was in these years that unprecedented ministry began to the homeless, with gays and lesbians, and in Spanish and Korean.

Early views of St. Stephen’s history are preserved in a scrapbook recently retrieved from Ebay and dating from the turn of the century with quips from rector Arthur Evans, who later became first rector of All Saints’, Beverly Hills—where the Sunday school child first prayed: “Our Father...Hollywood be thy name.”