Issue: Issue Winter 1999/2000

Churches Reach Out to the Entertainment Industry

As the new Millennium approaches, faced with changing attitudes towards religion, churches find salvation by broadening their ministries.

By capitalizing on the size and beauty of their structures, and by developing new programs that reach into the heart of the entertainment industry community, there is new life and energy in the most traditional of settings.

At Hollywood's United Methodist Church, located at 6817 Franklin Avenue, where Highland meets the Hollywood Hills, space in their 1930's style gymnasium has been used regularly since the 1980's for film auditions, rehearsals and location shooting. Les Miserable, Cats, Evita, and, through November, the Radio City Rockettes find the wooden floor good for their soles (for the protection of dancers feet and legs, the resilience of wooden floors is a must). Founded in 1909, its neo-gothic sanctuary (copied from Westminster Hall in London), interior courtyards and a classic exterior have been used as prime locations for filmdon's War of The Worlds, Imitation of Life, Back to the Future I & II, Sister Act starring Whoppi Goldberg, and That Thing You Do, starring Tom Hanks. Television shows such as Days of Our Lives, The Golden Girls, and Murder, She Wrote, have also used its facility as a backdrop.

With this support, the church whose congregation has declined steadily through the years, is able to supplement its funding for its more churchly activities. This fall the congregation celebrates its 90th anniversary; it built its church 70 years ago in 1929.

According to Jonathan DeForest, Co-Chair of Communications and Archives, there are other small bonuses also.

"When Sister Act was filmed here, in 1992 when our sanctuary choir performed all the songs in the movie, Touchstone Pictures released the music {rights} to our sanctuary choir to use..."

The Hollywood United Methodist Church is also home of the Hollywood Court Theater, a 77-seat playhouse. Theatre companies in residence include First Stage, Circle X, and most notable, Grupo De Teatro Sinergia.

Founded in 1987 by church members, Grupo De Teatro Sinergia (translated "Theater Group of Synergy") is the first theatrical company in Hollywood to offer original productions in Spanish and has been featured in La Opinion.

"I first started as a Church Custodian," explains Founder and General Director Anibal Aprile. "When I found out about the theater space, I asked to use it...We started two people, then three, then many...We are very successful now, every month there's a new play and ...we've now become bilingual."

The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood at 1760 N. Gower Street also maintains a thriving relationship with Hollywood's arts and entertainment industry.

Established in 1903, years before the rough and tumble "movie folk" would arrive in the sleepy village, it is the oldest congregation in Hollywood. Its Tudor-styled Wylie Chapel and quaint rose garden have been used in TV shows Alley McBeal, Lois and Clark (site of their wedding), Providence and Picket Fences.

"Because of its Hollywood location, our church has always been home to people in the entertainment industry, with such notables as Rhoda Fleming and Virginia Mayo appearing in plays at the church," states Lorynne Young, Director of Communications.

In 1987 the church helped establish the award-winning Actors Co-op, a group of professional actors, directors, and writers, which stages four plays in two theatre spaces each season.

According to Producing Director Nan McNamara, "It started as a fellowship group for actors and producers belonging to the church who could come together and have a chat and go over auditions together."

This was soon followed by Inter-Mission, which sponsors further outreach programs launching both Act One: Writing for Hollywood and Third Thursday. "Its purpose have a greater impact on effecting the product that comes out of Hollywood--the moral fiber of the industry," Director David Shall explained.

Act One is a month-long workshop for screenwriters "interested in more than just the next big sell," taking writers from other genres--novelists, journalists--and teaching them how to apply their skills to screenwriting.

Third Thursday convenes monthly and features live music, stand-up comedy, and visual arts. A bulletin board and informal coffee house setting offer members of the arts and entertainment industry camaraderie and networking.

So what can we expect in the future?

"We'd like to become more and more involved," says United Methodist's John Davis. "We hope that in the future we will be with the development in our area going on."

First Presbyterian takes this "Changing of ways" in stride. "It [arts and Christianity] is not an odd pairing at all," says Inter-Mission's David Shall. 
"For me it's natural as breathing.

Certainly the concept of art and performance in worship is as old as civilization... And, once again Hollywood is leading us "back to the future."