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Issue: Issue Winter 2001

Spiritual Searchers


When we think of Hollywood, we usually picture the glittery veneer of the entertainment industry, its movie stars, its parties. For a century now, our movies have showcased Hollywood as not only a paradise with perfect weather, but also a haven, the single best destination for searchers the world over to come discover their dreams. Often these dreams have involved movies themselves, with people aspiring to become successful actors, writers, directors. However, other dreams abound, as people seek spiritual answers and inner fulfillment. Religions are as much of our city as movies. And it's not just Christianity and Judaism. The list is as diverse as the people who live here.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the history of Hollywood's religions is the late 1920s to the early 30s. Just as so many other travelers came to southern California looking for new lives, so did pilgrims from many faiths. They followed leaders as charismatic as any movie star. A good introduction to this era can be found in four men: Paramahansa Yogananda, Manly P. Hall, Swami Prabhavananda, and Antonia Frederick Futterer. Their work is still felt in Hollywood today.

Paramahansa Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship

The Self-Realization Fellowship has been very successful in Los Angeles, with several temples and their international headquarters all located here. They began simply enough in 1925 with a visit to Hollywood by Yogananda, a swami from Gorakhpur, India, on a cross-country speaking tour. Thousands signed up for his advanced yoga courses, among the first in Los Angeles, and thousands more attended his many lectures around the city on topics like meditation and inner peace. His success was so pronounced that he quickly purchased a hotel in Mt. Washington, which became his headquarters. With Los Angeles as his newly adopted home, he continued to tour America and even was officially received by President Coolidge at the White House in 1927. His students included George Eastman and Leopold Stokowski. Over the next decade, Yogananda's popularity grew and he established his other temples, like the Hollywood Temple at 4860 Sunset Boulevard, tel: (323) 661-8006, which will celebrate its fiftieth year of operation in 2002. It is open to the public and offers classes and services on Yogananda's yoga teachings. The headquarters in located 3880 San Rafael Avenue, tel: (323) 225-5088.

Manly P. Hall and the Philosophical Research Society

Manly P. Hall was a dynamic speaker and thinker who was drawn to Hollywood as a city of the future. Its new industries of mass communication and art fascinated him endlessly, and though was born in Canada and traveled extensively, his home was always here. Beginning at age 20, he delivered lectures in Los Angeles on the union of philosophies, sciences and religions. He sought the "higher truths" that are universal to all faiths but particular to none, and was wary when believers demanded theirs was the only valid belief. One of his slogans was, "No exclusivity, no advocacy." Nevertheless, he honored all religions, encouraging his students to move beyond mere tolerance of differences. A prolific author, he produced nearly 200 publications, the most famous and best-selling was the vast, impressive tome, The Secret Teachings of All Ages. This collection of esoterica from throughout the Western tradition is still printed today in three forms by the society. Hall was also a voracious reader, amassing 30,000 items in a large, respected library, which remains open to the public every day except Friday. A permanent home to his studies was built in 1934 at 3910 Los Feliz Boulevard, tel: (323) 548-4062. The building now also houses a bookstore (open seven days a week), selling literature from many world religions and philosophers. Classes and workshops are offered throughout the year on such disparate topics as tarot reading, the I Ching, and the Kabbalah.

Swami Prabhavananda and the Vedanta Society

In 1920s Swami Prabhavananda traveled from India to speak about mediation and Hinduism across the western United States. Carrie Mead Wickoff, a Pasadena widow who respected Prabhavananda and who knew his mentor, donated the swami a house, nestled in the hills near the Hollywood Bowl, to become a center for his teachings in 1929. The house soon proved too small to accommodate the growing number of students, and so Wickoff gave money to build a three-domed temple behind the house. It was completed in 1938 and is still open daily to anyone looking for a peaceful place to meditate. The house now holds a bookshop, selling literature and music from many different faiths. The swami opended a monastery and convent on the grounds, and among his students were prominent writers, Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. They had come to Hollywood to work in entertainment, but like many others, needed to search for spiritual answers. The society is located at 1946 Vedanta Place, tel: (323) 465-7114.

Antonia Frederick Futterer and the Holyland Exhibition

Antonia Frederick Futterer's life is the stuff Hollywood movies are often made of. A tireless adventurer and devout Christian, he traveled the world preaching his gospel and searching for religious artifacts. He studied the pyramids in Egypt and dug for the lost Ark of the Covenant in Jordan, but through it all his home base was always in Edendale, on the eastern side of Hollywood. Coming from his native Australia, Futterer was attracted to Hollywood as a place where new ideas could flourish. His particular idea was to "explain the Bible" and it had a very personal basis. He had no formal education and found the Bible difficult to follow. To help, he created a complex 300-page book of exegeses and story syntheses in 1911. He deemed it the Eye-Ographic Bible System, A Layman's Training Course, with the expressed purpose of being a "real practical Bible teacher" to enable the reader to "quickly learn." He sold the book to thousands of churches in the United States and around the world. He created a museum from his collected artifacts and taught courses based on the Eye-Ographic System from his house at 2215 Lake View Avenue. The museum is still open, tel: (213) 664-3162. Tours are given daily, and a small gift shop decorated like a Middle Eastern bazaar is on the second floor. Reservations are always necessary.

Hollywood Today

Just as in the 1920s and 30s, people come the world over to Hollywood with dreams of a better life. Some seek it in movies; some seek it "higher truths." Either way, they come. They find here not just the Self-Realization Fellowship, the Philosophical Research Society, the Vedanta Society, and the tours of Futterer's exhibition. Many other organizations have joined these, including the Church of Scientology, with its international headquarters located right next door to Yogananda's Hollywod Temple on Sunset. Or the Besant Lodge of the Theosophists in Beachwood Canyon. Or the many mainstream churches, mosques and synagogues spread throughout this city.