Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XLIII — Memorable Weddings and Such

From the time of our first services in Wilshire-Ebell Theater to the expansion of our ministry in the church edifice on Manhattan Place, many of the greater and lesser lights of the Southland found inspiration in our ministry, sought our help in counselling and in such special occasions as marriages, baptisms, and memorial services. The demands came largely from our radio and television audience.

One such marriage was for Hilary Brooks and Jack Voglan, the first to be performed in my home in Pacific Palisades. I had often seen Hilary in movies where she usually played the part of “the other woman” in romantic love stories. Her off-screen name was Peterson and close friends called her “Pete.” As she and Jack were leaving after the ceremony, her attention was attracted by an elaborately carved chair in the entry, and she asked about its history.

“I found it in the used furniture showroom of Barker’s basement,” I confided. “Our ministry here in Los Angeles is an adventure in faith. We had to make do. All the household furniture I bought came from that bargain basement. By now it’s all been replaced except for that chair which cost only twelve dollars.”

“That’s where Jack and I have been buying furniture for the start of our marriage,” she laughed. “I hope it is as good an omen for us as it has been for you.”

What made the marriage of the famous artist, Nell Walker Warner memorable among the many performed in the early years of the church was her unusual bridal gown. In years she was long past her youth when, after long widowhood, she decided to marry again. Her hair, still a determined red, was set off by a deep blue gown with a train. She carried a sheaf of American Beauty roses. As she ascended the steps into the chancel, the blue gown trailing behind her, she might have been the model for one of her own lovely paintings—three of which adorn the penthouse from which I am transcribing these memories.

Another memorable bride was Delfin Thursday, the hapa-haoli singer who featured the Hawaiian wedding song in her night club act. When she decided to marry a young Swiss airforce aviator, she rejected the traditional white wedding gown for the occasion, because this was to be for real and not an act; and chose instead a simple floor-length Chinese pink satin sheath type gown with snug high collar and long sleeves. In the ensuing years their marriage was graced by two most winsome children.

During the war years there were many marriages involving military personnel, mostly informal, so that one very formal one stands out in memory. There were many bridesmaids and groomsmen, and following the ceremony, as the happy couple left the church, men in dress parade uniform, with ceremonial swords drawn, formed an arch above the couple as they descended the steps leading to the boulevard and a waiting car.

Amanda

The marriage of Amanda Blake, “Kitty” of Gunsmoke was dramatic. She had been introduced to Unity by friends who were members, and began counselling with me as well as attending devotional services. In one of them a group of pretty young women garbed in the robes of the Masonic related “Job’s Daughters,” were special guests. They were seated in a section of the sanctuary at right angles to the chancel where they could see most of the congregation. I became aware during the offertory that they had sighted Amanda in the assemblage. I thought, “I hope they’re not going to make her feel uncomfortable by demanding autographs.”

I needn’t have worried.

As I approached the reception room after the service I could see Amanda, see her red hair bobbing, see the crowd of some twenty teenaged girls surrounding her. “This does it. She won’t want to come anymore,” I thought. She looked up as I entered the room, face beaming. “Oh, Doctor, isn’t this wonderful? All these pretty little girls want my autograph!”

When, sometime later, I held the first open house in my Hollywood Hills home, she was perhaps the most striking of the seventy-some guests who attended.

She surprised me following that occasion by telling me she was going to be married and asked me to perform the ceremony in the sanctuary of our church. I was in the midst of some household problems. Bert Perks had helped me find a gentle gray-haired lady of Swedish background to replace the ever-so capable but emotionally unstable Stella who had left me to work for a wealthy widower, and Anna proved to be a wonderful successor, adored by my guests and a wonderful help in the arduous process of moving from Hancock Park to Hollywood Hills. A member of the church staff, often Ron Potter, sometimes I, would take her to the Hollywood bus terminal on her day off, and she would go on trips that I, even with my Lincoln car, would only take because I had to. She came back from one such venture, her beautiful wrinkled face red from sunburn, to exclaim over her wonderful day at the Los Angeles harbor. “I saw Sharley Shappin’s lovely jellow jacht!” she exclaimed in delight. That she could later visit the Hawaiian Islands on her two week’s vacation was the high point in her life. Finally, however, though I tried by enlisting other help to make her work easier, she had to retire to live close to a daughter’s home in Huntington Beach.

After several efforts at replacement, I was trying out a young black man. He had only been with me a day or two when I was to officiate, on an early Sunday afternoon at Amanda’s wedding. She was marrying a handsome and wealthy business man, Jason Day, Jr. They made a striking couple. He was about her age and height. Her gown was a pale blue, almost white, whose sole ornament was a single diamond suspended on a silver-linked necklace.

Following the service, as we approached the forecourt of the church and the steps leading to the curb, we were amazed to find a crowd that dwarfed the invited attendance. A cordon of police had to preserve an open space for the party to approach their cars.

I was glad to get home, out of my clerical garb, into pajamas and propped up on my bed to relax with a crossword puzzle to unwind after the double feature, the devotional service and the wedding.

I had hardly gotten started on the puzzle when I heard a husky voice saying, almost shouting, “It’s all right, boss! Don’t worry, it’s all right!”

I looked up, startled to see my newly-hired house man coming through the bedroom door closely followed by a policeman.

It was the policeman who exclaimed, “Why, Doctor Wilson, is this where you live? I just saw you at Miss Blake’s wedding.”

My new houseman was being arrested on the charge of trying to use a stolen credit card to purchase a tire for his car. It was a false alarm; he wasn’t guilty, nor was it for that incident that I had to tell him later I couldn’t retain his services.

It was an eventful day.

Teddy

Martha Vickers and her parents, the Ted Mac Vicars were Unity students, and it was through them that I came to know about a little boy who was probably my youngest fan of “Thought for the Day,” as Don Fedderson called my daily appearance on television. Martha had been married briefly to Mickey Rooney—his third wife I think—and Teddy Rooney was born to them, and just learning to talk when television found its voice. His grandmother told me how he would call to her and Martha as he watched the screen, “Come see! Dokkie’s going to pray!” Martha arranged for him to be baptized in Christ Church, and told me that Mickey would attend the ceremony. He did, and asked me to show him the sanctuary (with another marriage in mind?).

Martha meantime had remarried, this time to a handsome man of Mexican descent, named Manuel Rojas. In due time I was called on for another baptismal service, for Teddy’s little half-sister, Maria Christina.

Teddy was an appealing youngster, blond, freckled, much like I imagine his father must have been at the same age. My contact with the family, especially Teddy, continued. Soon he began getting parts in pictures. He would call me up and ask for my prayers, like Merton of the Movies praying, “O God, make me a good actor,” like me in the Galveston days, praying, “O God, make me a good minister.” Teddy had a gratifying habit, shared though somewhat later, by Adela Rogers St. Johns, of phoning to give thanks when the prayers were answered. I think an experience of answered prayer is never really complete until we return to give thanks.

Don

I was in Kansas City, a few years later, when I got word from Don Fedderson that, following a lengthy separation from Helen, the mother of his five children, he was going to marry again and wanted me to perform the ceremony in the Myrtle Fillmore chapel of Christ Church, Unity in Los Angeles. Don was, and is, one of my closest friends. I had baptized his three youngest sons, performed the marriage ceremony for his one daughter, and had fond memories of his eldest son, Michael, who as a boy of eleven or twelve, had frequently come from their home in West Los Angeles by bus to attend my services on occasions when his parents couldn’t make it to church. He had a fine singing voice, sang at one of the banquets given in my honor, and appeared later on television as the romantic juvenile lead in the popular Petticoat Junction series which can sometimes still be seen in reruns on the screen.

Don’s putting me on television had contributed immeasurably to the phenomenal growth and turn-away crowds that flocked to the services. I was delighted that I could do something that would contribute to his happiness. I flew out to Los Angeles for the wedding.

A typical Hollywood writer’s fan magazine account of the wedding by the columnist, Dorothy Manners, included the following:

“Although the fans might not be familiar with the bride—Yvonne Lime—and the groom—Don Fedderson—Hollywood certainly is! Just take a look at the guests who made it to the wedding . . . and you’ll realize that something pretty important was afoot.

“Don Fedderson is one of Hollywood’s wealthiestTitizens, even if his face never appears before the cameras. He’s a producer, and he’s got three TV serials currently on the air: Family Affair, The Lawrence Welk Show, and My Three Sons.

“Some of Elvis Presley’s older fans might remember Yvonne, for she was one of his favorite dates back in his early days in Hollywood. She doesn’t do much acting anymore; she prefers being a full-time humanitarian. Her favorite task is entertaining our boys in Vietnam with the USO.”

Accompanying pictures included Don Grady and Tina Cole, Fred MacMurray, Johnie Whitaker, William Demarest, Lawrence Welk, Jr. and his wife, Tanya, Cissie King and Kathy Garver.

For me, it was a special joy to have Bob Ralston preside at the organ, with Jim Roberts and Norma Zimmer as soloists at the service.

Bob Ralston and I became friends, and I found that as a boy in his teens he had played for Unity services in Whittier, California, and we arranged for a series of concerts by him at Unity’s Church on the Plaza in Kansas City, one of them including Norma Zimmer as featured soloist. I thought Norma to be one of the most charming persons I have known.

I came to know Lawrence Welk and found that we were both born in the same mid western city, Fargo, North Dakota—in not quite the same year. The contact with the Welk Show family also renewed a contact with the outstanding dancer, Arthur Duncan, who had appeared on the Betty White Show when I did.

Don made one visit to Unity in Kansas City. Like many others, he thought he would see Unity’s International Headquarters when he came to the Plaza church. I offered to take him to Unity Village, which is some twenty miles distant, but unfortunately he was too pressed for time.

Comfort for Those Who Mourn

When I am called upon to officiate at funerals I have no qualms. Such services, as I see it, are more for the bereaved than for the deceased, and I can help them. Sometimes too, I have the feeling that the newborn soul is listening and needs to hear what I have to say. And as I have mentioned, I think I have brought more people into Unity as the result of such services than in any other way except through radio and television.

Why is this? What do I say?

That in bereavement the heart echoes the age-old question, “If a man die shall he live again? Shall we find again those we love, know them and be known?” I remind them of Paul’s assertion, “I die daily,” and that a life is as a day from whose sleep we waken to a new day’s dawning. Paul also spoke of the body as one but having many members; how many members perhaps even Paul did not know; that though the body appears to be one, it is actually like a little universe, composed of myriad tiny bodies, that have their births and deaths and replacements, so that in an average life span, all the elements of the body in which transiently we dwell, are completely replaced. But the indwelling entity persists. That the body is not the person but rather our cloak of visibility, our means of contact with this plane of life, by which we learn and grow and overcome; and when its purposes are served we relinquish it, to be replaced by another suited to the plane of life upon which we enter. Death, “the last enemy” is overcome when it is revealed to us as birth.

Nor can we mourn as without hope our loved ones who precede us in that birth. What determines our nearness to or distance from others? Not so much where they are, or we; but rather how much we have found in common. We think of a distant friend, and lo, he is near. We are always closest of all to those we love the most, who love us in return. Not all human associations, however strong and deep, are of this nature. Some may serve a special purpose, and when the purpose is served, the association naturally ends; but some are so strong and deep, so much of the spirit and so little of the flesh, that not even the change called death contrives against them.

Are such concepts unusual? Not in Unity services that I’ve heard, but vastly different from the service offered by a country preacher for my four year old niece, more terrifying than comforting, when I was a boy of fourteen; different, too, to people like David Niven, the movie actor, who was a pallbearer in one of my Forest Lawn services: “I’ve never heard such a service before. I’d like to know more about your faith,” was his comment.

Weddings — in a Cemetery?

During the first four years, working out of rented quarters, where to conduct weddings was a problem. Some of them took place in the chapel of a fashionable Wilshire Boulevard hotel; others in the wedding chapel of the First Congregational Church which welcomed such services by guest ministers. Early on I was dismayed to be asked to perform a ceremony in Forest Lawn. A wedding in a cemetery? It was an anomaly! But after I had done so I changed my mind.

Wedding services are confined to the evening hours. The two chapels in which most weddings can be held, the Wee Kirk of the Heather and the Little Church of the Flowers, are convenient to the impressive entrance. After we acquired our own church I don’t think I ever had another wedding in the Park, but for the nearly thirty years of my Los Angeles ministry I customarily had at least two or three funerals a week within its grounds—more after I appeared in a daily television program.

Our church soloist, John Lambert, who succeeded Franklyn Kelly in that capacity was, by coincidence, staff soloist at the Park. He told me one time that he had sung Malotte’s setting to “The Lord’s Prayer” there over 14,000 times in its services.

Forest Lawn—actually in Glendale rather than Los Angeles—is unlike any other cemetery I’ve seen. Wide-spreading lawns, many trees, stately buildings, winding roads, magnificent sculptural groups are to be seen on every hand. Its founder, rightly I think, proclaims it a Memorial Park rather than a cemetery or graveyard. The atmosphere celebrates life and ongoing life rather than death.


© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.