Skip to main content

Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XXXV — A Token Leading

In the beginning of our Wilshire-Ebell ministry we were distressed by the meager response. Four hundred was quite a comedown from the nearly seven thousand of the Shrine meeting. The popularity of our radio programs faced us with a more welcome but also more difficult problem. The midweek services were outgrowing the third floor lecture hall. Our office staff, that had started with Nena and Mabel had grown by five more. We desperately needed greater facilities.

Our inquiries to real estate agencies brought no tangible results. Finally Franklyn and I decided we would just get in a car, start out on faith that God had a place waiting for us if only we could tune in on a leading. I had a vague recollection of having seen a church building somewhere but was unable to locate it. We virtually went up one street and down another throughout midtown Los Angeles and had given up, deciding to call the project off at least for the day, when we were stalled by a traffic jam on Wilshire just east of LaBrea Boulevard. Franklyn was at the wheel. My glance fastened on a bronze nameplate at the side of the entry to a skyscraper across the street.

“It’s a leading, Franklyn! Look, the E. Clem Wilson building. Not only the Wilson building, even the initials are the same.” “That’s an office building. We need more than an office.” “Drive around the block and find a place to park. Let’s at least inquire,” I pleaded.

We found a place to park. We found there was a large undivided floor space on the second floor, just opposite the stairway and elevator. We could picture an assembly hall with offices down one side of it, and that’s how it turned out. There was even a carpenter working there whom we could get to do the alterations. It served us well for a year, and then—

Growth Presents a Problem

The pace of our activities was quickening. Attendance at Sunday services had reached overflow proportions. We needed larger facilities in all departments of our work. Lamar Butler, a promotional type attorney who rejoiced in our growth, thought he might have an answer to our need. A friend of his was agent for the sale of a large mansion on Hollywood Hills that he wanted us to see. Doubtfully but desperately, we agreed to an inspection. It was a handsome dwelling, with a huge ballroom and perhaps a score of other rooms, but it was on a hillside, with very limited parking space, all very elegant yet unsuitable, but—

“Wait a minute,” the agent said as we were leaving, “there’s another possibility, a large Romanesque type edifice formerly occupied by the Jewish congregation, Temple Emmanuel. It’s on Manhattan Place just off Wilshire Boulevard. The congregation has been reestablished in Beverly Hills, and the building has been used by a W.P.A. project. You might want to look at that.”

“We’ll look it over,” we promised, thanking him for the suggestion.

It was a handsome edifice with an imposing facade. We found a side door that was unlocked, and entered to find ourselves on a wide apron stage, only dimly discernable as we came from the bright sunlight of outdoors, for all the clerestory windows had been covered to shut out light. As we groped our way toward the center of the apron stage—apparently erected to accommodate a symphony orchestra—Norma let out a stifled scream. There on the stage floor was the supine figure of a giant in pirate garb, eyes glassily open, a dagger in his chest.

The building, we recalled had most recently been occupied by the Guy Bates Post dramatic school, which had been discontinued. We circled round the figure, our eyes becoming adjusted to the dimness, and looked out over the large auditorium. Seating had been removed, carpets ripped up. The sloping floor was occupied by rows of display cases containing lifelike miniatures of prehistoric animals.

The rear of the auditorium, the end closest to the street, indicated a balcony opening into another auditorium. We found the stairways opening on either side of the lobby, and discovered the upper room to be a gymnasium with a curtained stage at one end. There were additional smaller rooms, and a basement which we did not attempt to explore.

Despite the clutter, dirt, blood-stained pirate, and prehistoric animals, we could see possibilities. It would merit further exploration. We returned to the apron stage, reviewing the foresaken sanctuary which had once been a place of worship.

“I have a curious feeling that this is it,” I said. Norma and Franklyn concurred.

“Let’s have a prayer together,” Norma suggested. Hand in hand the three of us in turn invoked God’s guidance. “Make it very clear and plain, O Lord. Let it be either this or what in Your sight is even better!”

We found that actually, the building had been returned by default to the West Coast Insurance Company through which it had been financed. They were eager to dispose of it, and offered what I thought was a nominal figure for so impressive a structure. Franklyn demurred, “They want too much. We’ll be paying for it the rest of our lives. They should come down a peg.” They did.

We had some misgivings. We didn’t have enough money for a down payment. If the deal went through I would have to cash in what securities I had just for the initial payment. The balance to be paid off within twenty years.

The sanctuary conceivably would seat about the same number of persons as our present quarters. Could the balcony be enlarged by opening it to the upstairs room, and stealing space from one side of the gymnasium?

Two Birthdays and a New Birth

Most people celebrate only one birthday anniversary each year, if any; some, like my mother, celebrate the same one over and over; her favorite was her thirty-ninth, and she stuck to it until I nearly bumped into her, after which she disclaimed any number. Ever since my twentieth year I have celebrated two each year; March eleventh which I call my spiritual birthday since it was on that date I became dedicated to spiritual ministry; and March thirtieth, the date on which I came crying into this world. (The doctor discovered that I was tongue-tied. “Shall I cut the cord?” the doctor asked. “No,” my mother tells me she answered, “If he can cry like that we’d better let well enough alone!”)

So ever since 1916 I’ve celebrated from March 11th straight through the 30th. That date in 1942 was one of the most memorable of my life. Bert Perks invited Norma, Franklyn, Freddie (Fredericka Singleton) and me to dinner in his antique filled home. It was a sumptious repast, served with a display of silver, china, glassware and linen. It not only celebrated my double birthdays, but also a new birth for Christ Church, Unity.

By the strange kind of synchronicity that recurs so often in my life it was earlier in the day that Franklyn and I had signed the papers for the purchase of Temple Emmanuel as the new home for our ministry. We were both elated, as befits anniversaries, and awed that the acquisition of the building should be so symbolically timed.

As a party it was not much of a party. A mere birthday anniversary could hardly compete with the excitement, the possibilities pro and con of contracting to buy a church building when we didn’t even have enough money for a down payment. With a faith that somehow with God’s help we would make it, the event outshone my personal celebration, the timing of which also seemed like a good omen for the success of the undertaking. We could talk of nothing but the possibilities that stretched before us.

The party broke up early. Bert insisted on taking Norma home. Franklyn and I would take Fredericka Singleton, who had become one of the little group that formed a coterie of people we could count on. We circled around on our mission to drive by the Temple, stopped the car in front of it, and sat admiring it, envisioning the new name that would appear over the entrance, and dream awhile, though all of us were to find that dreams were slow in coming. We were too excited for much sleep that night.

Soon I had a visit from the attorney who had prepared the church’s incorporation papers. He had enlisted in military service and was home on furlough.

“I’ve heard what you’ve done. I’ll get you out of it,” he cried.

“I don’t want you to,” I declared.

“You’re mortgaging your whole future. Suppose you can’t meet the payments? And besides, don’t you realize that Los Angeles is likely to be bombed, or even invaded? Where will your church be then?”

He considered himself to be a Truth student so I was surprised, though not overwhelmed by his attitude.

“Well, Bonnie (his name was Bonhomme), I don’t believe any of those dire things are going to happen, but even if they do, God will still be God, Truth will still be Truth, and I’ll still be Ernest Wilson, and I’ll go on from there.”

“Oh, you’re hopeless,” he responded.

“No. You’re the hopeless one. I’m confident!”

A Man Called Joe

Joe Ehler is one of the unsung heroes of the building project. Until he did that cabinet work for us at the Wilson building, he had never heard of Unity, but he accepted our views as if he had always known and shared them. He went ahead with the vast alterations that had to be made as if he had no doubts that they would be successful, hired help from day to day, never seemed tired, never hurried, always cheerful.

When decisions were called for that he could not make on his own he’d invoke my help. “Doctor, I’m up against a stump,” he would say; as later when I got him to help me at my house in the Palisades he would ask, “Doctor, where ao you want these here ‘eucalipe'-tus’ seedlings planted?” or offer one of his inverted axioms in a remark like, “A lot of water has gone under the dam since I came to work with you.”

I visited the building almost every day and marvelled at how rapidly the work was progressing. Joe had gotten bids on pews locally and from Grand Rapids and found where steel girders for the balcony could be obtained. He had discovered a whole set of stained glass windows that were stored in the basement, that would serve until others more to our liking could be warranted.

A Nudge in the Night

I went home to the Palisades after one such visit with Joe, feeling humbly fortunate that we had found such a man. I drifted off to sleep only to be awakened by a strong sense of urgency about the materials needed at the building. I could hardly wait until morning to get down to check with Joe. He was just getting into his work clothes when I arrived.

“Joe, can you get the girders into the building today?”

“Yes, I think so, but we’re not ready for them yet.”

“Get them in today for sure, Joe. I’ll feel better.”

“And pews for the sanctuary, are they ordered?”

“We can get them from Grand Rapids for quite a bit less than they can be had locally.”

“Forget Grand Rapids; buy them here.”

That night, we learned, the government clamped down on all deliveries of steel. If ours hadn’t already been delivered, we couldn’t have gotten them for the duration of the war. Also all freight cars were commandeered for the movement of war materiel.

The Best of Old and New

We scheduled our entry into our new church home for the first Sunday of July, even though it was not as adequately furnished and decorated as we had wished. We were virtually out of funds and very much needed the stimulation and financial support that we believed entry into the building would provide.

We wanted to create a devotional atmosphere where substantial people who had been reared in traditional religion could find Truth in a familiar setting that suggested worship, reverence, a feeling of substance and permanence.

We wanted to get away from the, as it seemed to us, commercial, materialistic atmosphere suggested by a lecture hall type of meeting, in a hotel ballroom or a theater with a stage, a podium accommodating lecture notes and perhaps a water pitcher and drinking glass, where the speaker made a strong appeal for money, and closed the meeting with a lecture windup that invited applause. We had to improvise with temporary furnishings, most of which would be replaced when time and income enabled us to do better. How we did this in the months and years that followed is a story in itself, for it became one of the most beautiful and largest attended churches in the area. But even from the very beginning there was “an atmosphere.”

Stained glass windows dominated the facade of the exterior. Over the entry the words, Christ Church, Unity. Broad steps led to a forecourt framed by an iron grill. Carved oak doors led to the narthex. Before a green velvet curtain a statue of The One welcomed visitors with open arms, silently saying, “Come unto me.” Doors on either side invited entry to the sanctuary with its spacious pews.

The chancel was dominated by the pulpit, front center, and back of it a sedilia to seat the three officiating clergy during intervals in the service. The rear wall was dominated by a circular stained glass window, ingeniously boxed by Joe Ehler so that it could be lighted and appear to be in instead of on the rear wall. Potted palms and baskets of flowers surrounded the pulpit and sedilia. The one basket of flowers that came from local clergy was the gift of Ernest Holmes, leader of the Religious Science movement. The largest basket, which we placed in front of the pulpit, was from Unity School.

Minister’s and secretarial offices, classrooms, and a bookroom dominated surrounding areas on the main floor. Sunday School assembly and classrooms were reached by the wide stairways.

The bookroom was convenient to the entry, and served also as a reception desk. A white-haired lady called Alice O’Keefe was often our visitors’ first contact with the ministry. I was surprised to overhear, soon after the church opened, a visitor asking her, “Didn’t this building used to be a Jewish temple?”

I wondered what her answer would be. She didn’t disappoint me. Smilingly she answered, “Yes, it started out under the Old Testament, and now it’s been born under the New! Isn’t that wonderful?” I thought it was, too!

Gentlemen Jack

When Jack Smith, a tall, athletic looking man made himself known to me in the early days of Christ Church, Unity I had the feeling that I must have known or at least seen him before. Memory took me back to early days in Kansas City when he had been known in the wrestling world as Gentleman Jack, in satiric reference to the role he played as one of the bad guys who habitually won out against the good guys in matches that only the most gullible fans took seriously?

I came to know about him at that time through a likeable and enterprising young man, Judson Woods, who worked his way up from bus boy at Unity Inn to junior editor in Unity School, at which point I sometimes asked him to fill in for me on a radio program. He reappeared in my life in the late forties, by which time he had become a star radio salesman on the Kansas City Star's station, and I was doing a guest appearance with Walt Bodine.

In the early thirties I was engaged in so many endeavors for church and School that Jud thought I needed a change from this engrossing spiritual atmosphere and persuaded me to go with him to the Thursday night wrestling matches at Memorial Hall on the Kansas side. It was indeed a change, and possibly served as a kind of vicarious outlet for some of the inevitable frustration that I sometimes felt.

There were some surprising results from our escapade. At a Friday luncheon at Unity Inn I was accosted by a patron. “I was surprised to see you at that wrestling match last night!” he exclaimed.

“Weren’t you there yourself?” I responded.

“Oh, that’s different,” he asserted. He didn’t say how.

Jud and I were surprised when one of the wrestling bad guys appeared in the young people’s group as the escort of one of the pretty girls who regularly attended the class. He was a young Polish athlete named Ostapalavich—which he shortened to Ostapavich. He wore a neck brace as the result of too much realism in the ring. He too needed a change!

By the time I became acquainted with Jack Smith in Los Angeles he had made enough money playing the villain in wrestling to leave the ring and open a health club in Chicago. Walter Huston frequently visited the club to keep in shape during a long stage engagement. They became good friends, and when Walter’s career shifted to Hollywood and he was to star in The Treasure of Sierra Madre he persuaded Jack to let assistants manage his health club, and join him as his athletic coach and business manager.

“How do you like working for Walter?” I asked him.

“It’s so frustrating,” he answered promptly.

“How so?” I ventured.

“I work out a deal that will make him $40,000 and he says, ‘Great, Jack, but I can’t take it. It will put me in a higher tax bracket, and it’s about as high as I can stand now.’ ”

Jack dropped into my study one day to take me to lunch. It was a very special day for me. We had just paid the final installment on the church property, clearing it in two years instead of twenty. I couldn’t restrain my excitement and had to share it with him.

“That’ll set you back $500 for boasting,” he commented. “Now you won’t need it.” He was joking of course. He was a gentle and loving man who tried to conceal the fact. He continued to be an ardent Unity student, and brought many of the movie greats to our services. One evening he surprised me by bringing Lillian Gish to my study to have me meet her. Memories of Orphans of the Storm, Way Down East, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin flashed through my mind, and I made some fumbling remark about how I had suffered through them emotionally. She stiffened (which I was to find she did rather easily). “Then I owe you an apology!” she countered, and strode out of the room.

A pleasanter encounter was when Jack took Franklyn and me to meet Walter Huston at poolside one afternoon, where he told us some of the hazards he encountered in making Sierra Madre and got to reminiscing about his stage career. Lying relaxed on a grassy knoll by the pool he sang for us the song he had made famous on the Broadway stage, the unforgettable “September Song,” and Franklyn countered with “Ol' Man River.”

Jack’s Hollywood career ended with Walter’s. He left Los Angeles to dispose of his health club, married a longtime sweetheart, and spent his declining years in Florida, whence I continued to hear from him until his transition.

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