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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XXXVIII — Hollywood on Television

“Ernest dear, I’ve accepted a dinner invitation for you and me from Mr. and Mrs. Don Fedderson,” were almost the first words of greeting from Norma as I returned from a lecture engagement in Kansas City around the first of November in 1949.

“Nice of you to let me know, Normie dear. I don’t think I know them, but since you’ve accepted, of course I’ll go with you.”

That was my introduction to a family who were destined to be among my most helpful and valued friends.

Over some cool drinks in the livingroom of their spacious home we learned that Don was manager of the radio station, KCOP, which carried our daily broadcasts. He went on to say:

“My family is from Kansas City. I used to attend your services down on Tracy when I was a youngster. The stories you told made church attendance easier, and though we moved to L.A. when I was fourteen I have never forgotten them. Like the one about the little girl who brought her umbrella along when she learned the congregation was going to pray for rain.”

“And then after I repeated the story much later and referred to a woman who brought her umbrella,” I chimed in, “a member of the congregation said, ‘Last time I heard you tell that story it was about a little girl.’ Yes, and I’ve told it so long that she’s had time to grow up.”

“And then there was the one about the frog who was caught in a rut, and he couldn’t get out—until a truck came along and he had to,” Don recalled.

“One of Lowell Fillmore’s favorite stories. I got it from him,” I confessed.

“Here’s what I’m coming to. Television is now beyond the experimental stage and is going commercial. Our station will be one of the first to present a daily TV schedule. I want to put you on television!”

“Put me on television! What on earth could I do? I have no acting ability. I’m not a performer. I’d be scared to death,” I exclaimed.

“No, I don’t think you would. You’ve faced congregations all your adult life. You’ve filled Shrine Auditorium here twice, speaking to crowds of over six thousand. Here’s what I’d like you to do.” Then he described a television variety show running for five hours, from noon to 5 p.m., five days a week. “It’s called Hollywood on Television, and Al Jarvis is the master of ceremonies. I’d like you to come on for a five-minute appearance, be greeted and introduced by Al, and then go into a capsule ‘Thought for the Day.’ To avoid having other ministers demanding equal time, I must ask that you never mention your religious affiliation, just give the inclusive kind of talk that I know you can do easily.”

“Would I have to write them out in advance?”

“No. I’d prefer you do them ad lib. I want people to know you are a minister, but not to be labelled. Would you be willing to wear your pulpit gown?”

“What would the setting be?”

“The station has outgrown studio space. Fortunately we have a large patio with a grass-covered lawn. We’ve put up a tent. What will appear on screen is a desk with a bamboo screen as a background. Al and his pretty secretary, Betty White, will be sitting at the desk, doing commercials between guest appearances. You’ll be a daily guest.”

To Look Ministerial

That I had already been won over to attempting the assignment showed up when I countered, “I don’t think a pulpit gown would be appropriate in that setting. I have a clerical collar and vest in my study. It’s the kind worn by many Protestant ministers. Suppose you drop in to my study after church next Sunday. I’ll put it on and you can see what you think of it.”

He liked it. I went on the program on November 21st, just two weeks after it started. I was somewhat nervous at first, but actually it did not seem very different from radio, and it was only when Al began trying to stump me with riddles and controversial-type questions that I was somewhat surprised or perturbed.

“Do you think Gardena is a good place to rear children?” he asked on one occasion. “Why not? I’ve only passed through the community a few times on my way down the Coast, but I was impressed by its beauty.”

I didn’t know until after that day’s appearance, that Gardena was one place where gambling was legal, and that it was noted for this.

“Doctor Wilson, I’ve got a riddle for you: What would you call a man that marries another man?”

This was a loaded question that implied sexual allusions; even reference to or the appearance of pregnancy was taboo on the screen. Fortunately I knew an innocuous answer. “Why, a minister of course, Al,” I replied.

He made one more attempt to disconcert me. (I didn’t know until much later that Al hadn’t wanted a minister on his show.)

“We get many letters and phone calls asking what your religious affiliations are; whether you preside in a church, and if so where. Won’t you tell our viewers about your affiliation?”

He knew about my agreement with Don. While he was talking I was praying, “Oh, God, tell me what to say!”

This is what came out:

“Well, Al, you might say that I am Catholic in the sense that catholic means universal. I am not Catholic because I am not a Roman Catholic. I am a Protestant because I am not Catholic. I am not a Protestant because I am not protesting against anything. And I am a little bit Jewish because I believe in the Old Testament as well as the New.”

Al ‘Discovers’ Me

Al shrugged and raised his hands in futility, with a grimace that seemed to say, “What’s the use!”

These little contretemps probably seemed like friendly banter to viewers. In any event they, and the little talks I gave stimulated lots of mail, also requests from prospective advertisers who wanted to sponsor “Thought for the Day,” which Don rejected. But Al Jarvis, who was very commercial, soon began to describe me as his discovery. He presented me with an inscribed Bulova watch, insisted on me taking articles of furniture left by advertisers, and even wanted to arrange for me to appear in a special program to be presented in the Hollywood Bowl.

The real star of the show was Betty White, his pretty secretary, who appeared on camera with Al daily. She had a great gift of humor, a pleasant singing voice, and an exceptional facility for ad-libbing and repartee. Capable as an actress, she nevertheless seemed to be at her very best in things like the Jack Parr Show on which, much later, she was so often a featured guest.

When, mistakenly I think, Al left the local show to appear on a national network, Betty successfully continued the local program, until she too became involved in network productions.

The Clerical Collar

Wearing a clerical collar produced some reactions that I could not have foreseen. It was the kind that is most often worn by Episcopal and Lutheran clergymen, and occasionally, as I observed, by Methodists as well. I was surprised to find that Catholics, in a couple of instances, mistook me for a Catholic priest. The first time that I became aware of this was very soon after I began appearing on the daily program with Al and Betty. I encountered Leo Carillo, famous as a member of one of the early Spanish pioneering families in the winning of the West and also as a motion picture celebrity. As I was passing him in the station’s patio, he turned to me with the greeting, “Hi, Father, Where is your parish?”

“Hi, Mr. Carillo. Glad to see you. I’m not a priest, but a Protestant minister appearing on the Jarvis program.”

“Oh, a stepfather!” he exclaimed with a chuckle.

Very soon it seemed so natural for me to be wearing the collar that I ceased to be conscious of it. I was reminded of it one day when I had to make a sick call at The Hospital of the Good Samaritan. I was driving down Sixth Street in my Continental and, stopping for a red light, saw a young man in blue jeans apparently waiting for a ride. I’ll do my Good Scout deed for the day, I thought, and opening the car door, asked him if I could give him a lift. “How far are you going?” “First and Main,” he responded.

“I’m not going that far, but at least it will take you part way.” He started a conversation by asking questions about the car.

I Resist a Temptation

Nothing was said about religion until we reached the point where I had to turn south off Sixth Street. As he was getting out, he turned back to thank me for the ride, with the comment, “You know, Father, up until six months ago I was a damned Protestant, but I found the true faith!”

I was tempted to say, “When you go to confession, tell the Father that a damned Protestant preacher gave you a lift,” but I didn’t. There’s no one so zealous as a convert, so instead I said, “God bless you, my son. I’m glad you’ve found a faith to live by!”

I felt sort of smug all the rest of the way to Good Sam.

I had made the change to clerical garb not without misgivings. I had a good excuse in that it served to identify me on television as a clergyman without indicating my denomination. It also defined an inner urge, perhaps giving some credence to Charles Fillmore’s assertion that I had been a Catholic priest in some past incarnation. My approach to what we call Truth had always been devotional rather than psychological. I felt good in clerical vesture. I had feared that it might turn people away from me—and no doubt in some degree it would, since it represented formalized religion and was rare, almost unique in Unity; but it also identified me as a minister, and strangers often spoke as to a friend.

It also identified me as a television personality! And as such no social lines were drawn. It was not uncommon to hear my name called from a passing truck, and I’d look up to see a burly driver waving from the cab, or to be accosted by a wino in the downtown area of the city when duties called me there.

Once when I accompanied Norma on a shopping trip to Farmer’s Market I stood outside a booth where she was making a purchase and overheard a shopper commenting to her companion, “That’s the man who talks on Channel 13!”

“Oh, yes! Doctor Christian.”

One day as I took my seat by Al facing the camera, he broached a question. “Some of our viewers think it is improper for a minister to appear on a program like this where we have everything from dog food to the horse race results. How do you feel about it?’

“It seems to me it’s just where a minister ought to be—at least part time—right in the midst of everything that people are interested in.”

There were some strange results. At the start I was supposed to appear on screen at about three o’clock, give or take a few minutes. But it kept getting later and later, until finally it got settled to the last few minutes just before the five o’clock sign off. Even then it depended on how interviews and musical numbers had gone. Instead of five minutes, I might find someone signalling me from the back of the camera, holding up three fingers, or more rarely eight. I learned to adjust my talks on the spur of the moment. The closing segment of the program had the largest viewing audience. Men on their way home from work, it seemed, would stop in the nearest bar for a drink and to get the race results—and they’d get me as well. I am told that when I came on they’d put down their glass and join me in the silent prayer with which I always started, and then finish their drink after my talk. And some even left the drink unfinished!

TV via Telephone

The daily television appearances made me realize that I was in effect serving people of all faiths, and those who hadn’t found a faith. It broadened my viewpoint. I made reference not only to Christian observances, but to those of other faiths, especially the Jewish ones. Returning home after one such occasion, as I was parking my car in the garage, an elderly Jewish couple who were my neighbors came out the back door of their house to greet me. “We’ve just heard on the telephone the nice things you said about Hanukkah,” one of them exclaimed.

“Oh, thank you; but you mean on television, not telephone, don’t you?”

“No, we don’t have a television set yet, but our son has, and he called us on the phone and had us listen in to your comments. We want to thank you for it!”

On another occasion I had a phone call at the studio from a woman who said she was a member of a committee of Catholic women who monitored religious programs on the media, and wanted to thank me for what I was doing in promoting interfaith relationships.

I became aware of how many unchurched people there are, especially when I was called on to conduct weddings and funerals—especially funerals—by persons who had no religious affiliations.

Reference to my Jewish neighbors reminds me of a young man of Semitic appearance who somehow found out where I lived, and appeared at my door late one evening, accompanied by his aged mother. He badly needed help, and begged for an interview. I invited them in, since he must have gone to some trouble to find where I lived.

He was not very prepossessing. His face and hands needed a good scrubbing; fingernails dirty, hair oily and unkempt, garments looked as if he had slept in them. His mother, he explained, spoke no English. I gestured for them to be seated.

“What is your problem?” I asked.

“I’m very unhappy. I have no friends. Girls won’t have anything to do with me.” No wonder, I thought.

“Why do you think that is?” I ventured.

“It’s my nose. I have such a big nose. People make fun of me.”

“If that’s it, though I doubt it, it can be remedied, and I’ll help you find some one who can change it, but Jimmie Durante is famous for his big nose, and I read in the Times that he has just been married to a beautiful blonde lady. Let’s consider some other things first.

You’re not making the best of your resources. Go home and take a good bath. Wash your hair, clean your fingernails, discard that ragged shirt, send your clothes to the cleaners, or throw them away. Keep yourself well-groomed. Take pride in yourself and your heritage. Then, if with all that and a friendly attitude toward yourself and others, you’re still convinced that your nose is to blame for your problems, come see me again, and I’ll help you find a surgical answer to your need.”

He accepted my drastic appraisal humbly, and left with his silent, weeping mother. I never saw them again, but for several years afterwards I got greeting cards signed “Your Heeb Friend,” so I guess he had found what his problem really was.

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