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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XXXIX — With Good Intentions

All these incidents indicate why I felt a deep sense of gratitude to Don Fedderson for making them possible. So when studio rumors indicated that he was having difficulty financing further expansion in his enterprises I wanted to show my faith in him. I phoned for an appointment to meet him in his office in a swank Beverly Hills building on Wilshire Boulevard. I was, as I later realized, completely ignorant of the financial scale of such operations.

Naively, but with good intentions, I offered him the use of my savings, amounting to something between thirty and fifty thousand dollars.

His reaction confused me. He seemed emotionally disturbed. Curtly as it seemed to me, he rejected my offer. He even seemed to want to terminate the visit. Before I realized it, I was out on the street, a check made out to him back in my pocket.

It was some time before I knew why he acted so strangely. He had invited me to dinner, and it turned out that some New York bankers who were his financial backers were also present.

After he’d introduced me to them, and we were sitting down to dinner, he turned to them and said:

“I don’t want to embarrass Doctor Wilson, but I want to tell you what he tried to do. In all my life I’ve never known anyone to have such faith in me. Without any question, any discussion of loans or interest or repayment, he just tried to offer me all his life’s savings. I could hardly keep from bawling, and I had to excuse myself so he wouldn’t see how affected I was.”

I think it tells something of what kind of a man Don is. (And several times since I’ve thought to myself that if he’d accepted the sum and made me a minor partner, I might have become a wealthy man!) Well, I think I am a wealthy man, in many ways besides money—and enough of that to get along.

After Al was offered a similar program on one of the networks, and Betty became his successor, I still saw him from time to time, but he somehow seemed to have lost some of the assurance he had displayed on Channel 13. One of the local staff made the comment, “He was Number One here; he’s only Number 32 on the network.” Betty too, began getting offers. Don promoted her in several situation comedies, and finally in a talk show, rightly called The Betty White Show. It lasted just six months, and during that time I appeared weekly in a continuation of “Thought for the Day.”

My most exciting experience during that tenure was presenting the Candlelighting Service at Christmas time. We announced it well in advance, inviting viewers to write in for little blessed candles to light in their homes as we lighted others on the show. It was presented on the NBC network from their Burbank studios. Personal plans of our hardworking staff were disrupted by the avalanche of mail requests that came into the studio, and our staff members worked far into the night filling requests for candles. We sent out 65,000 little candles, each with a typed prayer wrapped around it, during the two weeks prior to the show nearest Christmas. More mail came in after the holidays thanking us for the presentation.

Winning versus Selling

Doing the daily programs was a great opportunity. Through it I brought the Unity philosophy to countless thousands of people, more so by Unity’s never being mentioned than by trying to press it upon them. But it left little free time for recreation, travel, or other activities to which I was accustomed. When this came to Don’s attention he arranged for me to do a series of undated programs on film, which required putting a studio staff at my disposal at what seemed to me a phenomenal cost. It enabled me to take a brief vacation now and then, and also to resume my visits to Unity headquarters.

I did not expect wholehearted approval of the various forms our ministry had taken. There was little comment except the chiding expressed by some staff members that Unity received no recognition on the program on which I appeared.

This was, I suppose, a natural reaction, although it didn’t seem so to me at the time. I felt deflated by it. But my spirits were raised by an unprecedented incident: an invitation from Rick to join him and his daughter, Rosemary, for dinner at his home at the Village. I had only once before been invited to his home. It was a pleasant meal in which Rosemary kept a casual conversation going. Being summertime, after dinner we repaired to easy chairs on the lawn, where for a time I was fascinated by watching the fireflies in the surrounding shrubbery. Soon we were joined by Lowell and Alice. Then for the first time Rick congratulated me on my television appearances, and that subject dominated the conversation. They all expressed interest, and Rick and Rosemary plied me with questions about how it all happened, why I was chosen, what I wore, whether makeup was required, whether I used a script, how many minutes I was given, how I knew when to start and stop; about camera angles, lighting, other guests. I was delighted at their interest, told them everything I could think of. They seemed more interested in this than in the church or radio programs or anything else I had done.

It was only after I had returned to California and a few months later that I heard that the School was starting a television department, featuring Rosemary in a Daily Word program.

I wished they had told me about it that evening. I might have been inspired to think of still other things I could have told them.

The Universal Language

Mabel Beebe often declared (she seldom just said anything): “If I have any choice when I come back I’m going to be a symphony orchestra conductor!”

My fondness for music doesn’t go that far, but I could hope that in another life I’ll have a gift for some form of musical expression. As it is, I have to be content with an appreciation of musical gifts in others. Pythagoras is reputed to have described music as the universal language. It seems to me to be an inseparable part of religion—certainly of mine. Many gifted singers, instrumentalists, and composers have graced Christ Church from the chancel and the pews.

Richard Bonelli, who is a Metropolitan opera star, and his lovely wife, Mona, who looks like an opera star should, but is a poet, were regular attendants. Dick half-jokingly called himself a bishop, because following concerts he gave for the Mormons, they conferred that title on him.

“Anytime Pat can’t sing, I’ll help out if I’m in town,” he offered.

Jimmy Dodd

Franklyn discovered Jimmy Dodd’s touching song, “He Was There,” and introduced it to our congregation in our Sunday service. As he was singing the opening lines (“I looked for Him in the soft summer breeze and He was there”) I caught sight of the composer seated with his wife, Ruth, in the front row of the balcony. Although he had composed over three hundred songs, many of which became popular, he became better known as a comedian in movies and even more so as Master of Ceremonies of the Mouseketeers program on television. I felt there must be a special story back of the song. As Franklyn concluded his rendition I ventured to tell the congregation that the composer was present, and asked Jimmy if he would come to the chancel and tell us about how he came to write it.

There was indeed a story back of it which had never been publicized. He had, it seemed, become seriously ill following an intensive round of performances. His illness was believed to be terminal.

He did not want to die. He was still a young man, much in love with his wife and his work, but there was a void in his spiritual life that he longed to fill. Lying flat on his back in the hospital he prayed as he never had before, with the conviction that God was there, right there with him; and the conviction took form, effortlessly, in words and music. His recovery was swift and complete.

It was a moving narration. Leslie Jolliff, our organist, softly repeated the melody while we all, ministers, congregation, and Jimmy himself, were enthralled by the mood his story had evoked. Then, as seldom happened in our church, there was a spontaneous burst of applause. Franklyn, Norma and I pressed forward to clasp his hand. Norma gave him a hug, and there was another burst of applause.


When Militza Korjus was in town to appear opposite Fernand Gravet in a picture featuring the great Strauss waltzes Franklyn was invited to visit the set and met the vivacious soprano. She declared that she would like to “do a song” for our congregation at our midweek evening service. Her rendition of Malotte’s setting to “The Lord’s Prayer” was so moving that it called forth a response like the one that followed Jimmy Dodd’s story. The congregation would not stop applauding. Someone cried “More!”

“Won’t you?” I asked.

“Gladly, but I only brought the music for one,” she answered.

“Then sing it again!” came a voice from the pews. She did.

She did not tell her story, though there was one. She had been appearing in Mexico City when she was so badly injured in an auto accident that it was believed she might never be able to appear again as a performer. Her song for us was a part of her effort to give thanks for her recovery.

V-J Day with a Composer

Albert Hay Mallotte attended our church for the first time because his parents were members and brought Franklyn a manuscript copy of a song he had composed in tribute to his mother. It was to be sung for the first time publicly in our Mother’s Day service. He had not been much of a church-goer, but felt at home with us and attended frequently, even offering to play accompaniments for Franklyn. He invited us to spend the evening of V-J Day with him in his studio, as he played one melody after another in prayerful thanksgiving for that major step toward peace.

Albert’s father was an expert bookbinder, employed by the motion picture studios. I had become acquainted with him and his wife when he offered to restore my little fifteen-cent copy of Emerson’s Essays. He worked a miracle. It is beautifully bound in leather, with gilt-edged pages, gold embossed spine, and the whole volume protected by a case made to fit.

Eddie Bush

It was television that made us acquainted with Eddie Bush, tenor soloist with Harry Owen’s Royal Hawaiians. Some San Francisco friends had invited me to spend a weekend with them, and took me to dinner at the St. Francis Hotel, where the Hawaiians were playing. I have always enjoyed social dancing, but in church gatherings I had found it impossible to dance with all the ladies, and so refrained from dancing with any. My hostess and I were enjoying a waltz which took us close to the bandstand in the dining room. Eddie Bush looked up from his steel guitar and exclaimed, “Why, Doctor Wilson, what are you doing here?”

“A weekend’s vacation, but how did you know me?”

“From your TV program. I have something to tell you. May I come to your table when we have a break?”

“My friends and I would be delighted.”

As he joined us he told a touching story. He and his wife—they were deeply in love—were having difficulties. She was unable to bear him the child they both wanted, was tubercular, troubled by his association with so many beautiful women. He became an alcoholic, lost his job with the Hawaiians. During his idleness he had by chance tuned in on “Thought for the Day,” found the inward strength to overcome his addiction and been reinstated in his job.

Eddie was a hapa-haoli, that is a half-white half-Hawaiian. His Hawaiian mother had married an Irishman. Eddie had become an entertainer at the age of five, and had been the one steady breadwinner for his parents and their brood of children until, well in his thirties, he had broken loose and married a childhood sweetheart. I ventured to suggest that they adopt a child, and with the cooperation of their physician they did so—a little boy. I flew to their home in Las Vegas to christen the youngster, and found that they wanted him named after the physician and me.

Singing Up a Storm

Norma received ordination at Conference a year before Franklyn—somewhat to his chagrin, though it spurred him to complete his own preparation. He covered his chagrin by proposing that we arrange to accompany her to headquarters for the event. I was to give a talk and Franklyn was invited to present an evening musical meditation service in the Silent Unity chapel. I went with him to a morning rehearsal. He was to be accompanied on the electric organ by a staff organist. The organ was at floor level to the right of the chancel; a grand piano, which they decided not to use, was across from it to the left. Everything seemed in order.

That evening the chapel was crowded.

Everything went well until, as Franklyn began his final number—“The Lord’s Prayer”—the elements began putting on a show of their own. There was a flash of lightning, a peal of thunder, and a heavy downpour of rain. Franklyn raised his voice to be heard. Suddenly every light on the Farm went out; the organ stopped perforce. Without missing a note, Franklyn continued to sing; groping his way across to the piano he struck a chord and finished the song to his own accompaniment.

As suddenly as the lights went off, they came on again, to a manmade storm—of applause. He became the highlight of the Conference.

The next year, when Franklyn appeared for his ordination, the ceremony was held outdoors in the amphitheater. Another summer rain had wet the seats, most of which had been hastily wiped dry. Franklyn’s was missed. He sat in a puddle of water. “Wouldn’t you know,” he commented to me later, “I’d get baptized at the wrong end!”

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