Bumpy Sleigh Ride : Chamber Draws Fire for Being Co-Sponsor With Scientologists

Times Staff Writer

For all its supposed good cheer, the holiday season is ending on a beastly note for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President Bill Welsh expected only good tidings when he decided that the chamber would join the Church of Scientology in co-sponsoring a seven-mule-team sleigh ride on Hollywood Boulevard. He was pleased when the Scientologists told him they wanted to revive the holiday sleigh ride, a Hollywood tradition discontinued more than two decades ago because of lack of interest and money.

"It's about the only thing that's happening in Hollywood (now) to let people know there's a hol iday season going on," Welsh said.

But in past weeks, the decision has stirred criticism from some Hollywood merchants and religious leaders who complain that the chamber's co-sponsorship might be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Scientology's controversial counseling and religious theories.

"I just don't think the chamber should lend its name to Scientology's activities in any way," said Ronald Spyrison, a chamber member and president of Barrington Communications, a Hollywood advertising agency.

"I was kind of amazed that the chamber would allow that to go on," said the Rev. William Thom, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, on Sunset Boulevard.

Scientology was founded in the mid-1950s by reclusive science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. In 1979, nine top Scientology leaders, including Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue, were convicted of a conspiracy that involved the burglarizing of government offices and the theft of thousands of government documents relating to tax investigations of the church.

The mules and the sleigh, which were scheduled to depart this weekend, have become familiar sights in recent weeks, parked in front of the Church of Scientology headquarters or taking children on brief tours of the boulevard accompanied by a costumed Santa Claus.

Indeed, the boulevard's most visible signs of Christmas have been provided by the Scientologists, who for the past two Decembers have erected a sidewalk North Pole tableau, complete with Santa Claus, toy factory, ersatz snow and towering Christmas tree. This year's 65-foot tree was donated by Hubbard, according to Scientologist Bill Dendiu. The Scientologists call the tableau "Winter Wonderland."

The Church of Scientology, which has been a member of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce since 1975, has extended its holdings in Hollywood in recent years, not only with its boulevard headquarters, but also by buying several old hotels and the vacant Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Its members often proselytize on the street near the headquarters, urging passers-by to learn about the Church of Scientology's beliefs, which include the notion that a lie detector-like instrument known as an "E meter" can be used to help a person erase negative experiences.

"Since Hollywood's our home, we want to spread a little Christmas cheer here," said Ken Hoden, head of the church's Hollywood office.

Welsh said the idea for the mule-drawn sleigh came up during conversations with Scientology officials as they were putting up their Christmas tree in late October. When the Scientology officials offered to pay for a sleigh ride, Welsh quickly agreed.

"Something came up about Santa Claus and I started telling them about the history of our sleigh ride," Welsh said.

Welsh said Hollywood's sleigh ride tradition started in the 1930s as daily holiday entertainment designed to follow Hollywood's annual Christmas parade (usually held in early December) and continue until Christmas. The sleigh, bearing a costumed Santa Claus, was originally pulled down Hollywood Boulevard by a team of reindeer. But the reindeer were replaced after several years by a motorized sleigh.

The sleigh ride was discontinued in the early 1960s as public interest declined and the chamber found itself unable to pay for it, Welsh said. Since then, Hollywood's holiday pageantry has dwindled and the financially strapped chamber now sponsors only the annual Christmas Parade and a few street decorations. This year, the chamber was able to raise only $7,500 to install some old, weathered Christmas ornaments.

"That was only enough to put up three-fourths of the decorations," said Robert Hansen, president of Frederick's of Hollywood and a chamber member.

Welsh expected the decision to co-sponsor the sleigh with the Church of Scientology to be controversial, but said the risk was worth it. "If somebody can do a better job of bringing Christmas to the boulevard, let them," he said.

No Reindeer

On Nov. 10, the church brought the mule team to Hollywood Boulevard. "We checked around, but we couldn't find any reindeer," said Dendiu, who hired the mule team.

The mules were an immediate hit with passers-by. Children petted them and clambered up on the sleigh. Even Hollywood's street people approached in awe. One cornered mule driver Haven Reninger to ask: "Is it true that mules can't walk backwards?" When Reninger assured him that was the case, the derelict cautiously patted one animal's rump.

But some locals reacted angrily when they saw a sign on the sleigh advertising the sponsorship by the Chamber of Commerce and the Scientologists.

"I cringed every time I walked by," said Spyrison. "The chamber is lucky I sent my dues in two weeks before the mule got here. I would never have paid otherwise. It offends me that an organization I support has given a de facto endorsement to a group I don't want anything to do with."

Rabbi Gilbert Kollin, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, a West Hollywood synagogue with many Hollywood members, was also critical. "It seemed a little strange and inappropriate," he said. "Most established churches and synagogues in Hollywood regard them (the Scientologists) as a cult."

'I Was Shocked'

Even Arland (Buzz) Johnson, a former candidate for City Council and a long-time Hollywood booster, was bewildered. "I was shocked," he said. "I realize that Scientology is trying to get respectable, but I'm not sure the Hollywood community should help them do it."

The Scientologists have found some defenders among local merchants. "If someone wishes to come along and add Christmas flavor to the boulevard, I think we should welcome them with open arms," said Frederick's Hansen.

And Gary Silver, president of Mattson's of Hollywood, a men's clothing store on the boulevard, said he thought the "good publicity will outweigh the bad. They're trying to make a good impression, and if the kids like it, and it brings some shoppers in, it's worth the bad-mouthing by the people who don't like it."

The controversy has not fazed Welsh. Claiming that he has heard only one complaint, he is ready to co-sponsor the sleigh ride with the Scientologists again next year. "I'm not going to judge them," he said. "They and we (the chamber) are about the only ones bringing Christmas to the boulevard. I'll take any help I can get."

'I just don't think the chamber should lend its name to Scientology's activities in any way.'

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