Della Reese, the entertainer, has a new role: Della Reese, the metaphysician.
A near-tragedy in her life a few years ago led to her decision to take up the activity that now occupies much of her time. She is the founder and director of Understanding Principles (or simply UP), a metaphysical study center with a busy schedule of lectures, seminars, gospel nights and, every Sunday, a potpourri of R&B;, jazz and pop with a long line of volunteer performers.
How did she happen to make this transition in her career?
“It all began in 1979,” Reese said. “I was on ‘The Tonight Show’ when my brain exploded--I had two brain operations in 10 days. At that time, I didn’t even know what an aneurysm was, although I knew Quincy Jones had one.
“I was lying there on that bed while I convalesced, looking back at what I had done with my life. I had done some marvelous things, but they were all for me or my immediate family. If I had died there and then, what could people say I had accomplished?
“So, after I recovered, I went to school and studied metaphysics at the Johnnie Colemon Institute in Chicago and got my certificate. I began teaching classes in my home, but eventually it became too crowded, so we moved up to this building last May.”
“This building” is a high-domed, ornate, churchlike edifice on Riverside Drive, just west of Woodman Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. Judging by the sounds, though--the sing-along, clap-along responses to the jubilant voices of a choir--you would have sworn you were at a revival meeting. On a recent Sunday evening, just as she had on many other evenings in the last four months, Reese had her congregation in her spell.
Typically, the action began with Reese herself in a fast-paced medley of pop standards, segueing to songs by Lionel Richie and Paul Williams. For the rest of the long evening, a succession of singers took over, with Reese sometimes singing backup or joining in for a duet, or simply leaning over the second-floor balcony clapping on the offbeats as she watched the show progress.
Some of the songs were inspirational (“That’s What Jesus Means to Me”), others a little melodramatic (“You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung by Reese and Eric Strom); all were received warmly by a crowd that was as well integrated as the cast of performers.
Particularly impressive was the group known as Spirit, led by seven youthful singers, one of them a striking beauty named Cheryl Nickerson, suggesting a younger Aretha Franklin.
In a sense, the wheel has come full circle for Reese. Born in Detroit, Dellareese Taliaferro sang in choirs from the age of 6; starting at 13, she spent several summer seasons with the Mahalia Jackson troupe. For a while, after completing her studies at Wayne University, she led her own gospel group. Then came the years of solo singing, of appearances on Gleason, Sullivan, and albums for RCA, followed by her own syndicated TV series in 1969-70.
She’s been able to juggle her metaphysical interests with her ongoing TV, movie and nightclub jobs. Still on the air in “Crazy Like a Fox” reruns, she recently completed the starring role in a TV movie for Dick Clark, “The Gift of Amazing Grace,” an ABC-TV after-school special, with Tempestt Bledsoe of “The Cosby Show.” She has planned to take a leave of absence from the study center to play club dates in Canada and back home in Detroit.
The rental on her Sherman Oaks building is high; she expects to move to another location soon, though she claims the expense doesn’t bother her. “When I think of how much I threw away on things that weren’t meaningful, I’m glad I can spend my time and money on people who come here to be helped.
“We use many sources of inspiration: God, Jesus Christ, Ernest Holmes’ science of mind philosophy, Socrates, anything that helps us understand the principles of the universe.”
Among her guest speakers have been Dr. Peggy Bassett and Dr. Tom Johnson, both of the Church of Religious Science, and the Rev. Mario de la Garza of World Goodwill Fellowship.
“Tuesday nights,” said Reese, “I teach the basic concepts of metaphysics. Thursdays I’m doing a series of talks on ‘The Millionaires of the Bible.’ Fridays, gospel singers from around the city visit us, and Sundays, as you can see, we have singers of all kinds and we serve food, soft drinks and just sit around and have a good time.
“It’s great to have a place where you can help people to help themselves. I can’t recall anything that’s made me happier than this.”