Studio of Studios : Hollywood church rents rooms to movie makers, dance troupes, actors and Las Vegas revues
Movie executives love the First United Methodist Church of Hollywood. So do theater, dance, television, music and Las Vegas show people.
Their admiration for the grand old sanctuary on the corner of Highland and Franklin avenues has nothing to do with religion. The church is a prime provider of rehearsal, audition and film location space for the entertainment industry.
In turn, the church loves the industry. Without it, the congregation would likely be out of its beloved home, said Kenneth Watson, pastor of the church from 1974 until his retirement in 1985.
“If we hadn’t started to rent out the space we had, we would no longer be ‘on the corner,’ as we say. It saved the church, and it sure made us a livelier place.”
Throughout a typical weekday at the church the classroom wing is abuzz with various musical auditions, play rehearsals, choral group practice and ballet and acting classes. Over in the recreational wing a big musical or Vegas-style show might be in progress.
In the mid-1970s, when Watson arrived, a day at the church was far more sedate. “When the bishop asked me to come to Hollywood, I wasn’t too happy about it,” said Watson, who was at a church in Hawthorne. “I knew Hollywood was going down the tubes and I didn’t want to be there to see it die.”
In 1928 when ground was broken for the 80-foot high sanctuary with a 160-foot bell tower, Hollywood seemed like the promised land. The church, then at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Ivar Street, had increased its membership 500% in just a decade. The lot at Highland and Franklin was bought for $205,000 and grand plans were made.
“The building was to be more than a church,” said Rodney Sprott, current church administrator. “It was planned as a community center. There were huge Sunday school classrooms, some 30 by 30 and 2 stories tall, and meeting rooms. The gymnasium was part of the plan to involve the community.
“These days, no church is built like that.”
Even the Depression did not interrupt the growth of the congregation, although it seemed at times that the membership would have trouble meeting its hefty mortgage payments on the project’s total cost of $779,973.07.
The church persevered (the mortgage was finally burned in 1945) and in the war years First United hit its stride. It not only served as a spiritual and community center, but as a way station for visiting soldiers. Beds were packed into the gym and church hallways to accommodate men on weekend leaves.
By the 1950s church membership had reached 2,200.
The decline of First United came even faster than its rise. “In the 1960s, mainstream churches were all hit by a set of attitudes that came to distrust organized Western religion,” Sprott said. “And Hollywood was disintegrating as a neighborhood. It was becoming much more transitory.”
By the time Watson arrived, membership was down to nearly 500. “The church was in terrible shape,” he recalled. “Rooms had been empty for years, others had trash and accumulated junk piled up in them. There were repairs that were needed everywhere, but no money for them. I told the church board that something had to be done right away or the church would die.”
Shortly after he gave his dire report to the board, a producer of Vegas-style revues stopped by to ask about the building.
“He walked in and asked if we had any room to rent for a show he was putting together,” Watson said. “I took him up and showed him the gym.”
The producer, who was overseeing a touring show for Raquel Welch, liked what he saw, and First United made its first show business rental.
“Word spread fast that we had all this space available,” Watson said. “We started to get calls from all over.”
The church quickly adapted to the new-found source of revenue. Sammy Davis Jr., one of the early renters of the gym, helped the church pick out the kind of full-length mirrors that dancers like for rehearsals. Old carpet was stripped from former classrooms and the hardwood floors underneath were refurbished. Meeting rooms were cleaned up and turned over to theater groups.
The bulk of renters were small theater, dance and music ensembles, but stars of the caliber of Henry Fonda could also be found at the church. “He said he liked it here because he could work with peace and calm,” Watson said. “No one bothered him here.” Pearl Bailey rehearsed there, as did Jack Lemmon and Lena Horne.
Big-time choreographers and directors, such as Bob Fosse, would reserve the gym months in advance. One of Watson’s favorite memories was watching Debbie Allen work out routines for the movie “Fame” with her dancers. “Annie,” “Cats,” “Evita,” and “Les Miserables” all rehearsed in the gym and shows like Broadway’s “Into the Woods” and the upcoming London production of “Miss Saigon” used the church for local auditions.
Musical groups from classical to pop have been there too. “I remember one time going down to the gym and seeing Harry James’ band warming up,” Watson said. “Then Harry James walked in, walked up to the band and without a word raised his baton. When he brought it down they took off like a rocket. It was something.”
More recently, auditions have been held at the church for Elton John, Rod Stewart and Debbie Gibson videos. And the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles has been a longtime user of a rehearsal room, which from time to time has caused some consternation among church members, especially when Watson invited the group to sing one Sunday morning for services. “We lost a few members of the church over that,” Watson said with a chuckle, “but that was OK. We are not there to discriminate. I think the chorus is great.”
Movies also used the church as a set. The high school gym scenes in “Back to the Future” were shot there, and several television shows have made use of the sanctuary.
Watson said that the church eventually was earning as much as two-thirds of its income from rentals. Sprott said that rental rates for groups range from $15 an hour for the use of some of the former Sunday school rooms up to about $900 a week for the gym. He declined to disclose what percentage of the church’s revenue is earned from outside groups, but he did say it is still responsible for funding a large part of the church budget, which next year is set at almost $400,000.
“We can’t lose sight of the importance of membership contributions too,” Sprott said. “Especially now that membership is finally starting to go up again. Churches like ours are coming back as people start to leave the personality, TV-type churches and look toward more traditional institutions.”
Watson is proud that the church is still there, after all the hard times, and he unabashedly credits its connection with the entertainment world for its survival.
“We gave the place life with all the activity going on,” he said. “It was one of the ways we opened the church to the community and it gave us something at the same time.
“When I got there my job was to keep the church on the corner, and I did.”