The Adventures of a Would-Be Raider of the Lost Ark

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those who know of him have suggested that the real man who inspired the fictional film hero Indiana Jones--the daring archeologist who gets himself into some of the darndest, life-threatening fixes--was the intrepid explorer, lecturer and evangelist Antonia Frederick Futterer.

But few know anything about the Australian-born Futterer, who came to Los Angeles to teach.

Unlike the film hero, Futterer never found the sacred Ark of the Covenant. But he did travel to the Holy Land, bringing back treasures that he initially stored in one room in his home. Eventually, what he called the Holyland Exhibition filled five rooms in what is now a tightly packed museum nestled in a quiet neighborhood overlooking the Glendale Freeway.

Silver Lake’s best-kept historical secret may be this collection and the Holyland Bible Knowledge Society, which Futterer established in 1924 to offer Bible classes to all faiths, including non-Christian ones.

Although the Bible classes are no longer available, the Holyland Exhibition still offers a view of artifacts from Egypt, Palestine, Damascus, Babylon, Cyprus and other Biblical lands. Among the artifacts are centuries-old furniture inlaid with mother of pearl, 5,000-year-old oil lamps, ivory and silver Mideastern jewelry, tapestries, and a 2,700-year-old sarcophagus.

There also are a few items Futterer didn’t bring back from his travels, including a life-size wood carving of a praying Jesus Christ looking upward--familiar to thousands of older Angelenos as the centerpiece of the meditation room at the now-closed Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown L.A. The statue was commissioned by restaurant founder Clifford E. Clinton in 1945. Clinton’s son, Bob, donated it to the museum four years ago, along with a 2,000-year-old Phoenician glass vial used for eyeliner.

Futterer was born in Australia in 1871 to a German Catholic father and Danish Protestant mother, neither of whom was very religious. After dropping out of school in the third grade, he learned his father’s craft of weaving cane furniture and helped build the family business.

But the promise of adventure and fortune lured Futterer west, to Kalgoorlie, where he began plumbing the rich red soil of the Australian outback in the 1890s gold rush.

Repeated attacks of appendicitis kept him from striking it rich and forced him to return home, where he nearly died. For the first time, he opened a Bible that his mother had packed in his suitcase when he left for the gold fields. It fell open to Proverbs 3:1,2: “My son, forget not my law, but let thine heart keep my commandments. For length of days and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee.”

Futterer made a pact with God: If his life was spared, he would commit himself to teaching the Bible. After he recovered, Futterer made good on his deathbed deal.

He returned to the gold fields, mining for souls instead of gold. Covering 3,000 miles, he preached to anyone who would listen, from aborigines to coal miners. Along the way he met evangelist Alexis Jeffries, the father of future heavyweight boxing champion Jim Jeffries, who sent Futterer and his wife to America to spread the gospel.

Settling in Oakland in 1911, Futterer developed and copyrighted what he called the “Eye-Ographic Bible,” a sort of Cliffs Notes for the Old Testament. The simplified text includes maps, slides, pictures and intricate genealogical charts. What he called the Eye-Ographic chart covers almost an entire wall. The canvas chart is composed of lines, dots, numbers and names to take in the Biblical epic at a glance.

“I couldn’t have accomplished in 20 years what Futterer did in three months,” marveled one minister.

Futterer made his way south from Oakland, collecting donations along the way. Using the Eye-Ographic chart, he taught the Bible in 10 easy lessons. In Los Angeles, he started a mission at Adams Boulevard and Grand Avenue.

It was 1924, a time when many new congregations were booming in Southern California. Futterer opened his Bible Knowledge Society near the Angelus Temple, which was founded by his friend and neighbor, Aimee Semple MacPherson.

Two years later, he went on his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in search of the Ark of the Covenant, believed to hold the original stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. According to biblical accounts, they disappeared after Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 587 B.C.

After years of research, Futterer concluded that the ark was not destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar razed the temple, and that it was still hidden under Mt. Nebo in modern-day Jordan.

In Jericho he met and befriended Henry Ford, who was traveling in one of his own cars that he had shipped over.

In his account of the search, Futterer wrote that he made a binding contract with the Sheik of Nebo to be “one” in the search for the ark. They shook hands and said, “Wahad,” meaning “We are one.” A photograph shows the sheik and a translator pulling Futterer from a cave atop Mt. Nebo.

Futterer thought the cave might house what he was looking for. In his journal, he wrote: “Right under my feet is a cave, only a few yards from the very top of Mt. Nebo. The mouth of it was stopped up with stones, just like Jeremiah said the lost caves would be. Is the Ark beneath this rock on which I stand? Who knows? I searched through the crevices with a flashlight I had brought from Los Angeles, for this very purpose, but I can’t stay long, I must look for more caves!”

Like Indiana Jones, he was lowered by a rope through a hole in the ground, where he found a wall of painted images, pre-Christian petroglyphs. Futterer believed the ark lay still farther below. Because authorities would not allow the site to be excavated, he had to move on. Futterer accepted the decision, believing it wasn’t God’s time for the ark to be found.

During his two years in the Holy Land, Futterer was the first person to maneuver an automobile to the top of Mt. Nebo. Because driving the route was impossible, he had the car dragged by donkeys to the summit, where he got behind the wheel and drove it down the other side.

Returning to Silver Lake with many Holy Land artifacts, he eventually converted his home into a museum that was known as the Palestine Exhibition, the Egyptian Exhibition and, finally, the Holyland Exhibition.

He wrote and published one of the first modern travel guides to the Holy Land, called “Palestine Speaks.”

He lent some of his collection to filmmakers such as Samuel Goldwyn for scenes in early epic films.

As a publicity stunt in 1931, Futterer staged the longest sermon then on record--20 hours. (A British vicar recently shattered the Guinness Book of World Records-certified mark of 27 hours and 30 seconds.) The preaching marathon even made “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” He hoped it would bring attention to his Eye-Ographic Bible course and his Holy Land artifacts.

In 1949, when he was 78, he moved to the island of Cyprus. Before he died there in 1951, his secretary used his notes on his Holy Land adventure to compile a small booklet titled “Adventures of the Golden Ark Explorer.”

The museum is now run by Betty Shepherd, a devoted Futterer fan who came from the Midwest three decades ago. She conducts tours for more than 7,000 visitors a year from all over the world. The society’s nonsectarian, nonpolitical status is “what I liked when I came here,” Shepherd said. “I couldn’t understand the Bible, so I prayed and asked God to help me find a place where I could learn the Bible, and I wound up here.”

The Holyland Exhibition is open 365 days a year by appointment only, with a $2.50 donation. For reservations, call (323) 664-3162.