History and Reverence Illuminate a Hilltop Icon
Preservation of the hilltop landmark next to the Cahuenga Pass has sometimes been a heavy cross to bear.
It has been ripped by fire. Rattled by high winds and earthquakes. Attacked by vandals and lawyers -- and even by Nazis.
In spite of it all, the Hollywood cross stands today where it was first erected 81 years ago.
It owes its existence to a series of owners and activists who for decades struggled to keep it patched up and propped up. And to a Van Nuys church congregation that has pledged to keep it lighted into eternity.
Along with the Hollywood Bowl, the 34-foot cross is one of the community’s most familiar icons. It is even depicted along with the famed amphitheater on the Los Angeles County seal.
The history of the Hollywood cross, in fact, is tied closely to that of the nearby Hollywood Bowl.
The cross was placed in 1923 above what is now the Hollywood Freeway as a memorial to the woman considered responsible for founding the Bowl.
Christine Wetherill Stevenson was heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint fortune in 1919 when she helped create the amphitheater. She hoped it would be a venue for outdoor plays based on the life of Jesus Christ.
She conducted the first Easter sunrise service there in 1921. But a dispute with partners prompted her to buy a 29-acre ravine across the canyon from the Bowl for her religious shows.
The summertime production at her new Pilgrimage Play Theater was based on passages from the Bible. Her play became an immediate hit with Los Angeles audiences, but Stevenson died unexpectedly in 1922. The next year, her friends and supporters installed a 40-foot lighted cross on the hill next to the theater as a memorial to her.
The 1,800 incandescent bulbs that outlined the $200 wooden cross were turned on during evening performances and for Easter sunrise services in the Hollywood Bowl. At first, Sunday school children paid for the electricity. Later, Southern California Edison provided it for free.
Operators of the Pilgrimage Theater donated it and the land beneath the cross to the county in 1941.
Later that year -- three months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor led the U.S. into World War II -- apparent Hitler sympathizers used bags of white lime to outline a huge Nazi swastika on the hillside a few feet from the cross. Police investigated, but no suspects were ever arrested.
For the next several decades, county workers routinely maintained the cross. The last of Stevenson’s religious plays was staged in what is now called the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in 1964.
The original wooden cross burned down in a brush fire in 1965, and the county replaced it with a steel-and-plexiglass structure.
But county involvement with the cross came under scrutiny after a 1978 state Supreme Court ruling ended a 30-year tradition of lighting Los Angeles City Hall windows in the shape of a cross at Easter and Christmas.
Pointing to that decision regarding separation of church and state, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union sought an injunction to prevent public money from being spent on the Hollywood cross.
The county pulled the plug on it in 1979. In response, the late Kenneth Hahn, then chairman of the county Board of Supervisors and father of future Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, tried to lease the land beneath the cross to the Southern California Council of Churches for $1 a year.
Other county officials were reluctant to turn the land over to a church group, however. They instead sold the cross and its land for $1,000 to a preservationist group, Hollywood Heritage. But before the cross could be renovated, vandals sawed through several of its steel support braces, and a 1984 Santa Ana windstorm sent it crashing to the ground.
Volunteers managed to build a temporary 17-foot version of the monument out of pieces of the destroyed cross before the 1985 Easter sunrise service at the Bowl.
Attempts to permanently restore the cross faltered, even though local church groups passed the hat and a Latvian refugee named Mindas Masiulis wrote “The Ballad of the Hollywood Cross” and built a cross out of balloons at one Hollywood Bowl sunrise service to draw attention to the fallen landmark.
The cross was resurrected in 1993. A Simi Valley shortwave radio evangelism organization, High Adventure Ministries, and the East Hollywood-Los Feliz Kiwanis Club spent about $110,000 to rebuild it.
Hancock Park resident Norma Oreskovich recalls how her late husband, Peter, drew up engineering plans through the Hollywood Lutheran Church for the sturdy new cross and watched as a helicopter lifted it into place.
“It brings spiritual protection to Hollywood, I really do believe that,” she says of the monument.
The cross’ current owner is the Church on the Way, a 15,000-member Pentecostal congregation in Van Nuys affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
It acquired the monument and about a quarter-acre of land around it in 1997, reimbursing High Adventure Ministries for its expenses. The radio group used the money to build a broadcast tower in the Middle East.
Jack Hayford, senior pastor at the Church on the Way, raised enough in donations by church members and contributions from other congregations around Los Angeles to create an endowment that church leaders expect will cover cross maintenance in perpetuity.
“We felt that cross is a landmark and is something central to our beliefs,” said John Farmer, associate pastor at the Church on the Way. “It’s important to us. We didn’t want it to disappear.”
Operated on a timer and protected by an electronic alarm, the cross is regularly maintained and kept clear of brush, according to Farmer.
Parishioners who are among those in the 300,000 cars that pass beneath the cross each day are quick to alert the church if they notice any malfunctioning bulbs.
“It’s lighted every night,” said Justin Tolle, director of administration for the church. “We never want it to be out again.”
The cross will be on until dawn Sunday. But there will be no traditional Easter sunrise service across the freeway at the Hollywood Bowl. It is closed for renovation.
“We’ll be out front, handing out fliers to people who have come a long way and don’t know the Bowl is under reconstruction,” said Norma Foster, producer of the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service.
“We’re suggesting that this year they go to the free, nondenominational sunrise service a few miles away at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.”