L.A.'s most bizarre night? Strange talent show for fire-ravaged library brought the city together

Collecting pledges for the library at a 1987 telethon that featured Charlton Heston, Angie Dickinson, Lakers coach Pat Riley and Henry Kissinger reading memoirs of Charles de Gaulle.
(Los Angeles Public LIbrary)

L.A. knows how to put on a variety show.

But few productions brought together such an assortment of players and characters from across the city than a surreal talent show broadcast nationwide in 1987.

The telethon brought together L.A. politicians, titans of business, actors, artists and an eccentric televangelist who served as ringleader in a desperate quest to raise money to benefit the Los Angeles Central Library. A fire had badly burned the landmark building the year before. Susan Orlean chronicles the devastating fire and devotes a chapter to the telethon in “The Library Book,” which is the inaugural selection for the new Los Angeles Times Book Club.

RELATED: The Book Club Facebook page


The Book Club will host host a June 25 forum with Orlean at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles.

Here is the story of that strange L.A. night from the pages of the Los Angeles Times,

The telethon in 1987.
(Los Angeles Public Library)

The goal was to raise money to replace books lost in the fire. Officials had been doing fundraising — collecting dimes from schoolchildren and big checks from the likes of Lew Wasserman — but hoped a telethon could get them closer to their goal.


RELATED: What’s LA reading? Our habits are as diverse as the city itself

The Rev. Gene Scott agreed to host the telethon at his University Network studios in Glendale. Scott was a colorful and controversial figure in Los Angeles. His “Jesus Saves” building was next to the library, and he took a deep interest in the rebuilding process. The televangelist had raised eyebrows for refusing to turn over financial records to Federal Communications Commission investigators — and telethon organizers had to defend Scott’s role.

The preacher was eager to hype the show he’d be helping put together. As The Times reported:

The telethon will feature appearances by such celebrities as comedian-composer Steve Allen, actors Charlton Heston, Gary Collins, Mary Ann Mobley, Angie Dickinson and Eddie Albert, Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.


In a taped appearance, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger will read a selection from the memoirs of former French President Charles de Gaulle.

Scott told a news conference called to publicize the telethon that he would donate his services beyond the Saturday noon deadline if the $2 million is not pledged.

“If we don’t, we will just donate one night a week to solicit donations until we do raise the $2 million,” he said. “No sleep, no eat until we get it. . . . “

The telethon itself did not disappoint in its eclecticism:


Just what was Atlantic Richfield’s distinguished grey-haired chairman Lodwrick M. Cook doing up there anyway, swaying seductively and demurely shrugging out of his tweed sports jacket to the tune of “Gigolo”?

While the dance was far from literary, it was certainly “novel” and thus in keeping with the theme of the Save the Books telethon held Friday and Saturday to benefit the fire-ravaged Los Angeles Central Library. And during the half hour after Cook’s performance, telephone calls poured into the television studio from as far away as Arkansas and Connecticut, generating $100,000 worth of pledges.

“My mother called me and told me he was dancing . . . and I said, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” his wife, Carole, said later, her eyes rolling up toward the ceiling. “The rerun I’ve got to see.” Wyman Jones, director of the library, who went on to wow the audience with a mean jazz piano number, added, “I’d call it inspirational.”

Hundreds of volunteers, including some of the library staff, manned the 200 phones. Dressed in wine-colored Save the Books sweat shirts, the studio audience cheered, stomped and whistled as the money tally inched upward, fed by donations as small as 40 cents from children to thousands of dollars from corporations.


During the last live hour of the telethon, with the tally hovering around $900,000, Cook, now offstage, said that most of his reading lately has been business books. The first book he ever borrowed from a library was “Tom Swift”; now he’s reading Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization.”

Televangelist Gene Scott, telethon host, was praised by then-Mayor Tom Bradley as “the man who made it happen.”
(Los Angeles Times)

Former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, 81, took the stage, calling for the state to spend more money on libraries.

Brown said that right now he’s reading Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, but one of his all time favorites is “Ivanhoe.” Libraries have a special place in his heart, he added, because, “When I was a young fella in San Francisco I used to go to the library to see this particular girl who was studying there . . . well, we’ve been married 56 years, and have four children and 12 grandchildren.”


As the telethon wound down to the last 15 minutes, still $57,000 short of the $1 million goal, Scott (who says his favorite book is Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Nature and Destiny of Man”) urged the audience on in his gravelly voice. A chilling tape of the disastrous fire was rerun, showing smoke and flames erupting from the library building.

After 51 hours on the air — at 12:45 a.m. — the telethon reached the $2-million mark.

Mayor Bradley later praised Scott’s efforts, The Times reported.

“The man who made it happen,” Bradley said of Scott, who died in 2005.


Many donors “watch Gene Scott regularly and (they said), ‘This is the reason why we’re pledging.’ ”

Learn more about the L.A. Times book club.

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