October 04, 2007
On 18 August 2007 at 10:30 P.M., my brother Andre, writer-documentary-maker Ed Canfield, and I led a candlelight procession of some 50 people down Selma Avenue in Hollywood , California . The cavalcade wended its three block-long way from an establishment called The Piano Bar to an office building inhabited by an outfit called “Five Star Video,” at 1555 Cassil Place . Despite the date, this was not an observance in honor of St. Agapitus—Hollywood is not known for its festas (although in recent years the feast of San Gennaro has become a local observance—thanks to Jimmy Kimmel, of all people). No, despite the fact that all occurred under the shadow of the imposing Jesuit Church of the Blessed Sacrament (where I received my First Communion), the worthy being honored was the Amazing Criswell.
This procession, which featured the singing of such hymns as “Kumbaya” and the theme from The Rocky Horror Picture Show was part of a festivity dubbed the “Cristennial,” in observation of the great psychic’s hundredth birthday. Other events included a party at the Piano Bar, featuring an endless loop of one of Criswell’s appearances with Jack Paar in 1962, and a rendition of Mae West’s classic ballad in his honor, “Criswell Predicts.” You see, the Video Office, in its former incarnation as 6620 Selma Avenue , was the apartment house which the prognosticator had owned, where we Coulombes had made our home upon arrival in Hollywood from New York in the mid-60s. Together with Criswell’s former art director, Claudia Polifronio (a fellow tenant at the time) and our mother, Andre and I were the only ones of the glittering assemblage who had actually known the great man. All the others had assembled purely out of homage to America’s first celebrity psychic.
Of course, it must be confessed that all the veneration offered the memory of the Man from Princeton (Indiana) was not entirely serious. True, one night in 1962, on the Tonight Show, Criswell had declared that “I predict that President Kennedy will not run for reelection in 1964, because of something that will happen to him in November 1963”—a prediction many others of the ESP fraternity discovered that they had made only after the event. Moreover, on December 31, 1965, Criswell predicted that Ronald Reagan would be California’s next governor. Some of his predictions—unattached to a particular date—have certainly come true: homosexuality has indeed been legalized by the Supreme Court, and clothes have become very unisex. But many others might be considered wildly inaccurate—for instance, that Mae West would be elected president in 1960; that pregnant women would be the first Americans on the Moon; that London would be destroyed by a meteor in 1988. Most famous of all, of course, was Criswell’s declaration that the World would end on August 18, 1999.
Sadly, the seer himself had “departed our dimension” (in Tim Burton’s memorable phrase) in 1982. Bereft of his support, I resolved to ride out this momentous occasion with many friends at Boardner’s, Criswell’s favorite bar in Hollywood—it was in staggering distance from the house. As writer John Whalen wrote in his coverage of that event for The New Yorker, “Alas, when the last revellers left, at 2 A.M., Boardners was still standing, thus dealing the Criswell legacy yet another harsh statistical blow.” Yes, well, scoffers may scoff! But we true believers know that all of us on earth are simply dwellers in the Criswellian aftermath! Thus it was that, eight years after that initial effort, the Cristennial was organized. Sadly, Boardner’s, well-described by Whalen as “congenially moldering” in 1999, has since been gentrified out of recognition; all that remains the same is the sign outside—worse yet, Saturday is “Goth Night,” eminently unsuitable for such a party. Hence the change of venue.
On a more serious note, however, Criswell’s career, bizarre as it was, has a certain significance beyond that magic circle of fans of bizarrerie. For one thing, Criswell incarnated the American dream, albeit in a funhouse mirror. During his high school years in his Hoosier hamlet, he wrote for a local paper. He migrated to Cincinnati and then New York , and in the latter town drifted into theatrical circles. Teaming up with later wife Myrtle Stonesifer—under the name “Halo Meadows”—a sometime speakeasy dancer) he resolved to break into Broadway. This he did, with his own play, The Life and Loves of Dorian Gray. It ran for a month in 1936; but how many of us will ever see our work on the Great White Way ?
Marrying Halo in 1940, Criswell took her and himself on the road with Dorian, playing across the country, and landing in Hollywood—where the cast included Norvell, another noted mentalist. But Criswell’s career as a psychic would really take off in the 1950s, with a nationwide television show of his own, numerous nightclub appearances in L.A. and Las Vegas, a nationally syndicated newspaper column revealing his predictions, and, of course, the Tonight Show. At his height, he became an important figure on the local scene, riding several years in Hollywood’s Christmas celebration, the Santa Claus Lane Parade; Criswell even hosted a television retrospective on the Hollywood Hotel, when that famed resort of the stars faced the wrecking ball. What has kept his memory alive, however, has been his appearances in his friend Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s three classic films, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls, and Orgy of the Dead. These, in turn, led to Tim Burton’s cinematic tribute to Wood, Ed Wood, wherein Criswell is played by the hapless Jeffrey Jones (better known, perhaps, as Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus and Matthew Broderick’s nemesis in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). But it must be said that Jones’ performance bore little resemblance to the man I knew. That was fine, though. Excellent as Johnny Depp’s Wood, Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi and the others were, had Jones played Criswell as he was, they would have vanished into his shadow, as Kevin Costner did into Sean Connery’s in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.
The truth is, that with his shock of blond-white hair, invariable white or black tie, and booming delivery, Criswell was hard to miss. On his television show, the impressive strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” would be followed by the great one’s stirring messages, delivered in stentorian tones—“We are all interested in the future, because that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives”; “We are all lighted candles in a darkened room: weary travelers on the road of life!” With vocabulary and tense inspired by the Bible, Shakespeare, 19th century oratory, and medicine show pitches, such messages always trembled on the verge of comprehensibility. Audiences were wowed, for a while, anyway. His messages could be fevered:
Can our whirling, turning, churning earth last out the night? Our geologists tell us that the danger to Mother Earth lies not in the uncharted vast of outer space, but from inner-earth! …. Here is what will more than likely happen according to geologists: Small tidal waves will play havoc for no reason at all. The surface of the earth will bulge ever so slightly and highways will slightly buckle. Foundations will tip, and floors will slant. When you pour a cup of coffee or a glass of water, the rim will not level. Telephone coin boxes and vending machines will refuse to work. Delicate instruments will go haywire. Elevators will go out of whack. Jukeboxes will be mute. Radio and TV will fail. All electric power, gas and water service will cease. And then will come the time when garbage cans roll across the street for no apparent reason. Then and only then will you realize the advanced corrosion spelling the end of our Earth. The seas will quickly fill up with a gooey mass of inner-earth rubble. Our streets and city lots, farms, and deserts will bubble up like a festered oil, marking the complete collapse. Has this happened before? More than likely. And it will again happen in your incredible future.
But they could be reflective too—and Criswell commented on everything at one time of another: Biblical references, ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, lost continents, and a heavy dose of good, old fashioned Heartland moralism were tossed into the mix and served up. But this odd stew was uniquely American, as any reader of supermarket tabloids can attest. With it, Criswell conjured himself a career out of nothing—and this, too, is very Horatio Alger.
Alas, as the 60s wore on, and psychics and the occult became mainstream, Criswell’s star faded. His show did not last the 50s, and by the end of the 60s (although he did pen three books at that time) his column was relegated to the tabloids. Mrs. Criswell, who held unorthodox views on reincarnated pets and the virtues of grazing on grass for humans (she was a practitioner, and I a witness) was nevertheless a shrewd businesswoman. When her father died in 1972, she returned to her hometown to live off the proceeds of the family property, and apparently sold the Selma Avenue house (to which she had title) out from under her husband. He retreated to an apartment in Burbank, where he lived out his last decade. Criswell’s ashes reside in a tiny niche at the Valhalla cemetery in North Hollywood. Alas, his arc of success is also one that has been repeated in countless careers.
Perhaps Criswell’s major flaw was that he was not phony enough to succeed. Although he claimed some psychic powers in public (he was more forthcoming to friends) his approach to religion was always that of a nebulous layman. Never did he claim a link with the Almighty (though often referring to Him respectfully). Thus while he could ask for money from fans, Criswell could not demand it from followers. This failure to realize where the real cash lay was not a flaw in another local figure that I once met (but cannot say to have known): the Rev. Dr. Gene Scott.
As famous as Criswell for his onscreen persona, Doc Scott went the opposite route. Where Criswell was a Hoosier with a veneer of sophistication and low-level elegance, Scott was born in Buhl, Idaho the son of a country preacher man—but went on to acquire a Ph.D. at Stanford. His combination of good ol’ boy roughneckery with a public taste for the finer things in wine, women, art, and saddlebred horses was mesmerizing in its own way. But to it was added a constant if confusing quotation of the Bible, and reference to everything from conspiracy theory to pyramidology. Whatever this voracious reader happened to have consumed found its way into his sermons. But this particular brand of mix-and-match was not transmogrified into mere ESP; no, all became Holy Writ. Whether explaining that the Star of Bethlehem had appeared over the Great Pyramid of Giza, or that the Anti-Christ would be possessed by a demon on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Doc Scott taught with fire.
Nor did he do it for free. He demanded that his followers pay him a million a week. If the goal were not yet reached, he would run tapes of himself riding saddlebreds, hanging out with beauties, or painting. The Reverend would berate his audience, telling them to “get on the telephone!” Once the amount was reached, then the show would begin again. In the moral arena, Doc Scott could be quite comforting—“I don’t ask you about your moral life, don’t ask me about mine!” He was married four times and divorced three; his youngest wife (often mistaken for his daughter) Melissa Scott, has assumed his place in the ministry since his demise in February 2005.
Now, back in 1983, when the Doc was fighting with the FCC over his refusal to disclose the financial arrangements of his television and radio stations, a school friend and I, were somewhat inebriate (truly the best way to watch the Doc’s show). We turned on his show, and marveled as he berated the FCC for threatening to yank his church’s TV and radio licenses. The Doc declared, “I need a hundred ‘Gideons’ to pledge a thousand apiece, so’s I can buy a satellite.” Those who did would receive an autobiographical pamphlet, A Lonely Winepress Off the Edge of Megiddo’s Plain. My friend picked up the phone, and using a pseudonym, pledged the amount. A few days later, the pamphlet duly arrived. While I do not know if the crony ever made good on his pledge, I read the Doc’s account of his life. This would have a repercussion over 14 years later.
My own encounter with the good Doctor was in complete keeping with his public persona. While dining at a favorite restaurant (the Derby in Arcadia) with two friends in 1997, I looked over and saw the white-haired and bearded cleric with two ladies who appeared to be on loan from Budget Rent-a-Trollop. The party was guarded by an enormous Samoan, and the Reverend chatted with the girls while quaffing Louis XIII cognac. Pointing him out to my friends, I resolved to introduce myself. My path to the Presence was interdicted by the Islander paladin, but the the Great Man called him off, declaring: “Let him approach!” I greeted Dr. Scott, chatted warmly chatted for a few minutes. When I mentioned that I had read Lonely Winepress, the Doc assumed that I had been one of those brave Gideons, and poured me a bit of his cognac. He then wrote me out a pass to attend his invitation-only Sunday services at the historic United Artists Theatre downtown, which he had made over into the Los Angeles University Cathedral (alas, I never redeemed the note). Smiling, I bade him farewell, and returned to our booth.
But the Doctor’s munificence did not stop there. Gesturing like some king of old, he sent his two young escorts to dance for us. They performed for a while by our table, in a strange cross between Isadora Duncan and Salome. The lack of music made the dance all the more surreal—and brought back, unbidden, a repressed memory from my childhood: Mrs. Criswell in her bikini, lying on top of the Sunday brunch table at 6620 Selma. Truly, those who create their own worlds are free from the restrictions that bind the rest of us.
The Doctor is gone now, and his gorgeous widow soldiers on—running his empire and preaching in the same manner (although she is far easier on the eyes). When the Scottennial rolls around on August 14, 2029 (let the astrologers make of the similar dates what they will), it will undoubtedly be celebrated on a far more lavish scale with much more serious and intense celebrators. To the victor go the spoils.
None of this should come as much of a surprise, however, at least to me. As I have written elsewhere, Los Angeles long ago inherited New England’s mantle as the breeding ground for bizarre religiosity and the esoteric. Both Criswell and Doc Scott were simply carrying on in an old tradition, perhaps best personified by Aimee Semple McPherson.
Sister Aimee (1890-1944) had much in common with both Criswell and the Doc. Like them, she came from a small town no one ever heard of (in her case, Salford, Ontario ), and made her fame and fortune out here in the Big Nowhere. As with Rev. Scott, she was born into a more or less “conventional” Pentecostal background (such terms are relative), and went through a period of youthful agnosticism. Like him also, she had a checkered marital past, losing her first husband (a missionary) to disease in China, and being divorced by her second for abandonment after she became a full-time itinerant preacher. From her start on the circuit in 1915, the beautiful, charismatic and unconventional Aimee filled revival tents. She loved gimmicks—once, in 1916, while preaching before and after boxing rounds at a San Diego amphitheatre, she walked around during the match with a sign inviting the crowd to attend her service afterwards and “knock out the Devil.” Rather than preaching hellfire in her white robe, Sister Aimee spoke of love: of course, at collection-time, she admonished her attendees with the simple message, “no coins please.”
Her “Hot Gospel” was just the thing for Jazz-age believers. Settling in L.A. in 1922 with her children, she soon had enough cash to open the $1.5 million Angelus Temple (now under the pastorship of 33 year-old Dream Center founder Pastor Matthew Barnett). From this seat Sister Aimee went on to found her own denomination: the International Church of the Four Square Gospel. As the Wikipedia chastely remarks, Sister Aimee
made sure that Angelus Temple was represented in local parades and entered floats into the famous Rose Parade in Pasadena. Her illustrated sermons attracted people from the entertainment industry, looking to see a ‘show’ that rivaled what Hollywood had to offer. These famous stage productions drew people who would never have thought to enter a church, and then presented them with her interpretation of the message of salvation. McPherson believed that the Gospel was to be presented at every opportunity, and used worldly means at her disposal to present it to as many people as possible.
Sister Aimee also took her message to the airwaves, acquiring the first radio license the FCC ever granted to a woman, in 1924.
Disaster struck, however, on May 16, 1926, when Sister went for a swim at Ocean Beach, near Santa Monica, and vanished. Although it was assumed by many that she had drowned, she later reappeared in Mexico, claiming to have been kidnapped. Others asserted that she had been on a lover’s holiday with an engineer from her radio station. Charges flew back and forth, and Sister’s reputation never really recovered with the public at large.
The faithful believed her, however—despite a subsequent failed marriage to a cabaret singer, in defiance of her own church’s ban. When the Depression broke out, Sister Aimee went from strength to strength, as she coupled her preaching with massive relief efforts. World War II saw her presiding over War Bond rallies, and the organization she founded is quite successful today. The taint of scandal appears to have vanished; the websites of both Angelus Temple and the International Four Square recount her hagiography. Of our three subjects, she was by far the most successful.
My own connection with Sister Aimee is rather tenuous, although in L.A. , the crazier parts of our past are never far away. One of my favorite restaurants is the Inn of the Seventh Ray, in bucolic Topanga Canyon (much resorted to by hippies during the 60s). This building was Sister Aimee’s mountain retreat, before becoming the first Foursquare Church in Topanga. It has since been taken over by followers of Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant. Yet another mix and match group, this sect add to various Christian belief in the Ascended Masters and much else “borrowed” from the Great I AM of Guy and Edna (Pa and Ma) Ballard. In Hollywood, whether in film or faith, nothing is too original.
If all of this seems a tad phony, well, it is tinsel town, after all! How else to explain Cardinal Mahony’s cathedral? Bizarre as it may appear to outsiders, it is a fitting part of the spiritual scene here. While unbelievers may stare at the structure in dismay (the L.A. Weekly famously described it as “butt-ugly”), those with eyes of faith see it differently. As it says on the cathedral’s own website: “Two central theological truths guided [architect] Moneo’s design. The first is that the Light of God is revealed in salvation history, especially in and through Jesus Christ. The second truth is the sense of journey that people make, alone and together, on the pilgrimage towards redemption in our lives and, ultimately, the fullness of the Kingdom of God in Heaven.” Is all of that perfectly clear?
The mother church of the L.A. Archdiocese is certainly proof that few in this city can escape the spirit that inspired Criswell, Doc Scott, and Sister Aimee. Certainly, Cardinal Mahony hasn’t—which makes him perhaps the perfect pastor out here. Given his legal troubles and scandals in the press, His Lordship might do well to hobnob with the tolerant folks who celebrate the Cristennial. If he behaves himself, we may allow him to solemnly preside over the festivities next year.