by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s been overcast with a chance of showers so a bright sunrise for Easter was not in the works, but, for many years, it has been a tradition for Easter sunrise services to be held in our region. Prominent locations have included Mt. Robidoux in Riverside and the Hollywood Bowl and today’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is a program for an Easter Sunrise Service held at the Los Angeles Coliseum on 8 April 1928.
The Coliseum, built as a memorial to those who served in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, was completed in June 1923 and seated some 75,000 persons (this expanded to over 100,000 for the 1932 Olympic Games and a remodel completed last year reduced the seating capacity to a couple thousand above the original number.)
In 1928, the managing entity was The Community Development Association (today the University of Southern California manages the venue on a lease with the city, county and state, with the latter to take full ownership in 2055) and the service, the fifth held at the venue with the inaugural in 1924, was organized in collaboration with the Philharmonic Orchestra Association of Los Angeles.
Most of the program involved music and the broadside stated that “the people attending this service will participate in the program by singing the hymns designated with the Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying the singing. There were three such opportunities, including the first verse of “America,” then “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and, finally, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” with the lyrics of these latter two songs printed at the bottom of the program.
The opening of the service, however, was at 4 a.m. with an organ recital by Dr. Ray Hastings and vocals by soprano Virginia Flohri and tenor Robert Hurd, with the trio recording at the studios of KFI, the radio station owned by automobile dealer Earle C. Anthony. The performance was transmitted to the venue by the station and the Southern California Telephone Company utilizing the “Coliseum’s special Western Electric No. 1 Public Address System.”
After an hour-and-a-half of musical selections by Hastings, Flohri and Hurd, a bugle call announced sunrise at 5:31 a.m. (today it was 6:25 a.m. with daylight savings time) and then the assembly singing “America.” This was followed by the Philharmonic Orchestra performing the Grand March from Richard Wagner’s 1845 opera Tannhauser and with Georg Schneevoigt conducting.
An invocation was then given by Pastor Newell Elliott of the Southwest Presbyterian Church at Vermont Avenue and 53rd Street and which merged with another church in the mid-1970s at that location until it was closed and the structure razed just last year. Elliott was followed by the second assembly song, after which was an Easter message by Capt. E.W. Scott, chaplain of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
The Orpheus Four, a quartet of male singers which seems to have organized about 1913 through the Orpheus Musical Club of Los Angeles and continued for about twenty years with many local performances as well as some given nationally and internationally, offered renditions of “From the Deep of Despair” and “Jesus Calls Us.”
The Philharmonic Orchestra and Schneevoigt then returned to render the Tannhauser overture, after which the last of the assembly songs was performed, followed by a closing benediction by Pastor John M. Baxter of the Rosewood Methodist Church, which is still in operation off the 101 and Vermont.
In its coverage, the Los Angeles Express noted that attendees “braved a cold early morning fog” and that some 50,000 persons were in their seats by 5 a.m. The paper essentially listed the program offerings and then discussed the traffic throng for the close to 40,000 persons who attended a sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl and mentioned other services at Palos Verdes and the end of Narbonne Avenue and at Fort MacArthur at the end of San Pedro.
The Los Angeles Times went into far greater detail about the service because it employed James Warnack, the paper’s religion writer known as “Sunrise Jim,” who waxed ecstatically poetically:
Flinging wide the curtains of night and blazing his way up the star-bordered boulevard of space into the blue empyrean that domes the roseate Southland, the great sun look down from his fiery chariot yesterday upon multitudes of devotees who knelt before the ancient tomb of Him whose victory over death astounded ancient gods and inspired a song that has echoed in human hearts for nineteen centuries.
Speaking of events as held in “flower-floored temples and majestic mountain cathedrals,” Warnack employed his alliterative skills to write of many thousands in greater Los Angeles who “wended their way to high hills and seaside shrines and to verdant vales” where “joy-mad larks and mocking birds joined in the hymns of praise” throughout the various sunrise services.
Warnack wrote of the massive lighted cross bedecked with some 1,500 white lilies at the peristyle on the north side of the Coliseum, which, he averred, “never housed a happier throng, judging from the volume of song which burst from the lips of the gaily-appareled audience.” He added the red, white and green were common colors worn by women, while men expressed “their love of color by the flashing ties they wore.”
The journalist stated that, perhaps attracted by the lights or the music, “a flock of birds suddenly appeared just above the palm-circled bandstand and hovered there, chirping joyously, for nearly a minute after the last notes of the song [“Holy, Holy, Holy”] had died away. Scott’s Easter message was quoted at length to conclude Warnack’s rapturous review.
Of nearly twenty notable sunrise services mentioned or covered by the Times included one with Aimee Semple McPherson, the prominent evangelist at Angelus Temple, preaching at what was called “Easter Hill” in a sunrise program at Elysian Park; the “simple rites on Robidoux” in Riverside; a program at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale; one at Inglewood Park Cemetery; seaside ceremonies at Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica; a service at Avalon on Santa Catalina Island; and a program at the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena.
This latter featured a pageant, “The First Easter,” written by John Steven McGroarty, the author of the popular “Mission Play,” with the new performance concerning the inaugural Easter service said to have been officiated over by Father Junipero Serra, the so-called “Father of the Missions.”
Undoubtedly, McGroarty, as he did with the “Mission Play” [of which Walter P. Temple was a noted enthusiast, contributing, with Henry E. Huntington, the largest sum for the Mission Playhouse at San Gabriel, which opened the prior year] showered romanticized praise on the Spanish missionaries bringing the light of Christianity and the benefits of “civilization” on the benighted native peoples.
It is notable to observe that the Easter sunrise services were conducted by Protestants and Pentecostals, while Roman Catholics confined their worship in their churches. Moreover, it would appear that these events were attended exclusively or nearly so by whites. Blacks and those Asians who were Christian were affiliated with their own congregations and churches, while Latinos were almost entirely Roman Catholic and also attended churches in neighborhoods predominantly comprised of their ethnic group—all these populations being subject to racially restrictive covenants almost everywhere in Los Angeles except the south, south-central and eastern parts of the sprawling metropolis.
The dominance among the region’s population of Christians and, specifically, the denominations noted above also made having events at publicly-owned venues like the Coliseum and reported upon in detail in the press more overt than would be found later, both as the population and religious preferences (including non-Christians, agnostics and athiests) diversified and as the separation of religion and publicly-owned entities became more pronounced.
So, artifacts like this program are important for understanding the role of religion in greater Los Angeles during our interpretive era and as points of comparison and contrast with modern attitudes and actions.