by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Wilshire United Methodist Church building on the corner of the famed “Miracle Mile” boulevard and Plymouth Boulevard is distinguished by its 144-foot campanile tower and its handsome Gothic Revival architecture is succinctly summarized by the Los Angeles Conservancy as being “known for a controversial jazz concert and celebrity congregants.”
While these are true, the former is the focus of this post, with the featured artifact for it from the Homestead collection being a press photo from March 1926 of the church’s founder, the Reverend Doctor Frank B. Dyer (1875-1963), who, the caption states, “shocked some and pleased other members of his congregation when he hired a jazz orchestra to play in his fashionable church.”
The band was Carlyle Stevenson and the El Patio Orchestra, with the leader a former member of the popular dance band of Jan Garber, former Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra violinist, and the group recorded quite a few sides for the pioneering Los Angeles label Sunset Records during 1925. While Dyer was remembered for this controversy, his somewhat short tenure at the head of his Wilshire Boulevard Congregational Church (WBCC) was marked by much more of interest and notoriety.
Dyer, a native of Cornwall, the southwestern tip of England, who migrated to the United States in the early 1890s, studied for the ministry in Chicago and was ordained in 1897. He served as a pastor in Michigan, Texas, and at Tacoma, Washington, as well as serving for the Y.M.C.A. in France during the First World War, before heading south to Los Angeles in 1921. He formed the WBCC in the newly opened Ambassador Hotel, with the tag line of “The Church Unique: A New Voice—A New Pulpit—A New Church” and quickly became known for his sermons consisting of answers to questions he posed in ads before the services.
He also employed unorthodox methods to attract people to his church, including proclaiming that anyone was welcome to attend, not just congregants, and inviting popular stage and film actors like Milton Sills, R.D. McLean and Frederick Warde (the latter two known for playing Father Junipero Serra in the widely popular Mission Play at San Gabriel, which was heavily supported by Walter P. Temple) to do readings and give talks.
Dyer was hardly afraid to take on other religious figures in the city, such as when he went into a tête á tête with the notorious Reverend “Fighting Bob” Shuler of the Trinity Methodist Church over whether Will Hays, the newly seated chair of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (and campaign chair for President William Harding’s 1920 election campaign and subsequent Postmaster General), should “reinstate” comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the film business after his alleged role in the death of Virginia Rappe, whom he was alleged to have raped before she died.
Early in 1922, a combative Dyer declared to the Los Angeles Record that “the church was never licked in a fight yet” as he appeared before a city commission to argue for a permit to construct his church on two lots at Wilshire and Plymouth. Strangely, there was a heated opposition from local residents, led by Hubert Eaton, the creator of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, who insisted “that the value of his property would be decreased with a church next door to his premises” while also asserting that “the church-going crowds and the parked autos destroy the peace and quiet of the neighborhood.”
The paper blithely reported that “it was said during the discussion that Los Angeles is the only city where churches have been looked upon as a detriment to a residence district.” A minister associated with the project stated, “Wilshire has a new police station. Now it needs some churches so it will not have to have so many policemen.”
As for Dyer, he told the gathering “I don’t believe in watch night services like the Baptists, I believe in going to be at a reasonable hour.” After throwing his fellow Christians under the bus, he pugnaciously proclaimed, “if this parsonage is built, and I ask a number of persons to worship there with me, I defy anyone to stop me. I welcome the fight, and I am willing to put $20,000 into this in the belief that we will win out.”
Victory, in fact, was nigh and the church, designed by Allison and Allison, designers of the First Congregational Church and many buildings at U.C.L.A., among others, was opened in late May 1925. Still, Dyer had issues with some of his associate pastors and turmoil between them later flared into a much bigger set of problems at the church, matters that made the “controversial jazz concert” almost superfluous in comparison.
The question of music at the church’s services came up early in March 1926 as it was reported in several local newspapers that, as expressed by the Pasadena Post, “jazz is gaining a foothold in religion.” Apparently inspired by the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, whose jazz orchestra replaced a choir as shown in a photo, Dyer decided to replicate the idea, telling the media that “modernism and pep must be injected into the religion of today to make it attractive to insurgent youth.”
The Whittier News of the 18th published a different photo, courtesy of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, showing Stevenson and nonet posed at the church altar, while the inset is the portrait of Dyer highlighted here. What the paper added, however, in its “Say It Through The News Forum” column of letters to the editor was a vitriolic jeremiad by prominent Quaker City nursery owner Albert R. Rideout, who is credited with being a key figure in introducing the Hass avocado in our region and for whom the Rideout Heights area north of Old Town Whittier.
Rideout’s polemic was titled “A Dyer Menace of Christendom” and it observed that the caption about the pastor’s use of a jazz orchestra “was terse and appropriate,” but in the sense that “it pleased the worldly and grieved the spiritual throughout the whole nation,” though how he knew the latter was the case is questionable. He continued that, while infidels of old were out in the open and attacking religion from outside the realm of the church, Dyer was a “modern infidel [who], under the cloak of religion, is rending the church from within; [with] his pulpit his fortress.”
Rapidly warming to his subject, Rideout continued that:
A few weeks ago when this man Dyer contemplated this movement he came out in print declaring that sacred music made people sad, then quoted scripture to justify himself in his radical departure. In his scripture-quoting stunt he had a precedent. The real devil himself quoted scripture when he desired to ensnare Christ, do does this apostle quote scripture in defiling Christ.
He quotes from Psalms, “make a joyful noise unto God all ye lands, sing forth the honor of His name; make His praise glorious.” This scripture is rightfully quoted but wrongfully applied. The applied version would read as follows, “make a jazzful noise unto God all ye stars, shout forth dishonor of His name, make His praise scandalous.”
Rideout’s righteousness led him to quote two more pieces of Scripture concerning the defiling of the holy temple as well as a vaguer reference to idolatry and then he ended with a story about a little girl who, before going on vacation to New York, went around her neighborhood saying goodbye to a cow, horse and her house, uttering “goodbye God, we’re going to Manhattan.” He concluded that this was “just so with the pastor in question, who says in the first chapter of his own acts, “Goodbye God, we’re going to the movies.” That is, introducing jazz in the holy edifice of the church was akin to the spiritual decay found in film.
Almost certainly unknown to Rideout and others who may have quaked with anger concerning Dyer’s dishonor of the sanctity of the church by introducing modern music was the fact that, on 12 March, the Black-owned California Eagle contained a letter to the editor from Ernest E. Lightner, pastor from 1915 to 1942 of the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church, the only Black church of that denomination west of the Rockies at the time.
Lightner addressed his letter to Dyer at his home address (where Southwestern Law School is now) and stated that, due to a vote of the East Adams Improvement Association, Lightner was “asked to express to you and your church the deep appreciation of our Racial Group for the splendid service which you rendered [to] the cause of humanity last Sunday evening, when you called together four different tarce [race] groups in one service and had representatives of each on the program.”
Lincoln’s pastor continued that:
In these days when, even some ministers of the gospel are advocating solutions of the Race Problem, which do not pretend to represent the spirit of Jesus, it is reassuring and heartening to a people who have been unjustly discriminated against, to know that there are those who dare to meet the challenge of the Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.
Lightner added that, since that service, “I have heard many favorable comments on your broad, courageous Christ-l[i]ke stand in this matter,” while concluding with appreciation and payers for the blessings of God on his fellow minister.
The “Race Relations Forum” held at the WBCC on the evening of the 7th included the Japanese consul, Chuichi Ohashi, who moved to the Angel City from Seattle in November 1925; former state senator Reginaldo F. del Valle, representing Mexicans; and lawyer Hugh E. MacBeth, appearing on behalf of African-Americans and who was a remarkable figure on many fronts including his work on behalf of Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps during World War II. There was also a “Special Negro Melodies” concert by the Lincoln Jubilee Singers, while the church advertised that it had 1,400 free seats and “All Races Welcome.”
By 1928, however, Dyer’s opponents within his church grew to a significant figure and, with outstanding debts leading to a demand for immediate payment of an installment, purportedly well before its due date, the pastor began a campaign to raise $50,000 to “save” the WBCC. This included designating days at the end of May for Jews, Catholics, the English, music, and Los Angeles.
One of the pastor’s plans was to have a charity boxing match at the Olympic Auditorium featuring the retired heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and this, on top of his other alleged actions and activities that constituted “conduct unbecoming a Congregational minister.” In a defense of Dyer and the WBCC, a committee took great pains to point out that the state Congregational office demanded that the church be denominational, but it refused, believing openness was critical to being “a universal Christian church” that did “not care a fig for sectarianism.”
The demand for $1,000 on a $10,000 loan two weeks prior to its due date was followed by the instigation of a foreclosure sale and the committee claimed “we want to see fair play for the church and Dr. Dyer.” Services were to continue until the 1st of June and, if $50,000 was raised, “it will save the edifice,” while it is no credit to our city to slay a church.” The extraordinary public statement concluded with the view that “Dr. Dyer has done stupendously, heroically” and implored “join us in standing back of him and back of the church” by their plan to “save the church in May.”
Yet, a trial was held on 7 June at the Mount Hollywood Congregational Church and over 100 pastors and delegates voted to remove Dyer from his pastorate, ruling that he’d packed the church in summer 1924 to give him control of the WBCC. Only one member voted for him, while two others abstained and, among the allegations, were that he routinely lied about conditions with the church, including its financial condition and his compensation; that he engaged in “un-Christian like” acts that violated the fundaments of Congregational doctrine; and that he was “bringing disgrace to the church by seeking to promote a benefit boxing show.”
Branded “a habitual liar,” “a cheerful liar,” and governed by “savage passions,” Dyer chose to forego offering a defense and did not appear at the trial, though he did release a statement uttering “Thank God, I have all those brethren off my back. Now I shall be able to do something—being through with their petty ecclesiastical politics.” He ended with the jibe:
The rest of the ministers seemed to have had a big day. I am inclined to excuse them. They have to have a little excitement somehow besides Ladies’ Aid teas and ping pong. They can’t go to boxing bouts, wrestling matches or football games, so they take their excitement out on me.
While Dyer tried to retain his pastorate in defiance of the “ecclesiastical bosses,” the WBCC was sold in May 1929 to All Souls’ Church, led by two pastors who were ousted by Dyer a few years before. Five years later, the property was sold to “The Church Invisible,” and it is now the Wilshire United Methodist Church.
As for the inimitable Dyer, he became pastor of a church in Santa Monica and was also president of the Pacific Southwest Theological Conference. When he died in 1963 at age 88, he was survived by his wife Anna and four sons, including an investment banker, a labor relations executive with the Walt Disney Company, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, and a U.C.L.A. history professor (with specialization on the Constitution, the Civil War and Reconstruction.)
The featured portrait might have referred specifically to Dyer’s controversial hiring of a jazz orchestra to play at the WBCC, but he had a career of great interest well beyond that narrow confine.