by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is said that the first Easter sunrise service, to mark the discovery of the empty tomb of Christ at that time of day, was held by the Moravian Church in 1732 at Herrnhut, now in the southeastern corner of Germany near the borders with the Czech Republic and Poland and not far from Löbau, the hometown of the prominent Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark—in fact, it should be pointed out that the Jewish festival of Seder, or Passover, commemorating the freedom of Jews in their exodus from Egypt, began last Wednesday and continues through next Thursday.
In 1773, Moravians in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, observed the first Easter sunrise service in America, while in greater Los Angeles the earliest found reference to an observance was at the First Christian Church in Pomona, where an Eastern sunrise prayer meeting was held. Other indoor observances followed in succeeding years, but the first outdoor service was suggested the Frank Miller, the owner of the famed Mission Inn in Riverside, and conducted at the top of nearby Mount Rubidoux.
By the early 1920s, Easter sunrise services were being conducted throughout the region, including at the newly opened Hollywood Bowl in 1921. Two years later, Forest Lawn Memorial Park held its first such service. The cemetery, which was established in 1906 at what was then known as the town of Tropico and which was annexed to Glendale in 1917, and the management of which was assumed by Hubert Eaton eleven years later, transformed dramatically under his leadership and vision. From landscaping to a profusion of ornate structures such as mausoleums and chapels to art to public events, Eaton oversaw the development of Forest Lawn into a new model for cemeteries.
The first sunrise service at the memorial park was in 1923, shortly after another large expenditure of funds was made for major improvements, including a venue for the celebration of Easter. A 100-person chorus performed several sacred songs, while actor Frederick Warde (who played Father Junipero Serra in John Steven McGroarty’s passion play, The Mission Play, at San Gabriel for several years) read Henry Van Dyke’s poem, “God of the Open Air.”
On this Easter Sunday, the featured object from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a press photograph from Acme Newspictures and kept for years by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, of the sunrise service at Forest Lawn on 5 April 1926, the day of observance of the holiday that year. It shows a large assemblage standing before the Tower of Legends, on which is an orchestra and a choir, some of which wear white and create a cross amidst others wearing darker clothing.
The 87-foot high structure designed by architect Charles H. Kyson (formerly “Kysor,” which he changed during World War I because it sounded too German—his father was pioneer Los Angeles architect Ezra F. Kysor, said to have designed the remodeled Workman House at the Homestead around 1870) to conceal a water tower. The tower was raised after a little more than two decades and site is now the Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection, completed in 1951 and featuring monumental paintings of those events.
The photo’s pasted down caption on the reverse noted that “CALIFORNIANS WAIT ALL NIGHT ON MOUNTAIN FOR EASTER SUNRISE” adding that a large number of persons “started to form early the preceding evening” and “jammed and packed every point of vantage.” Once the service began, it concluded, “many thousands were participants in the highly spectacular and impressive ceremonial.” At the bottom left of the venue is a box with the letters “KMTR” on it and this reflects another recent innovation with respect to these services: the transmission of them via radio.
Concerning this medium, KMTR was launched in 1924 at KFPG, but took its new moniker when it was acquired by radio manufacturer Kelley M. Turner of Hollywood. After his death in 1927, the station was acquired by the Los Angeles Herald, which owned for almost two decades before selling it to Dorothy Schiff, owner and publisher of the New York Post who renamed it KLAC. In 1963, Metromedia acquired the station, which is now owned by Clear Channel and is an all-sports station.
Another station covered the service, this being the Los Angeles Times‘ KHJ, which began broadcasting in April 1922, but, in November 1927, Cadillac dealer Don Lee purchased the station. Subsequently, the station was owned by RKO General, after General Tire purchased the RKO Radio Pictures film studio. After years as a pop, rock and country station, KHJ became a Spanish-language news station and then focused on Mexican music, while the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team broadcast games in Spanish, though in recent years it offers Roman Catholic Church programs in English.
The Times of 1 April, in announcing its “radical change in broadcasting policy” with airing only non-commercial programs, noted that DeWitt Hutchings of Riverside gave “a brief talk on the history of California’s Easter morning open-air services” and that the presentation was to be broadcast again at 5:15 a.m. on the holiday.
A few days later, the paper reported that the broadcast of the services would be “through a special remote control system direct from the impressive spectacle in the memorial park.” It added that a 300-member chorus would sing with accompaniment from a 50-person orchestra and that there would be “a group of microphones so situated that every note of the impressive ceremonies will be carried to the farthest points of the Southwest.”
Concerning transportation, the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar company announced that extra trains would leave from its downtown Los Angeles station at 4 a.m. and from Burbank at 4:30 to ferry celebrants to what was still known as Tropico Hill. The Pasadena Post of the 2nd, in urging readers to “ATTEND AN EASTER SUNRISE SERVICE,” listed such events at Mt. Rubidoux, Mt. Wilson, Point Fermin (San Pedro), Mt. Lowe, the Rose Bowl in the Crown City, Eagle Rock, the Coliseum, Griffith Park, and elsewhere in the region.
The Los Angeles Record of the following day estimated that 80,000 persons would attend the services at the Coliseum and some 4,000 at a service conducted by Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple, while adding that, at Forest Lawn, “fifty white doves will be released as a symbol” and that the Glendale Symphony Orchestra would perform sacred pieces.
The Times of the 4th, after noting the radio broadcast elements, added that the program would include a processional to music as the participants marched to the tower, followed by a trumpet solo by John Arant with a symphonic accompaniment. Charles M. Calderwood, pastor of Glendale’s First Congregational Church, was to deliver the invocation which included the release of the doves to symbolize the ascension of Christ, and
As the rays of the sun rise over the horizon, the mighty chorus will go up, singing the song of jubilation, “Unfold, Ye Portals,” accompanied by the Glendale Symphony Orchestra, personally directed by Prof. J. Arthur Myers.
The Easter message was to be given by the Rev. William W. Bustard, pastor of the Cleveland Ohio Baptist church that the paper identified as that attended by oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and widely known for his powerful oratory. Afterward, operatic soprano Constance Balfour, accompanied by her daughter Eveline on piano, was to sing “Hosanna,” and Warde reprising his rendition of the Van Dyke poem. After a group doxology, the closing benediction was to be offered by the Rev. Clifford A. Cole of the Central Christian Church of Glendale.
On the day following Easter, the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News noted that, despite some early morning sprinkles, there were “capacity audiences at most places” where sunrise services were conducted. While the estimate of the crowd at the Coliseum was off by about 30%, there were still 55,000 celebrants, while at “Mount Forest Lawn” the paper recorded that “it was estimated that more than 14,000 worshippers were assembled on the great plateau and “the choir formed in the shape of a huge cross in front of the great Tower of Legends.”
A photo taken from a vantage point further away than that of the press photo showed the whole of the tower, topped by a cross, the cross-shaped portion of the chorus and some of the crowd in attendance. Also of note are what appeared to have been a great many newly planted cypress trees along with two taller trees, perhaps eucalyptus.
In its coverage of Easter observances, the Times included a photo that, like that of the News, was taken at a farther distance and also showing the entirety of the tower and much of the crowd and celebrants. A staff correspondent observed that, as the press photo caption indicated,
Long before the hour set for the services to begin the roads leading to Forest Lawn were jammed with automobiles that approached as near to the scene of the services as possible, their occupants finishing the journey on foot to the place where the cross on the Tower of Legends blazed in the darkness that precedes the dawn.
It was added that the chorus was one with adults and children and that it was during its performance of a hymn as the sun arose that the doves were released. Bustard’s message was deemed “brief but impressive,” as his address “breathed the spirit of deep devotion.” After discussing the other program elements, as noted above, the summary concluded by noting that Glendale’s police chief handled traffic with assistance from boy scouts.
Notably, this year’s Easter sunrise services were conducted at the other five Forest Lawn locations in Cathedral City, Covina, Cypress, Hollywood Hills, and Long Beach and today was a bright, clear and sunny Easter morning for what was a return to in-person events in many cases, while the Jewish community continues its Seder/Passover festival in upcoming days, as well. Finally, the Museum’s collection has other Forest Lawn-related artifacts in its collection, so we’ll look to share some of those in future posts.