It is everywhere.
Their buildings litter the city. Their signs and billboards pop up all over the place, inviting you to seek out their centers- “All Are Welcome!”- so you can learn more. Their volunteer recruiters walk the streets and distribute literature, often trying to lure folks inside their offices for a chat. And their celebrity adherents make no secret of their devotion.
You know their names: Tom Cruise. John Travolta. Juliette Lewis. Jenna Elfman. Kirstie Alley. Kelly Preston. Elisabeth Moss. Isaac “But I’m Talkin’ Bout Shaft” Hayes. Nancy “Bart Simpson” Cartwright. Beck. Freakin’ Beck for crying out loud. The list is loooong.
And the organization itself? It’s actually a lot bigger than you might have thought. Sure, you’ve heard that they own some buildings around town and control a robust printing empire, but did you know that the Church of Scientology is worth, on paper, approximately $1.7 billion? Well it is.
And those are tax exempt dollars people. Because Scientology is a religion.
Not a cult. Oh, no. Don’t want to call it that.
It’s a religion.
And no kidding: They’re everywhere.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
So much has been written, especially in the last decade, about the Church of Scientology, it almost feels cruel to pile on more. But if you’re going to create a blog about what its like to travel to and live in Los Angeles, it would be irresponsible to avoid talking about the tumescent elephant in the room that is the Church of Scientology.
Once upon a time, the mythology behind the Church was a closely guarded secret and the real story behind the Church’s founder- L. Ron Hubbard – was almost entirely unknown. Even those things that were known about him proved to be, upon examination, largely mythological.
The truth? Hubbard was, in his own way, a genius, in that he literally built a religion around himself from the ground up. He affixed himself at the top of the Scientology pyramid- as a sort of prophet, savior and spokesman all rolled into one- and created his own, tax-exempt, multi-million dollar mega-empire, one that now straddles Los Angeles like a colossus.
Say anything shitty about Hubbard that you like (and there are plenty of shitty things to say)- that’s pretty impressive. I don’t admire him, mind you. I’m simply in awe of what he did.
There’s a difference.
Anyway, I do not intend to explore the inner workings of the Church, their positively nutty mythology, their “therapy” sessions, their con man founder…none of it. So many people have done absolutely brilliant jobs at pointing out the ridiculousness of this crazy cult, I could not begin to do it justice.
My advice: watch the documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” a devastating and incredibly detailed takedown of the Church that was released last year. Better yet, try to catch a live performance of Cathy Schenkelberg’s “Squeeze My Cans!” which painstakingly (and hilariously) describes her descent into (and journey back from) the bowels of the Church. (Where she spent about a million bucks trying to go “clear.”)
All I will really say on the topic of the Church itself is this:
I have been thoroughly educated in the history, actions and clandestine behavior of the Church of Scientology (look up, for example, the “Guardian’s Office” or the “Sea Organization” if you want to have the shit scared out of you). And my conclusion is:
Scientology is one of the greatest scams ever perpetrated in American history. It is a money-mad, entirely bogus, power hungry, rapacious and terrifying organization and it’s “religion” is based on the pseudo-scientific, inane rantings of an admittedly brilliant, but ultimately cuckoo-bananas, self-important, goddamn lunatic.
I also hear the Church is super-litigious, so I’d like to remind everyone reading this that I don’t have a dime to my name. Thanks.
Okay, with that out of the way- let’s talk about how this Church has, in less than half a century, come to dominate this city’s landscape. And we’ll leave the debunking of the Church itself, if you don’t mind, to the professionals.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In every major hub of this city there it is: a building owned and operated by the Church. They do not try to be subtle about their existence or seek out a “low key” profile in this town. Far, far from it. They are loud and proud and brother, you better get used to it.
The three best known buildings owned by the Church of Scientology are as familiar to the citizens of L.A. as the Capital Records Building or the “Hollywood” sign.
The first is the “Information Center” on Hollywood Boulevard.
Built in 1920 as the Christie Hotel, it is an eight story, newly remodeled, gorgeous building. Back when it first opened, the Christie was a 100-room luxury hotel and one of Hollywood’s early skyscrapers. (Each room boasted it’s own bathroom, which in those days was pretty fancy.)
Over the years, the hotel bounced between owners and had different names (the Drake Hotel and the Hollywood Inn among them) before the Church of Scientology bought the place in 1974.
Now if you’ll remember from an earlier post, this section of Hollywood Boulevard hasn’t always been a tourist mecca. For many, many years, the neighborhood surrounding Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (which is just down the street from the Information Center) was- and this is being kind- a shithole.
Homeless people lined the streets, the sidewalks were filthy, half the shops were boarded up…it was awful. Those brave souls who ventured into this section of Hollywood to take in the Walk of Fame were wandering into one of the nastiest parts of the city.
These days, that entire strip is among the most valuable and spiffed up areas in town, featuring the Dolby Theatre (which hosted this year’s dismal Oscars), the El Capitan theatre, the Pantages, as well as dozens of high-end shops, restaurants, souvenir stands, bars and, in the center of it all – the newly refurbished Scientology center.
Re-opened in January of 2015, the Information Center of the Church of Scientology is a wonder to behold. A spotless, beautifully designed lobby. Sparkling TV monitors with a video depicting the (grossly aggrandized) life of L. Ron Hubbard playing in a loop. And, towards the back, mini screening rooms and a bunch of monitoring stations for you to be evaluated (or, as they call it, “audited”).
Finally, milling in and around the place, you’ll find a tiny army of good-looking, squeaky-clean, fresh-faced, charismatic young believers who would love nothing more than the chance to talk to you about your life, your problems and how they and their Church can help to make things better.
I paid each of the Church’s three main headquarters in Los Angeles a visit this week. Don’t let it be said I don’t do my homework.
And the truth is, I was actually scared only once, and very briefly.
But…I was awfully scared in that one moment. Thank God it didn’t last long.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The second, slightly more noticeable Scientology building in town is the world-famous “Celebrity Centre.”
Please note the spelling. It isn’t a “Center.” It is a “Centre.” A “Center” is where you go for treatment. A “Centre” is where you go for a foot massage provided by someone who tells you how awesome you are every couple of minutes.
The Celebrity Centre is located on Franklin Avenue at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. It is a really spooky looking building, actually, and resembles nothing so much as Disney’s “Tower of Terror.” (Or, rather, the Tower of Terror resembles the Celebrity Centre. That can’t be an accident.)
L. Ron Hubbard (or “LRH” as his followers call him) had a particular affinity and fascination with celebrities. (Which has been passed down to his successor, a truly slimy dude named David Miscavige. Oh, man. Ted “The Lizard” Cruz has nothing on this guy. Nothing.)
And while the Celebrity Centre is, like the other Scientology buildings across the globe, open to everyone (“All Are Welcome!”) this particular building is especially reserved for “artists, politicians, leaders of industry, sports figures and anyone with the power and vision to create a better world.”
So if you’re not Tom Cruise or Jenna Elfman? Go to the Information Center on Hollywood Boulevard, if you would. This place is for the big shots.
Built in 1927, the building was designed to be a replica of a French-Normandy castle and was christened the “Château Élysée.”
Originally, the place was created for actors in need of short- or long term accommodations while shooting movies in the area and, according to the research I’ve seen on the place, the hotel served as host to most of the major stars of the 30’s and 40’s.
Under the creepy guidance of the Church of Scientology, the Celebrity Centre has been courting the rich and famous since it first opened up in the early 70’s. Check out this quote from a 2008 article on the Celebrity Centre in the New Yorker:
From the outset, the conversion of celebrities was important to Scientology. An internal newsletter produced by the Hubbard Communications Office, probably in the mid-fifties, asserts, “There are many to whom America and the world listens. On the backs of these are carried most of the enthusiasms on which the society runs.” It goes on, “It is obvious what would happen to America if we helped its leaders to help others. Project Celebrity is part of that program. It is obvious what would happen to Scientology if prime communicators benefitting from it would mention it now and then.” The piece concludes with a list of the day’s stars—Orson Welles, Howard Hughes, Walt Disney, and Greta Garbo among them—referring to them as “game” and “quarry” for Scientologists to “hunt.”
Today, the Celebrity Centre continues to serve a resource for actors, both the famous and the merely aspiring. They offer a place to stay for their big-ticket stars (John Travolta has attested to how “safe” he feels there) but the building is also used as a training facility for up-and-comers, offering Industry Seminars like “Breaking Into Commercials” and “How to Get Cast in the Pilot Season.”
But don’t be fooled. Each of these “seminars” is, if you scratch the surface, nothing more than a pitch session for the Church. Hell, everything they do is a pitch session for the Church.
Want to feel better about your life? Join the Church, they say, and we’ll get you “clear.” Want to further your acting career? Join the Church and you’ll have access to the Church’s many (and connected) industry professionals. Feeling uninspired? You won’t believe it but…joining the Church might just be right for you!
All for a price. Of course. Nothing is free in this life, is it?
And the costs connected to taking courses within the Church- their famous “auditing” sessions on the “Bridge to Complete Freedom”- are unbelievably expensive.
But you want your career to be all that it can be…
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The grandaddy of all of the L.A. CoS buildings, though, is the Scientology Center on Sunset Boulevard. This bright-blue collection of buildings- complete with enormous “SCIENTOLOGY” sign practically bursting out of the central tower- represents the real headquarters of the Church in Los Angeles.
Once the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, it was bought and refurbished by the Church in 2010, painted Scientology blue and then inhabited by a virtual CoS army.
I went there on Wednesday to check it out and really could not believe my eyes. It looked like something out of a Tim Burton film. Every inch of it is painted that (presumably calming) powder blue color, save the windows, each of which is covered in a pristine white shade.
(What is behind those shades? Horrors too disturbing to contemplate, I imagine. Or they store pamphlets there. We’ll never know.)
To the East of the main complex is a cobblestone street that was paved by the Church and rechristened “L. Ron Hubbard Way.”
I wandered down Hubbard Way looking for an entrance to the facility (curiosity will be my downfall) and stumbled upon a little cafe where small groups of people were enjoying coffee and lunch in the small courtyard adjacent to the main building. As nobody seemed to mind, I strolled inside, ordered a coffee at this quaint, unremarkable little cafeteria and encamped myself at one of the tables outside.
Mostly, I wanted to see if anyone from the Church would approach me. I was, after all, fresh meat. Could they resist trying to rope me in?
Turns out, they could not. I was sussed out within five minutes and soon saw this woman in my periphery wearing what looked like a Navy uniform trying to get my attention.
“Got time for a short survey?” she asked, her voice accented from…somewhere.
“You bet!” I responded. My new friend took a seat at my table.
She introduced herself as Lise and said she was originally from Sweden. She was an older woman, maybe in her mid-sixties, and in her uniform looked trim and sharp. She was oddly (but not quite) military in her bearing. Based on my knowledge of the way the Church worked, I guessed immediately that she was in the Sea Org. (I was soon proved right.)
Lise began her survey simply, asking me things like “What do you feel is the best way to reach people who need help?” I gave her some generic answer like, “Communicate with them, find out how they got into their situation. Listen to what they might need.”
You know- unpasteurized, pharmacy-grade pap.
Pretty soon she got down to it: “What would you do, if you could, to clear the planet?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “What do you mean by ‘clear the planet’?”
“Oh,” she responded. “You’re not a Scientologist?”
“No,” I said. “Is that okay?”
“Sure, that’s perfectly fine but…” she gestured to the cafe. “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing, really. I’m a little early meeting a friend for lunch down the street,” I said. “So I just stopped in for coffee.”
“I see,” she said, smiling. “That’s fine.” She looked me over, appeared to deem me harmless and went on. “All right…let me explain.”
She then went on to tell me, in great detail, about the very, very basic tenets of the Church’s philosophy. How we human beings have two minds, the analytical mind and the reactive mind. (The reactive mind being where we store bad, unconscious and negative memories and thoughts.)
She went on to tell me how the great L. Ron Hubbard discovered how to make you aware of and banish these bad thoughts and make you “clear” through a series of therapy sessions (“auditing”) the various levels of which are known as the “Bridge to Total Freedom.”
(There’s a lot more to it, of course (I’m simplifying it as much as I can) but, again, my purpose with this post is not to analyze and tear apart the Church or its dogma. Others have, and will, do that job a lot better than I could.)
So…the survey went on like that- inane, generic questions that I answered with equally inane generic answers- and then…
…we were done. Lise stood up, shook my hand and then promptly didn’t invite me inside to explore the Center. (I was a little sad not to be among the chosen, actually. But Lise was otherwise very polite and charming.)
Having spent some time with her and truly enjoying her company, part of me wanted to grab her by her crisp lapels and whisper urgently “Get out! Get out while you still can!”
But the truth is…she seemed happy. Every time she discussed a part of Hubbard’s philosophy, she couldn’t help but heap praise on his brilliance, his insight and his forward thinking. She was, it looked like to me, at home and it was not for me to rescue her, even if I could.
Lise is, I know, without question, a devoted victim of one of the most crackpot religious scams ever conceived of by a member of the human race…but knowing that is only half the story.
The other half is: This woman was deeply enfolded in the warm embrace of this titanic, almost unimaginable fraud.
And she loved it.
We shook hands, I said goodbye, polished off my coffee and hit the road.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Things were a little different at the Information Center on Monday. That night, I had plans to meet my friend Chris Rickett and his brother for drinks, but found myself in the neighborhood of Hollywood Boulevard with a couple of hours to spare, so I decided to stop by Hubbard’s biggest recruitment center in town and give it a look-see.
Unlike the way things went down at the CoS headquarters, it didn’t take long for me to be approached and invited inside at the Information Center. Truly, if you walk by the place and so much as dare to look up at the sign…they will pounce.
He introduced himself as Robert and looked to be all of seven years old. (Okay, maybe he was, in reality, in his twenties, but to me he looked like an infant.) He asked if I wanted to step inside, wondering if I would be interested in improving my life.
Would I! Thanks, Robert!
I was soon handed off to a young lady named Sandy, who asked if I’d be willing to watch a short video that explained the basic philosophy of the Church.
Would I ever! Thanks, Sandy!
After agreeing to see the film, I had expected to be led to a big screening room with a bunch of other potential recruits. But no…I was given my own, private screening room, with a big plasma TV, to watch their very brief promotional video all by my lonesome.
Just before it began, (and once she had me cornered) Sandy asked me: “Hey- do you ever feel like there’s any part of your life that you’d like to improve?”
Oh, the things I could have said.
But I was good and played the polite, slightly confused outsider. “Well,” I said, “It would be nice…to be a bit more disciplined.”
“Really?” Sandy said, looking super interested. “How are you undisciplined?”
“You know…everyone means to do more with their lives than they actually do. Let’s say you…have something to do around the house. A project or a chore, you know? Something you’ve been meaning to do but…you get distracted. Life sure does have a lot of distractions!” (I was making myself a little sick, talking this way.)
“It sure does!” Sandy agreed. “Well, have a look at the video and we can talk after.”
“Okay, Sandy! Sounds great!” (It wasn’t easy, maintaining this level of enthusiasm.)
Then she cued up the video, dimmed the lights, slid the door shut and left me in L. Ron Hubbard’s warm embrace.
It was at this point that I got kind of scared.
“No one knows where I am,” I thought. And a tiny, paranoid part of me said: “If they kidnap and brainwash you…no one will ever find you, either. You’ll be trapped on some Sea Org boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean scraping barnacles for the rest of your life and no one will ever know!”
This bout of mild paranoia only lasted a second and then I was able to sit back and enjoy the film.
And I have to say- they don’t mess around when it comes to their propaganda. These guys are good. The message is very enticing, the problems it purports to address are universal, and the production values in the film are awesome. (I’ll bet craft services was just amazing on that set.) You want to see the movie I watched? Here. Have a look.
The genius of the message, of course, is that it can fit anyone:
“Do you have negative thoughts?” it asks. Who can say no to that question?
“Is there something missing from your life?” Now that you mention it, yes. I could use some more Doritos. Oh, and fulfillment.
“Would it be helpful to increase your abilities?” Without question. And if we could do it without involving a radioactive spider, that would be ideal.
Each question could easily be asked of any living person and answered in the affirmative.
That’s some top-notch marketing right there.
After the movie, the door slid open…and I saw a new, even fresher face. This was a young lady named Chris, who had apparently replaced Sandy.
(My presumption is that Sandy wasn’t doing all that great a job and had been summarily executed. Or she was filling out some paperwork. We’ll never know.)
Chris had even more questions for me. She wanted to know my profession and was delighted to hear I was an actor.
She asked if I lived in town and I explained that I was visiting from Chicago. “Neat!” she said.
Boy, she was sure interested in my life!
Then Chris said, “So let me ask you, Kevin.” And she smiled. “Be honest. Do you think you’re living up to your full potential?”
And I wanted to say, “Are you kidding me, man? I’m absolutely killing it! I’m the fucking Willy Wonka of acting! I’m freakin’ awesome! Hooray for me!”
But one doesn’t say such things. How can one? One instead says:
“My full potential? Well, no…I don’t think so.”
Which then triggers the sales pitch.
Chris led me back out into the lobby (Yay! No kidnapping!), reached behind the counter…and handed me a copy of “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard, along with the accompanying DVD/audiobook. She explained how all my answers could be found in this book and that I definitely should buy it and give it a read.
Well..that was her first mistake. Trying to get Kevin Theis to part with money. Was she unaware of how unlikely that was to happen?
“Hmmmm. I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Let me think about it.” And I tried to hand the book back to her.
She wouldn’t take it.
“I don’t understand,” said Chris, looking genuinely puzzled. “What do you need to think about?”
“It’s…well, I mean…” I stammered out. “I’ve heard a lot in the past hour or so and I find a lot of it very interesting, of course, but…I don’t know if I’m willing to buy the book and DVD right now. I’m sorry. I hope you understand.”
And at this point, Chris actually started to get a little pissed.
“But there’s no reason to wait,” she practically hissed at me. “You’re here. You should just get it.“
I needed to diffuse the situation.
“Listen,” I asked, “Let me ask you. How long have you been working here?”
This seemed to calm her a bit. “We don’t work here,” Chris said. “We’re volunteers.”
“Really?” I tried to look surprised. “So…do you have, like, day jobs that allow you to volunteer like this?”
“No,” she said. “We live here. They house us. Feed us. Everything.”
And I’ll be honest:
In that moment, I looked deep in her eyes, searching for some sign of her unhappiness.
I tried to see if there was a glimmer of regret, of embarrassment or shame that she had chosen this life, this religion, this path.
I looked for some kind of frightened, “get me out of here” spark in her eye. Something that indicated, even in the smallest way, that she felt trapped and needed to escape her hellish existence in this kooky little set-up on Hollywood Boulevard.
But no. Chris was, it seemed to me, at peace. The Force was very strong in this one.
In fact, if there was anything at all that was upsetting her in any way, it was the fact that I wasn’t buying the cocka-doody book she was trying to sell me.
“I really think you should buy those,” she said emphatically. “There’s no reason to wait or think it over.”
I had to get the hell out of there.
“Look,” I said, setting the stuff on the counter (since she wouldn’t take them from me), “I’m going to take off. Thank you so much for your time and your kindness. I really, really will think it over.”
“Okay,” she sadly intoned.
I walked away. She looked balefully after me. She was really, really good at this.
“And thank you,” I said again, moving away as quickly as I could.
I made my way toward the door but, once in the foyer and out of Chris’s sight, I was briefly distracted by the lobby viewing area, which was playing this biographical film about L. Ron Hubbard over and over again.
I paused to marvel at the display. That was not a wise choice. Within seconds…
“Would you like me to start it from the beginning, sir?”
I turned. Aiyee! Another one!
“No! No thank you! I’ve…got to go. My…my parking meter is almost up!”
I made for the door again.
“All the parking meters are done at eight, sir! You don’t have to worry about those.”
Oh, God! A technicality!
“Yes but my meter is…on another, very…faraway street…a different…part of…town,” I was at the door. “Good bye!”
And I was out.
On the street.
Walking just a little more quickly than usual, back to my car.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ** *
TOMORROW: PART TWO
Yeah, that’s right. PART TWO