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Replacement of Pilgrimage Cross : A Dedication to Resurrect a Landmark

April 08, 1985|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

Under cover of darkness early Easter Sunday, a band of crusaders scrambled up a steep Hollywood hill, lugging hammers, saws, a power drill, spray paint and a box of doughnuts.

By first light, they had constructed a 17-foot-high cross that could be seen far below by worshipers leaving the 65th annual Easter Sunrise Service across Cahuenga Pass at the Hollywood Bowl.

It was a modest achievement, one that took only 45 minutes, several turns of a screwdriver and three cans of white paint to fashion and erect.

But to its creators, it was a step toward resurrecting a Hollywood landmark--the Pilgrimage Cross.

For 61 years, the cross stood as a monument to one of Hollywood's early pioneers, heiress Christine Witherill Stevenson, a catalyst behind the Hollywood Bowl's construction in 1919. It also became a kind of beacon, a Statue of Liberty West for new arrivals to Hollywood and Los Angeles. The fabled Hollywood sign has received more press, but the Pilgrimage Cross may have moved more souls.

"It was a peaceful symbol in a city where hustle is the national pastime," said Ron Roy, a transplanted Texan, who Sunday helped erect the makeshift cross on the site where the 50-foot Pilgrimage Cross had stood. The already decaying landmark finally toppled to vandals and weather more than a year ago.

Roy, 33, is one of the "Cross Crusaders," a small group dedicated to building a permanent new landmark where the fallen cross lies on a ridge 500 feet above the Hollywood Freeway and across from the Hollywood Bowl.

To draw attention to their mission, they bundled against the dank dawn air Sunday, trudged up the hill and raised the temporary cross, which could be seen by those sitting in the upper reaches of the Hollywood Bowl during sunrise services. Wood from the fallen Pilgrimage Cross, now a rusted hunk of metal, concrete and timber, was used to build the temporary replacement.

Dreams of Acting

"When I moved here from Houston in '73, I had high hopes, you know, big dreams of making a splash, particularly as an actor" recalled Roy, a videotape editor who now lives in Studio City and operates his own production company. But competition, smog and the "fast-lane life style" eroded his wide-eyed optimism.

"So many times I'd be driving back up the Hollywood Freeway, depressed after another failed audition, and then I'd see the cross," he said. "It was a symbol of peace and tranquility that seemed to calm my anxieties. It really had a powerful effect on me."

The original cross, built at a cost of $200 and dedicated in July, 1923, in the memory of Stevenson, heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint fortune, burned down in 1965.

The county replaced it with a new cross of steel, plexiglass and wood, but in 1980 a college professor successfully argued in court that the county was violating the constitutional separation of church and state by maintaining the cross. When the county abandoned the project, the cross quickly fell into disrepair; it had been severely vandalized before high winds knocked it over on Jan. 26, 1984.

Mindas Masiulis, who settled in Sherman Oaks after fleeing his native Latvia to escape Communist rule in 1951, was also emotionally moved by the cross. He even wrote a song about the landmark, "The Ballad of the Hollywood Cross," and formed a nonprofit organization, Last Call Assn., to raise money for its restoration.

Plea for Support

A year ago, Masiulis' group passed out leaflets at the Hollywood Bowl on Easter Sunday seeking support--money and manpower--to rebuild the cross. Actor R. J. Johnson read it and immediately called his friend Roy.

In late summer of 1984, Johnson and Roy formed another group that produced a six-minute video about the cross and its history and persuaded local TV talk shows and newscasts to run it. While interest in the project was high, the support wasn't, and so far only $7,000 has been raised for a new cross.

Marian N. Gibbons, president of Hollywood Heritage, the preservationist group that bought the quarter-acre hilltop site from the county a year ago, estimates it will take at least $100,000 to build a new, permanent cross, which would be lighted at night and protected from vandals by a concrete wall.

"The cross is a symbol, like a flag or monument," said Gibbons, a volunteer on the "Save the Hollywood Sign" campaign of the mid-1970s. "Any time a monument is defaced or destroyed, it takes something from us. It hurts. We have a saying: 'The past is our heritage, the present is our responsibility.' That cross is our responsibility."

Varied Memories

While many remember the cross fondly, their attachment is wide-ranging.

"I have one friend who went to Hollywood High School," Johnson said, "and every time he'd have a geometry test, he'd drive by that cross and look up and pray."

Roy believes restoration of the cross could enhance Hollywood's often seedy image.

"This town has a bad, often wrong image of being a land of hookers, huge egos and drugs," he said. "Come on, there are some great people in this town. But we have to show the world we care about things like this cross."

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