The year was 1952, the season was spring and the place was the Little Brown Church in Studio City.
Then-actor Ronald Reagan wanted to marry his petite fiancee, Nancy Davis, in a simple ceremony away from the prying eyes of fans and gossip columnists. So, in a plain, one-room, wooden chapel in a sleepy small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the celebrity couple took their vows as best man William Holden looked on.
Word of the quaint chapel with its promise of discreet services spread quickly through the Hollywood movie colony. Since the chapel's founding in 1940, more than 20,000 wedding ceremonies have been performed behind its pine doors, including the those of Debbie Reynolds, Marlon Brando, George Peppard and Loretta Swit.
The chapel's minister, Laurence C. Keene, says it is the simple, unadorned charm of the church, with its knotty-pine benches, wine-colored rug and softly glowing lamps, that has attracted celebrities and many others to be married there. But, he said, celebrities are treated no differently from any other couple.
"We're not a celebrity church," he said. "They get married here and worship here, but we don't want it to be perceived as a celebrity church. That's not our mission, to reach famous people. Our mission is to do the Lord's work in a quiet, humble way. We are first and foremost a church, not a wedding chapel."
Keene acknowledges, however, that income from weddings is mainly what keeps the Little Brown Church running. And because of that income, the chapel does not pass an offering plate during Sunday services. Neither does it have high expenses. There is no large chorus, no charity committee.
The income from wedding ceremonies provides funds to maintain the church, two Sunday school rooms, an office and a home for Keene and his wife, as well as a home for the live-in custodian, Keene's 23-year-old son, Bryan. A large share of the profits, Keene said, goes to community charities such as Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, the City of Hope in Duarte and California Christian Home in Rosemead, a residence for senior citizens.
But what Keene is most proud of is that his church's doors are always open--literally. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the chapel doors are swung wide to welcome anyone in need of a place to rest, think or pray. The telephone number for the chapel is the same as for Keene's home, so he is available 24 hours a day as well, Keene said.
Untouched by Vandals
And, despite its open doors, the Little Brown Church has remained untouched by vandalism throughout its many years. "It hasn't been a problem," Keene said. "There's nothing inside worth anything. Everyone respects the Little Brown Church."
Since the Reagans' celebrated wedding, time has brought many changes to Studio City. The chapel, near Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Moorpark Street, is dwarfed by a huge condominium development on the left and new office buildings on the right.
The chapel grounds have also been touched by time, as the once-spacious lawns have been whittled away for widening of Coldwater Canyon Avenue. Inside, however, the Little Brown Church stands unchanged, a throwback to a simpler time.
"It's the way churches used to be a hundred years ago," Keene said. The one-room chapel, crowned by an almost toylike bell tower, has the appearance of a 19th-Century schoolhouse. Its capacity is about 165 people.
Still a Bargain
Weddings have also withstood the tide of inflation, said Debbie Rose, the chapel's secretary. A no-frills ceremony goes for about $75. Even the most elaborate ceremony, complete with an organist and fresh flowers, is just over $200, Rose said.
And, because of the chapel's popularity, Keene has found himself conducting weddings at almost any hour of the day, every day of the week except Sunday. A typical Saturday can include as many as eight ceremonies, he said.
Dena and Keith Rice of Sherman Oaks were married at the Little Brown Church in October, 1984.
"I was looking for a Christian home," said Dena Rice, now a member of the chapel's congregation. "I used to walk around the neighborhood and kept seeing this open door." One day, she said, she just walked in "and found peace of mind."
The small congregation also helps run the church, Keene said. Volunteers assist with church services and help teach Sunday school as well as perform community service with other organizations.
Keene speaks of his congregation as he might of his family. Church members frequently call him Larry and stop for a chat with him and his wife after services.
"They're looking for simple, practical Christianity," he said. "They're looking to be inspired in a way without being caught up in a super organization. The people who come here want intimacy. They don't want to become lost, they don't want to become a number."
Keene said some of the celebrities who were married at the chapel have stayed on as members of the congregation because they like the close-knit, family atmosphere.
"They don't want to be fussed over and picked on. We treat them just like everyone else, like regular people."
Keene said that has been the philosophy of the Little Brown Church since John Wells, a minister affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), founded the church in 1940. Wells practiced the beliefs of his denomination by living a humble, unassuming life and keeping the church always open to a needy soul.
Keene joined Wells as assistant minister in 1971 and took over as chief minister after Wells' death in 1976 at age 89. Keene divides his time between the chapel and his teaching at Pepperdine University in Malibu, where he is a professor of philosophy.
As the popularity of the Little Brown Church increases, Keene is giving serious thought to starting another congregation elsewhere. But he is not considering enlarging the tiny chapel.
"Small is beautiful," he explained.