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A Novice Solos on a Wing and a Prayer

April 15, 1987|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

The pulpit of the Crystal Cathedral whizzed by below me as my hair whipped about my face and my sparkling gown trailed out in a fan at my feet. I was suspended nearly 100 feet in the air, with no way to escape but to fall-- way, way down --and someone was screaming at me as I clasped my hands in terror.

"Look prayerful," she shouted as I floundered. "AND HOLD YOUR STOMACH IN!"

It was a normal Thursday afternoon in Garden Grove, and I was overcoming the fear of flying to take my first lesson in celestial navigation.

I was learning to be an angel in the Rev. Robert B. Schuller's annual Easter pageant. And it did not take long for me to realize the secret to sleek soaring.

Being pure of heart is always a plus, but to be an angel in the Crystal Cathedral, it's more valuable to be strong of stomach. Prayers are good, but it's muscle tone and muscle tone alone that holds you upright as you hang by two slender cables and try to look heavenly.

Schuller is a kind of Busby Berkeley of the pulpit, whose Christmas and Easter pageants are replete with exotic animals, casts of hundreds and wildly elaborate staging.

"The Glory of Easter," which finishes its three-week run Saturday and Sunday, has attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators since it began four years ago, employs 250 human volunteers, a small handful of professional actors and a menagerie that includes trained leopards, camels, horses, peacocks, oxen, a yak and an emu.

"It is to show to people the last seven days in the life of Christ, to show them the living Christ," said Tom A. Larson, production stage manager. "It's alive in the presence on that stage."

The 70-minute extravaganza portrays the last week in the life of Jesus Christ--starting with Palm Sunday, recounting the Crucifixion and Resurrection and ending with Christ's ascension to heaven. Special effects run the gamut from thunder and lightning, to laser beams and an earthquake.

And while Christ is the central figure, some argue that the "multitude of angels" receives more attention.

Bathed in spotlight and draped in sparkling pink gowns, as many as six at a time swoop from the rafters of the Crystal Cathedral over the heads of the slack-jawed theater-goers. With rippling wings and glowing halos, they soar gracefully on high. Most of the time.

Angel mythology has it, though, that one poor woman, bowing a little too far forward in the harness that's attached to an overhead track by two very slender wires, did a full somersault mid-performance and lived to tell of it.

According to pageant lore, it was the most spectacular faux pas save one--the time the camel fell off the stage.

The somersault would not have been too bad, except the young woman was suspended between 60 and 80 feet above ground without a net. She was in no danger, pageant officials are quick to point out, but it took a while for the shock to wear off.

When I was invited to learn how to fly during the angels' first dress rehearsal, however, I knew nothing about such mishaps.

The biggest question facing me as I drove to the Crystal Cathedral was what sort of angel I wanted to be. I was one of those people who got most of her angel training from Christmas tree ornaments, rock 'n' roll songs and Renaissance paintings, which narrows the style options somewhat.

If I went the Christmas tree route, I would be frozen with my arms in the air, a trumpet locked to my lips and pine needles in my back. That's out.

I'm a little old to be a "Teen Angel" and die on the railroad track with my own true love's high school ring clutched in my fingers ti-i-ight.

I'm a bit too modest to be one of those rosy, anatomically correct cherubims that artists like Botticelli painted in risque poses staring blissfully into the firmament. I'm also the wrong sex.

And a strict biblical interpretation doesn't sound like much fun, either. In his book "Angels: God's Secret Agents," Billy Graham said that angels were created to "wage war in the conflict of the ages." Sounds a trifle dangerous.

But Graham also postulated in the slim volume--which is required reading for Schuller's cast of 22 angels--that although angels are sexless they may "enjoy relationships that are far more thrilling and exciting than sex."

If that's the case, I thought, then maybe there's hope after all.

When I got to the 12-story (read 120-foot-high) church, though, I realized that all discussion of angel style paled next to a fear of heights that hit--for the first time in my life--as I walked into the towering building and looked up.

The cathedral has a skin of glass with an intricate, bared skeleton of white piping. As I peered straight up--a mistake in itself--the piping moved before my eyes without the help of the cathedral's in-house special-effects man.

Moments later I was scaling the balcony steps to my launching pad, clutching the handrail with a sweating palm, my father's query ringing in my ears: "Does The Times have liability insurance?"

I certainly hoped so.

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