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CITYSCAPES / PAUL FELDMAN

'We felt God had said this is the time to expose it. It's like the building of the Tabernacle by Moses.' : Golden Tree of Life Heralds a Church's Return to Spotlight

December 24, 1994|PAUL FELDMAN

Last Sunday, the Grateful Dead took the stage at the Sports Arena. The Raiders and Rams were on the tube. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was giving birth to a baby on five dozen screens from Whittier to Woodland Hills.

But just west of Downtown, on a gritty side street around the corner from the Brooklyn Bagel Bakery, an event of a different magnitude beckoned.

"The Most Incredible Sight Anyone Has Ever Looked Upon!" read a full-page, full-color ad in The Times. "The Most Fantastic--Magnificent--Splendiferously Beautiful Event In 6,000 Years!!"

Like most theological affairs, the chromatic blurb offered multiple meanings.

On its face, it stated that a "24-carat polyester gold" Tree of Life, estimated to weigh 3.5 tons, was to be unveiled that morning at the Universal World Church at 123 N. Lake St.

On a second level, it signified that the church's operators, Velma Jaggers and her husband, O. L., were back in the limelight.

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In a show-biz-driven town where publicists and their clients are never shy about accentuating the positive, Mrs. Velma Jaggers, known to her parishioners as Miss Velma, and her husband are true standouts.

For more than 40 years since O. L. Jaggers first came to Los Angeles, the pair have practiced a special brand of fiery, glitzy--and to some observers, hyperbole-laced--evangelism inside their cavernous world headquarters near Beverly Boulevard and Alvarado Street.

Back in the mid-1950s, the Jaggerses talked of building a 26,000-resident city in Ventura County, situated under a perpetually hovering "glory cloud" that would emit a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. Airliners would be diverted so passengers could witness the phenomenon, O. L. Jaggers asserted.

In the early 1970s, the couple touted the church's Golden Altar, said to be five years in the making at a cost of $3 million, and described in one account of the era as "fulgently shimmering, bejeweled and dazzling."

Over time, the Jaggerses have inspired scores of faithful worshipers.

"I feel as if I was chosen," explained Betty Dixon, a 43-year-old secretary who has been a member of the church for three decades. "Everything we do here is positive. It gives you hope and faith like you can go out and do anything."

At the same time, the church has attracted a goodly number of incredulous observers.

The late Frank Zappa, for one, was a charter member of this ecclesiastical looky-loo set, singling out the Jaggerses' house of worship as one of true curiosities of Los Angeles life.

The Jaggerses' pulpit, the iconoclastic musician wrote in his autobiography, was "illuminated on either side by small clusters of red and blue lights--like the ones they use in the driveways of apartment houses called 'Kon-Tiki.' "

Back in the old days, the Jaggerses remained in steady public view with their weekly TV church service, broadcast on KCOP in the 1950s and later on UHF outlets. And when O. L. Jaggers was not bearing witness on the pulpit or in front of a television camera, he had a habit of providing testimony from witness stands.

Once, the preacher made headlines when a process server broke in on his TV program, delivering two court summonses and shouting "You're served!" on the air. The papers, it turned out, involved accusations that O. L. had defaulted on a promissory note and had previously assaulted another process server. In this case, the process server was himself charged with disturbing a religious service.

The Jaggerses disappeared from local TV several years ago and maintained a relatively low profile until trumpeting the Tree of Life last weekend.

"We felt God had said this is the time to expose it," explained O. L. Jaggers. "It's like the building of the Tabernacle by Moses."

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According to Jaggers and his wife, the Tree of Life took more than 20 years to build at a cost of more than $3 million. It has 7,000 limbs and branches, stands 21 feet tall and has its own air-conditioning unit.

As for the 24-carat polyester gold? Miss Velma failed to provide an explanation from the pulpit and it was not easy to ask. After all, an evangelical service of this sort, highlighted by a 10-member choir offering up reworded gospel odes to the melodies of the minor country hits "Tulsa Time" and "Telling Me Lies," hardly qualifies as a news conference.

After the service, however, O. L. Jaggers gave a brief explanation to a reporter.

"Polyester gold is a 24-carat gold," he said, "but it is a spray instead of the normal way by electrolyte."

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Longtime churchgoers say the Tree of Life--due to be removed from public display after Sunday's service--has drawn the largest crowds in memory. In addition to the congregation's loyal membership--a diverse group made up largely of elderly whites and younger black and Latino families--the services attracted a healthy contingent of scraggly Generation Xers and other curiosity-seekers.

On Wednesday night, Miss Velma called on children to step forward for a close look at the tree.

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