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Palm Attitudes

March 23, 1997|Mary Melton

Two weeks ago, a 40-foot refrigerated UPS semi heaved across a bleak block of downtown. It was completing a 1,500-mile trek from Texas--whereabouts in Texas, nobody will divulge--to Cotter Church Supplies on 9th Street. Its cargo was not snakeskin boots or cowboy hats, black-eyed peas or mild salsa. It was stuffed front to back with palm fronds.

One wouldn't be alone in assuming that Los Angeles already has its own palm fronds. Many palm fronds. Many palm genera (100 in fact). There are plenty of swaying trees at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or along Ventura Boulevard, or exiting LAX. Apparently, none are appropriate to celebrate Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, which begins today, when Christian churchgoers carry fronds to commemorate those laid on the ground to herald Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.

This year, Cotter Church Supplies will ship out 750,000 palm strips for services across the country. "They're grown commercially for that purpose," explains Patrick Cotter, a tall blond who sports aviators and talks in a deep, earnest voice. "The leaves are very tight, almost like pine needles, very sharp. They have a rubber texture to them." Cotter sells air-sealed bags of 100 double fronds for $8.75; extra long ones, $9.80.

Cotter and his two brothers, Tim and Mike, inherited the business from their father, who founded the company out of his Long Beach living room in 1948. Now California's largest distributor of crucifixes, clerical apparel and other religious items, Cotter has been in the palm frond business since the early '50s. "It's a nice niche," says Patrick, as his brother Tim raps a baby Jesus' head to show a customer whether it's fiberglass or wood.

Within 24 hours of receiving the fresh fronds, the company sorts and ships them to nearly all of L.A. County's big churches--St. Basil's on Wilshire Boulevard, St. Andrew's on Raymond Avenue in Pasadena, St. Vincent on Adams Boulevard downtown. For any will-call fronds, "we stick them in the computer room and turn up the air conditioning"; to keep fronds crisp, a 40- to 50-degree temperature is required.

That it is odd that Cotter receives fronds raised outside the Golden State does not escape Deacon Chet Holly of St. John Eudes in Chatsworth, which receives 15,000 strips, Cotter's largest single order. He says it's more of an aesthetic problem than a spiritual one. "Our palm trees are holy enough," the deacon says. "In Texas, the palm trees they use are especially nice-looking. With the kinds of winds we have, our fronds look a little wimpy."

Los Angeles isn't the only place to import something it already has. Cotter recently took a 10-bag order from the Resurrection Church in Honolulu. "It's one of those things where who's going to cut it and clean it and package it nicely?" he asks. "It's an awful lot of work." Cotter regularly Priority Mails one or two bags to Alaska as well. The company also retails ashes for Ash Wednesday, from a $7 bag (which will serve 200 people) to a $14.35 bag (good for 1,000). Cotter discourages people from making their own ash at home. "It's horribly dirty, and you would not believe how much palm you have to burn to get ash. Plus, you need to make sure your neighbors know you're burning palms, cause they can let off a weird odor."

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