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Science Experiment

Christian Scientists: Alan Young of 'Mr. Ed' Fame shares his work and eventual disillusionment with the organized church in a memoir.

June 13, 1998|JOHN DART

STUDIO CITY — Comic actor Alan Young, best remembered for playing straight man to TV's talkative horse, "Mr. Ed," interrupted his career 30 years ago to become communications director for the Christian Science headquarters in Boston.

But after running into what he called bureaucratic resistance for three years, followed by a couple more frustrating years as a Christian Science lecturer, Young left the church jobs behind in order to work his way back into show business.

"A false rumor had spread that I was a minister, and I dampened a few parties by just showing up," said Young, who lives in Studio City. Eventually, Young returned to Hollywood via Disney animation writing and voice-overs plus television and theater work. Although he remains a devotee of writings by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, he is no longer a churchgoer.

Despite insisting that he harbors "no sour grapes about my experiences there," he takes some punches at the church in his recollections of the experience in print, "Mr. Young Goes to Boston," a paperback recently released by H.M. Wright Publishing in Seattle.

Young's memoirs may again roil the waters of Christian Science, a denomination beset by intermittent controversies in recent decades.

"It is obvious to me that the 'Mother Church,' or Boston hierarchy, is either collapsing or becoming irrelevant to Christian Scientists," he writes. "Heretical as it sounds, I'm not so sure that's a bad thing."

Young suggests further that the worldwide membership of the church is so small it could be seated in the Rose Bowl, which currently holds 98,636 people. The church has had a long-standing policy against releasing membership figures, but some other published analyses also have estimated total membership at under 100,000.

Based on his independent pursuit of Christian Science and his travels, Young also contends that the numbers of people "studying and practicing Christian Science outside the church are equal to the numbers in the church."

Asked for comment, church spokesman Robert Gilbert of Claremont said he had "no way of estimating" how many people belong to the Church of Christ, Scientist--as the Boston church and branch churches worldwide are officially called.

It's possible that Christian Science doctrines are being followed by as many people outside the church as in it, but there is no way to estimate their numbers, said Gilbert, who directs the church's Committee on Publication for Southern California.

"I wouldn't be surprised in this day, when organized religion is suspect and people are emphasizing individual spirituality," Gilbert added.

Mrs. Eddy, as members customarily refer to her, wrote about spiritual healing before the church was organized, "so you don't have to be a member of the church to practice Christian Science," he said.

Gilbert said that he had not read Young's book but commented that Young "has his decided views" about the church.

Born Angus Young in England on Nov. 19, 1924 (reference books giving 1919 as his year of birth are wrong, he says), Young and his family moved to Canada when he was young. He became devoted to Christian Science after he suddenly overcame bronchial asthma and his mother's health improved following their reading of Christian Scientist literature left by a church worker who had visited their drafty home in a converted garage outside Vancouver.

"When medical science has no cure for an individual's malady and the healing comes through Christian Science, as was the case in my family's experience, then the natural result is a deep desire to help others to find release from physical woe," Young explains in his book.

Looking for work in New York and Hollywood, Young played in radio comedy programs and made several movies, starting with "Margie" in 1946.

Young had a date with Marilyn Monroe in the 1940s when she was an 18-year-old newcomer named Norma Jean Dougherty. They talked mostly about Christian Science, stemming from his remark about a photograph of the Mother Church hanging in the Santa Monica home of Ana Lower, a Christian Science practitioner who lived with the future film star for several years.

"I could hardly get a word in edgewise as Norma enthused about Ana and how she enjoyed going to Sunday school, and on and on," Young recalled.

Young starred in the latest of his unremarkable films, "Androcles and the Lion," in 1953, but by that time he was known as one of live television's first comedy stars with "The Alan Young Show" (1950-53) winning two Emmys.

When westerns and quiz shows became the TV rage in the mid-1950s, Young went to England to accept a radio offer there and made two small-budget films.

Homesick, he returned to America in 1960 and hooked up with Arthur Lubin, who had directed six of the popular "Francis the Talking Mule" films in the early 1950s. Lubin also owned the rights to magazine short stories about a talking horse. Hoping that the public had not overdosed on garrulous equines, Lubin wanted to turn the stories into a TV series.

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