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'Magnificent' Easter Service at the Bowl

Religion: After Trinity network dispute, the annual sunrise event delivers hope, despite a shortage of lilies and no live TV coverage.

April 01, 2002|CHARLES ORNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nothing could deter organizers of one of the nation's best-known Easter sunrise services on Sunday. Not a last-minute shortage of lilies. Not a lack of live television coverage. Not even a half-empty Hollywood Bowl.

In fact, event coordinators were downright elated that the event remained in their hands at all. "So many people were so enthusiastic because they almost lost the Easter service," said Norma Foster, president of the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service Inc., a nonprofit that has produced the event for nearly 60 years. "The community can really be proud that they came together to keep it."

Just two months ago, a coin toss yanked control of the event from Foster's group and handed it to Trinity Broadcasting Network, one of the nation's largest Christian television ministries. Trinity, based in Orange County, backed out after the civic group threatened a lawsuit; Trinity said it didn't want to get into a public fight over the service.

The nondenominational service, marking its 80th anniversary, didn't focus on the controversy, except during a plea for donations. The service featured actors Forest Whitaker and Shirley Jones, as well as performers of all ages and ethnic backgrounds.

In total, 702 people took to the stage, including singers, musicians and members of the clergy.

"I expected it to be good," said Laura Gerdes of Buena Park. "I didn't expect it to be so magnificent."

Gerdes' 9-year-old son, Trevor, was a member of the youth choir, whose 120-plus singers sat in a structure shaped like a Latin cross. About halfway through the service, the children yanked off their black outer capes simultaneously, revealing white uniforms, as they sang, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."

The so-called "living cross" has been a staple of the sunrise Easter service.

Jennifer Dryden of Studio City arrived at 3:40 a.m. with her husband and three daughters to reserve good seats. In hindsight, they could have arrived later because more than half of the 18,000 seats were empty during the service.

"It wasn't about who operated it, as long as the show went on," Dryden said. "I'm sure it would have been beautiful no matter who did it."

Because of the Trinity network dispute, organizers were unable to find a television network to broadcast the event live.

"By the time we got it back, it was too late to do television," Foster said.

In addition, Foster said, the civic group got a late start with its fund-raising effort, racing to cover the event's $46,000 price tag.

Planners encountered other problems as well. Because drought conditions in the state created a shortage of lilies, organizers asked the public to bring flowers to the stadium this weekend in exchange for box seats. In the end, they were able to decorate two large crosses on the stage with calla lilies and place potted Easter lilies along the periphery of the stage.

As they left the service, many attendees said they were sympathetic to the community organizers.

"I thought it remained in the proper hands," said Scott Stephens, 39, of Studio City. "I definitely don't think it's something that should have been turned over to a business."

George Skyles, a member of the Southern California Mormon Choir, said his singing group probably would not have been asked to perform if Trinity had hosted the event.

"I believe in tradition," he said. "It's just what people have come to expect."

For its part, Trinity had said it deserved a chance to host the event because it was held in a public forum. Officials said their show would have been broadcast worldwide and reached out to all denominations, focusing on Christ's resurrection. But less than two weeks after winning the service, Trinity backed out, citing bad publicity.

Leaders of the civic group say they hope this year's challenge by Trinity will be the last. They say their group's predecessors created the Hollywood Bowl and deeded it to the county in exchange for permission to use it annually for Easter services.

Assuming the civic group retains control of the event, Foster said she is confident that it will be broadcast live again next year. She also envisions a telethon a few weeks before the service to raise money for an endowment.

During their sermons, clergy members prayed for peace in the Middle East and in war-ravaged Afghanistan. But mostly they talked about the need to believe in hope and lead spiritual lives.

"The message of Easter is more than a lovely story," said the Rev. Dr. Alan J. Meenan, senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. "It promises the rebirth of hope. It promises life made anew."

That message resonated with many in the audience. "We just really need to pray for peace and be with people in a spiritual way," said Susan Fischer of Hollywood, attending her first sunrise service.

Said Brady Williams of Los Angeles: "Since Sept. 11, everybody's trying to get closer."

The service ended with the release of dozens of white doves, carrying with them the hope for peace.

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