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The Fate of Easter Service Comes Down to Chance

Hollywood Bowl: A coin toss today will determine who will produce the annual sunrise event. Veteran organizers of the event are outraged by county's decision.

January 25, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fate of this year's Easter sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl will remain up in the air until a coin falls to the ground this morning.

Two organizations--the long-time producers of the event and the nation's largest Christian television network--are wrestling over who should control the content of the annual religious spectacle.

Los Angeles County officials, who own the Bowl, have decided to settle the fight by flipping a coin. The winner will be either the Los Angeles civic group that founded the event or the Santa Ana-based Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Leaders of the nonprofit Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service Inc. contend that they have the right to hold the sunrise service because their predecessors created the Hollywood Bowl more than 80 years ago and gave it to the county in exchange for permission to use it each Easter morning.

Operators of the 29-year-old Trinity network say they should have an opportunity to stage the Easter program and televise it worldwide because the Bowl is a publicly owned site.

The coin-flip order has outraged veteran sunrise service organizers. They contend that they are only partway through a 99-year renewable lease that guarantees them the annual use of the Bowl for $1 a year.

County officials say they have no evidence that such an agreement ever existed, however. They contend that a lottery system is the only fair way to decide who gets the Bowl each Easter morning.

Today's coin toss will be conducted at 10 a.m. at the Music Center headquarters of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., which handles Hollywood Bowl lease arrangements for the county.

Critics of Trinity say the broadcasters would turn the traditional event into a fund-raising telethon.

"It's unbelievable the county would come up with this decision knowing the documents and the rights we have," said Norma Foster, a Hollywood film and television producer who is president of Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service.

"The sunrise service doesn't belong to an Orange County ministry. It belongs to the people of Los Angeles."

Foster said the Hollywood Bowl exists today because of the Easter sunrise service.

According to her group's records, Hollywood's first Easter service was conducted in 1919 by the Hollywood Community Chorus and the Community Park and Art Assn. on a residential street in the Whitely Heights area. Two years later, it moved to a nearby natural amphitheater, where the predawn audience stood in knee-high weeds while musicians played on a makeshift stage.

Impressed by the acoustics of what was then known as "Daisy Dell," leaders of the Community Park and Art Assn. purchased the canyon site and renamed it "Hollywood Bowl." On Sept. 29, 1924, the association gave the land to the newly incorporated Hollywood Bowl Assn., which controlled it until the late 1930s, when it deeded the property to the county, according to Foster's group.

The Bowl association's Easter sunrise service committee was incorporated as the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service in 1943 and for nearly a half century more continued the traditional religious services at the Bowl.

Trinity Broadcasting entered the picture in the early 1990s. In a move that drew criticism, supporters of Trinity televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch seized control of the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service's board and quietly signed an agreement authorizing the network to produce and broadcast the Bowl's 1992 Easter service.

The Crouches' network boasts that it is carried on 17 satellites to more than 2,500 television stations and hundreds of cable TV systems around the world.

Longtime supporters of the sunrise service were irritated by Trinity network personalities who took over the event and accused them of undermining the service's traditional multidenominational character. They were also angered when they saw Trinity's promotional "prayer line" telephone number superimposed on the television screen over images of the service.

Veteran association leaders regained control of the service the next year and Foster and her associates resumed producing the sunrise event. She said work was underway for this year's program when county officials announced two months ago that the 2002 producer would be picked at random.

"Trinity threatened a lawsuit against the county, saying it's unfair it only goes to one group," Foster said. "They got Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich to lobby for them."

Trinity's Paul Crouch could not be reached for comment Thursday and calls to the network's spokesman, Washington, D.C., lawyer Colby May were not returned. A spokesman for Antonovich, Tony Bell, said Antonovich supports the concept of a random drawing to pick the producer of the sunrise service but has not lobbied on behalf of Trinity.

"Mike has been featured on Trinity Broadcasting Network and agrees with the work they do. He agrees with the Philharmonic and the [county] parks department that a drawing is the best way to handle it," Bell said.

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