This big blue marble on which we dwell has more than its share of disputatious religions – pick a creed, any creed – but only one holds the distinction of offering as a place of worship, or at least education, a historic building that lights up at night in the heart of one of the nation’s most touristy areas, Hollywood Boulevard.
Seems incongruous at first blush, but not if you step back and take a look at the 1924 Hollywood Guaranty Bank Building or, better yet, step inside and ogle the ornate Beaux Arts lobby.
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You’ll find the venue makes perfect sense. After all, this is a belief system that boasts movie industry notables (Tom Cruise, John Travolta), was founded by a screenwriter and pulp-fiction author (L. Ron Hubbard) and reportedly boasts enough assets to fund its own bank. And as for the location, well, Scientology’s proselytizing – its members are known to hand out booklets, “The Way to Happiness,” on the sidewalk – is considered just another part of the whole mind-bending Hollywood Boulevard experience.
I can’t tell you how many times over the years I passed by the Scientology digs without giving it a second thought. Then again, visiting religious shrines is something that tourists (and travel writers) do. When in London, you go to Westminster Cathedral; in Rome, you see the Vatican; in Salt Lake City, Temple Square. So, when in Los Angeles, why not make a pilgrimage to the religion that, for good or ill, is closely associated with the city?
Besides, the sign out front said they give free tours of the “L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition,” which fills the lobby and mezzanine levels of this gorgeous building boasting restored marble flooring and a tile drop ceiling with ornate wainscoting. Might this merely be a clever ruse to lure you in and indoctrinate you into Scientology’s precepts, as detailed in its urtext, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,” to school you to conquer what they call the “reactive mind?”
Only way to find out was to take the tour. Two other sets of “tourists” mingled in the lobby before the bronze bust of Hubbard, front and center, and a wood-paneled display of 15 photographic portraits of the man, its all-caps lettering dubbing it “The L. Ron Hubbard Series.” No one wanted to give me names, for some reason, but the group consisted of three 30-somethings from Cincinnati and two grandmotherly types from Maryland. Before I could ask their motivation for entering the gates of Scientology, we were herded by a fresh-faced docent who resembled Kelly Clarkson, circa Season 1 of “American Idol.” She didn’t give her name and no one felt compelled to ask. She led us beyond a set of double doors to the sanctum sanctorum of all things L. Ron.
It was a finely appointed, museum-quality exhibit: long, well-lit hallways with stage sets depicting scenes from Hubbard’s early life, his swashbuckling early days as a “world traveler” seeking wisdom in the East, his career writing genre fiction (sci-fi, Westerns, adventure) and his time as a Hollywood screenwriter. This last display consisted of a movie marquee with the title in lights, “L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘The Secret of Treasure Island,’ ” which our fresh-faced docent (henceforth referred to as FFD) said “broke all records for all movies at that time, a box-office success.”
Reality check: According to the Internet Movie Database, “The Secret of Treasure Island” was the 210th top-grossing movie of 1938.
OK, so maybe FFD was exaggerating a tad. But a nearby display showing a becapped newsstand vendor standing before row upon row of magazines all featuring the science fiction prose offerings of L. Ron cannot be disputed. The man was so prolific that you wondered whether he suffered from hypergraphia.
“He wrote ‘Battlefield Earth’ in 1982,” FFD said, “to celebrate his 50 years of being an author. To this day, it’s one of the most popular science fiction novels.”
Reality check: According to the website bestsciencefictionbooks.com, “Battlefield Earth” doesn’t crack the top 25 most popular novels, a list that includes people named Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury, LeGuin.
But, really, why be such a factual stickler? Just accept that the tour’s first 15 minutes amounts to a Hubbard hagiography.
It’s what comes after those first 15 minutes that starts to unsettle.
We were led to the wing devoted to “Dianetics,” the 1950 tome that FFD said was “the first book ever written on the mind.”
Reality check: A real whopper, that claim. See: William James and Sigmund Freud’s oeuvres, for instance.
FFD herded us down a hallway, brightly lit and stacked floor to ceiling with copies of “Dianetics” behind glass cases, and into a theater where “I’ll show you a short video …”
Here it comes, the pitch. I’ll spare you a line-by-line dissection, but its point was that “Dianetics” can cure you of “negative thoughts, self-doubts, unreasonable fears” by pointing out that “all your painful experiences are stored in a previously unknown part of the mind, called the reactive mind.” The narrator’s warm baritone clashed with overwrought acting of couples arguing over money, a parent slapping a child, a man either in deep existential anguish or extremely constipated.
Post-video, FFD walked us upstairs and asked us personal questions, such as our professions. Our group had a paralegal, an interior designer, a bank teller and a limo driver. I didn’t lie. I told her “writer,” after which I detected the slightest arch of her right eyebrow. Then she asked, “What have you heard about Scientology?” Silence. Seconds passed. I felt bad for FFD, so I blurted out, “Tom Cruise.” Somehow, she both smiled and frowned.
“Pretty much everything you hear in the media is baloney,” she said with a dismissive hand wave, but no real bitterness. “Scientology actually comes from the word ‘scio,’ which means ‘knowing,’ and ‘ology,’ the ‘study of.’ So it’s the study of knowledge or knowing how to know. It is a religion, but it’s an applied religious philosophy. … Let me show you this. It’s called an Emotional Tone Scale, the first scale to accurately predict human behavior. Come closer. It’s OK.”
FFD proceeded to tick off the 24 attributes of the ETS, waving brochures and what seemed akin to a personality test some gung-ho corporate human resources director might administer. Next up, a contraption called the E-Meter, short for electro-psychometer. It resembled a 1950s gizmo that the paralegal mistook for a lie-detector device. It consisted of a console with a big knob and a glass window holding a needle that whipped around like a windshield wiper. Attached to the console were two cords with metal handholds at the end.
“What it does is show when a person has a thought,” she said. “You hold these and there’s a tiny bit of electricity that goes through you and back into here. It’s used in counseling. The thoughts will affect the needle on the dial. Wanna try?”
One of the women from Maryland was game. She grasped the handholds while FFD twisted the knob. The needle swung deep to the right, then back to resting position. “You had a thought just then, right?” FFD chirped. “Pretty cool, huh?”
I took a turn. As I grasped the metal holds, I felt no jolt of electricity. The needle wasn’t moving, either. FFD twisted the knob, and the needle jumped to a vertical position. I asked her, “What are you doing with the dial?” She said, “Oh, basically calibrating.”
Next came another video, about seven minutes long, concerning marriage and Scientology’s role in fostering a better relationship.
Reality check: How many times has Tom Cruise been married and divorced? (Three.)
In any event, we learned two terms in the video (“overt,” an act you do but wouldn’t want done to you; and “withhold,” keeping such acts to yourself). The warm baritoned narrator intoned that the worst thing you could do is “withholding the overt,” a bemusing way of saying, in essence, Don’t cheat on your spouse and, if you do, don’t keep it to yourself. OK, then.
Finally, after passing through a neon archway saying “The Way to Happiness,” we were back in the lobby and then on the street, a place I was profoundly happy to be.
L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition
6331 Hollywood Blvd.,
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
More info: lronhubbardprofile.org/profile/exhib.htm