New Dawn for Bowl Easter Service

Coin flip gives control to Trinity TV ministry

Los Angeles Times/January 26, 2002
By Bob Pool and William Lobdell

Eighty years of tradition was tossed aside with the flip of a coin Friday as a controversial Orange County television ministry won control of this year's Easter sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl.

Trinity Broadcasting Network will produce and televise the March 31 pageant, replacing a venerable Los Angeles civic group that began staging the religious spectacle in 1919.

Executives at TBN, the world's largest Christian television network, dismissed fears that their network's evangelical style would corrupt the program's ecumenical tradition. "We'll have every Christian denomination," promised programming coordinator Jay Jones.

But critics of TBN--known for the glitzy sets, flamboyant on-air personalities and lavish lifestyles of its founders, Paul and Jan Crouch--were unmoved.

"It's a real shame," said Sandy Gorog, who braved the cold last year to attend the Hollywood Bowl services, where her boss, the Rev. James H. Morrison of Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church, spoke. "A long tradition's been broken that gives people a chance to hear preachers in the neighborhood."

Los Angeles County, which owns the Hollywood Bowl, ordered the coin toss to settle a dispute over rights to the Easter program after TBN, which coveted the event, complained it was being unfairly excluded. The current producer, Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service Inc., claimed TBN forced the county into the coin flip by threatening to sue. TBN officials said they simply asked for an equal shot at producing an event held in a publicly owned facility.

The 1973 Eisenhower silver dollar that settled the matter flew up three feet before it fell to the carpeted floor, bounced once and then rolled to the tasseled loafer of TBN television programming coordinator John Casoria. When Casoria stepped back the coin showed tails--the network's assigned side.

It might have been divine intervention, Casoria allowed.

"It hit my foot--the coin did what it did. I didn't have any control over it," he said.

The process outraged leaders of the losing group.

"I'm sorry. This is not Las Vegas. This the Hollywood Bowl Easter sunrise service," said Norma Foster, president of the nonprofit Sunrise Service organization. "This is offensive."

Civic Group Plans to Challenge Process

Members of Foster's group say their predecessors created the Hollywood Bowl in 1921, two years after conducting the first sunrise service. And they claim the amphitheater was eventually deeded to the county in exchange for a 99-year renewable lease that guarantees them the use of the bowl each Easter for $1 a year.

Foster said her organization will challenge the county's decision to use a coin-flip to select the group in charge of the annual Easter program. But lawyers for her group conceded that fighting off TBN may not be easy. "Finding the actual tract records is difficult," said attorney Gerald Manpearl.

Foster vowed to fight to "protect the rights of the thousands of kids who have taken part in the living cross over the years," referring to the children's choir that has formed the shape of a cross as one of the signature events of past Easter services.

A multidenominational tone has been a hallmark of the pageant, America's best-known Easter sunrise service. Past services have included a mixture of clergy and celebrities, with Hollywood personalities such as Angie Dickinson, Mickey Rooney and Robert Stack sharing the bowl's stage with religious figures from houses of worship such as the First A.M.E. Church, the Leo Baeck Temple and the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

In promising to be just as inclusive, TBN executive Jones said, "We are under the assumption the Hollywood Bowl is for everyone."

Gregory Emler, an elder at In His Presence Church in Studio City, agreed. "Trinity Broadcasting would probably be one of the most reputable sources I can recommend to do this. They will represent the real meaning of Easter--no bunnies, no eggs. It will be straight to the point without a lot of frills," he said.

The Rev. Dr. Edward J. Hansen of the Hollywood United Methodist Church said it's too early to tell how the change will affect the sunrise events at the Hollywood Bowl. But he said he appreciated the diversity included in the prior services: "children's groups, ethnic groups, different theological perspectives--all centered around this special day."

Critics of Paul and Jan Crouch are irked that the couple enjoys expensive houses, including a new Newport Beach estate reported to cost $5 million. According to 2000 tax documents, Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana Inc., which oversees a network of regional TBN organizations as well as overseas ventures, had $444 million in net assets. The Crouches had a combined salary of more than $850,000.

Some Find Theology Flawed

Some also believe that many TBN evangelists teach flawed theology. "They are peddling spiritual cyanide by the megadose," said Hank Hanegraaff, a best-selling author of Christian books whose works include "Christianity in Crisis" and "Counterfeit Revival."

Hanegraaff monitors the TBN broadcasts, looking for examples of outrageous claims and apostasy. In 1999, he says, TBN star Benny Hinn told viewers: "You're going to have people raised from the dead watching TBN. . . . I see actually loved ones picking up the hands of the dead and letting them touch the screen. . . ."

The Crouches could not be reached for comment. But other TBN officials voiced surprise Friday at the Easter service complaints.

"I'm a little disappointed and baffled to hear there's some anger," said Colby May, a TBN spokesman in Washington, D.C. He said the network is "humbled and honored" to be awarded use of the Hollywood Bowl.

May promised the Easter pageant will be ecumenical and centered on Christ's resurrection, a theme that unites all Christian denominations. A toll-free number will appear at the bottom on the screen during the service for people needing prayer or wanting to make donations, he said.

The superimposed telephone number could prove to be a sticking point with the county. It harks back to a controversy in 1992, when TBN angered bowl veterans by allegedly seizing control of the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service board of directors and taking over that year's program. Under new rules drafted as part of the coin-toss procedure, such fund-raising is not allowed, according to Elizabeth Hinckley, spokeswoman for the Philharmonic Assn.

Jones said this year's sunrise telecast--which will be broadcast worldwide--will not be used for fund-raising. "We raise money twice a year through telethons," he said.

County Defends Its Approach

Production for this year's pageant will begin immediately, Jones said. Invited speakers could include prominent ministers Jack Hayford, Charles Blake and Robert H. Schuller as well as actor Charlton Heston, he said.

"It will probably look a lot like it did 10 years ago," Jones said of the Easter program.

For their part, county officials pronounced themselves satisfied with Friday's coin toss. A memo written by county lawyers and completed late Thursday said such a selection process "is the most reasonable and defensible approach" to avoid possible "unconstitutional discrimination."

But as coin-flipper William Jacobs--a Philharmonic Assn. auditor who works for Ernst & Young--pocketed his silver dollar, the two sides seemed in agreement that a more dignified process might be appropriate next year.

"I'm sure that reasonable minds could come up with a reasonable solution instead of leaving it to chance," said TBN's Casoria.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.