Today Francesco, Jim and I spent the afternoon at St. Sophia Cathedral in the Pico-Union District of Los Angeles. We are grateful to the cathedral dean, Very Rev. Fr. John Bakas, and our amiable host Jimmy Karatsikis, who regaled us with stories as part of his role of the cathedral’s face of hospitality to the community. Look for Francesco to post some photos soon.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the histories of our parishes often sound sterile and clericalist. They frequently refer only to priests as builders and planners, as though no lay people were involved. Occasionally, the name of a nun or two might be included. I once drafted a parish history for an anniversary booklet that narrated lay involvement, the development of the area over 90 years and how the parish and city grew and changed together. The pastor threw it out and replaced it with a chronological list of pastors, entitled “History of the Parish.” That’s fairly typical.
But I’ve found that histories of Orthodox parishes, by contrast, are often rich and interesting, chronicling the contributions of the many lay people involved in building up the parish and constructing its buildings. The Orthodox are not afraid to give credit to lay people. And few such Orthodox histories are as colorful as that of St. Sophia Cathedral and the pride of place given by that community to the memory of Charles P. Skouras.
Charles P. Skouras
Born in 1889, Charles was one of 10 children of a poor Greek sheepherder. In 1910, he and his brothers George and Spyros arrived in St. Louis. They saved their wages as workers in downtown hotels and by 1914 they were able to open a nickelodeon on Market Street in that city, where the Kiel Opera House is now located. They began to buy other theaters, and by 1924 they owned more than 30. Among their St. Louis theaters was the Ambassador Theater Building (1925-1996), designed by the prominent Chicago theater architects Rapp and Rapp.
The three brothers continued on to become influential in the entertainment business in Los Angeles. In 1932 they took over management of some 500 Fox West Coast theaters. George became president of United Artists Theatres (now Regal Entertainment Group, owners of the Regal, Edwards and United Artists theater chains). Spyros was chairman of Twentieth Century Fox from 1942-1962 and was one of the main forces behind the creation of Century City. Charles went on to become president of National Theaters, which at the time owned 650 theaters across the nation.
The first parish of the Greek Orthodox community of Los Angeles was founded in 1908. Annunciation Church (1912) was built at 12th and San Julian Streets downtown in what is today the Garment District and served the growing community for some 50 years. In 1942, Charles, a member of Annunciation parish, decided that the tiny church was no longer adequate to the needs of the community. He purchased a lot on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, then a center of the local Greek community, and for 10 years was tirelessly involved in the construction of St. Sophia Cathedral.
In 1949, architect Albert R. Walker drew up plans for a magnificent church. In his previous partnership with Percy Eisen, Walker had designed the Oviatt Building (1927) and the Fine Arts Building (1925) downtown, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (1926) in Beverly Hills, the El Cortez Hotel (1927) in San Diego and The Breakers (1925) in Long Beach — as well as a number of theaters for the Skouras brothers. Over the next three years, the architectural firm of Walker, Kalionzes & Klingerman continued to refine the plans and supervised construction. The Athens-educated artist William Chavalas covered the interior with rich paintings, spending six months on the central dome alone, and enormous chandeliers were crafted of Czechoslovakian crystal. Chavalas also designed the stained glass windows depicting the Twelve Apostles.
All the latest technology was included, from the modern sound system to air conditioning and adjustable theatrical lighting. Even the deacon doors on the iconostasis were electric, silently gliding open and closed. Today they’re probably still the only electric deacon doors in any Orthodox church.
When St. Sophia was dedicated in 1952 as the seat of the local Greek Orthodox jurisdiction that then covered 11 Western states (the seat of the current seven-state Greek Orthodox Metropolis was later transferred to Annunciation Cathedral in San Francisco), Charles Skouras was honored by Archbishop Michael on the cathedral steps before the procession of clergy entered the church. And when Skouras died two years later, 2,200 people paid tribute to him in that great church he built as a monument to the Faith of his homeland.