I’m a big fan of the website Quora (specifically a place for asking and answering questions, and generally a fantastic resource for information). I’ve been answering questions there this year, and I’ve decided to start cross-promoting some of my popular answers here on my personal blog.
QUORA QUESTION - What does it feel like to finally stop biting your nails?
MY ANSWER or “A Trip To The Scientology Celebrity Centre”
A few years ago, I became obsessed with the idea of figuring out what was inside the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles on Franklin Ave.
The building has an aging Hollywood charm, being the former Chateau Elysee. It was originally built in late 1920s as a luxury long-term apartment building. It was a pet project of Hollywood royalty Elinor Ince after the death of her husband Thomas Ince, the legendary silent filmmaker and studio mogul. In the 1930s and 1940s some of the biggest celebrities of the era held residences in the building: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, George Burns, and many more. This was the center of the “chateau life” of the period, and the setting for many legendary parties and debaucheries.
Today the legacy of the building has faded. It was in considerable disrepair in 1973 when The Church of Scientology purchased the building. It is now operated as the Scientology Celebrity Centre, and its general purpose is kept mysterious. The romance of old Hollywood has been replaced by the mystery and secrets of Scientology.
I was living in Los Angeles a few years ago, and would often eat lunch with my girlfriend at Birds or La Poubelle on Franklin and stare at the mysterious building across the street. When I was in college in the late 90s, I read extensively about Scientology. I was fascinated by the organization, and it’s a fascination that has continued throughout my adult life. It should come as no surprise that THE MASTER is my most anticipated film of 2012.
After a few trips to the neighborhood, we realized that the Scientology Celebrity Centre offered a weekend brunch buffet at the Renaissance Restaurant. Unfortunately it appears that the restaurant’s website isn’t online anymore, but at the time it boasted about being ranked one of the 40 best restaurants in the nation. So this was the best of both worlds: delicious food and a peek behind the curtain of the Scientology Celebrity Centre.
To be honest, we were a little nervous about going by ourselves. If you spend much time reading about Scientology online, you run into some scary stories about the organization. But we weren’t scared enough to miss out on this adventure. Instead we roped in two friends who shared our fascination. A young film director and his girlfriend.
I called and booked a table for four, using a fake name (as I said, I was quite nervous). It was surprisingly easy to get a Sunday brunch table at one of the 40 best restaurants in the country.
The highly-anticipated day finally arrived. The Celebrity Centre offers free valet parking, but we (wisely) parked our cars around the corner on the street. We weren’t keen on the idea of having the Church of Scientology in possession of our vehicles. The four of us strolled across the beautifully maintained grounds, and entered the restaurant. We were looking forward to a brunch of excellent people-watching. A sneak behind the curtain of how the Scientologist royalty spent their Sunday mornings. The restaurant was almost entirely empty, and the buffet was what you would expect from a complimentary breakfast at a two-star hotel.
To say the least, this was a disappointment. We had built this up in our minds for the last week, and we were eating soggy cold french toast in an empty room.
But all was not lost! With no people-watching to do, we used our lunch to plan our approach. How could we explore this building? How could we find the inner secrets of the Celebrity Centre?
After we paid for brunch (we paid in cash; see above re: nervousness) we wandered further into the building to initiate our plan. Once you got past the restaurant, you started to really get a sense of the Scientologyness of the building. There were class-project-style dioramas and presentations on all the walls explaining various tenets of Scientology. We passed a roped-off empty office which we later found out was L Ron Hubbard’s office. Apparently every major Scientology building leaves an empty office for L Ron Hubbard. I assume this is in case he decides to return to Earth and needs to quickly bang out a Battleship Earth sequel.
Past the displays explaining the hierarchy of Scientology was a large foyer with a desk like a hotel reception. I approached the smiling woman behind the counter to start my well-rehearsed speech.
“Hi, we were just eating brunch at the Rennaisance, it was fantastic by the way, and we were blown away by how beautiful this building is. Is this a museum or something? Is there any sort of tour we can take?”
Of course, she loved this. We were immediately whisked off to a private theater to watch a forty minute recruitment video for Scientology. Just the four of us and the full force of Scientology’s audio-visual recruitment techniques. Wow. I can’t really do justice to this video without doubling the length of this already-lengthy answer. I believe it leaked online a few years ago, but Scientology immediately took it down. I will say that if you ever get a chance to watch the official Scientology recruitment video, do it.
After the video ended we shuffled out of the theater, minds totally blown. Of course we all wanted to discuss the mind-blowing video we just watched, but we were immediately grabbed by our “tour guide.”
Our guide took us around the ground floor of the Celebrity Centre. We were in full-character as young successful filmmakers who had never heard of Scientology, but who were intrigued by the claims made in the recruitment video. I think our feigned success was the key. I had two younger friends who went a couple months later and were immediately split up and given the hard-sell that you would assume Scientology would give young desperate people looking for help. We were treated like visiting dignitaries.
I got to play with an e-meter, as the tour guide asked me questions about things bothering me in my personal life. He would nod knowingly as the e-meter moved, and then would interpret the signals to give me answers to my made-up problems. This was the one time where I actually felt bad for our tour-guide. He was so earnest in his guidance and there I was making up problems and taking advantage of his hospitality.
I felt less bad when we were taken to the second floor and I saw the diorama that explained how Tom Cruise helped save the lives of New York City fire-fighters after 9/11. I love Tom Cruise, he’s one of my favorite actors of the last twenty years, but let’s keep things in perspective.
We walked through the Scientology library. Young people were hard at work plumbing the wisdom of L Ron Hubbard. We were asked to keep quiet not to interrupt their important work, and were quickly rushed out of the library when a young man looked disturbed by our presence.
In total, we spent around an hour and a half touring the building. I’m sure it could have gone on longer, but my friend’s girlfriend was starting to become disturbed and wanted to leave. The tour-guide tried at the last minute to switch into heavy recruitment mode, sensing that he was losing us, but we feigned that we had lost track of time and were late for an appointment. We gave fake names and phone numbers and got out of there as quickly as possible.
But one part of the tour has always stuck out in my mind. Part of the tour of the Celebrity Centre involved us going down into the basement, which had been lovingly converted into a full service spa and gym. The overwhelming feeling around the Celebrity Centre was that of a theme park. Walking through the basement hallways felt like walking through the Disneyland line for a medieval castle ride. The walls were covered with fake plaster painted stonework. And like a theme park, the people in attendance were all ridiculously happy. I am constantly amazed by how happy most Scientologists are. I have plenty of problems with Scientology, but I can’t fault the happiness that it seems to bring to so many practitioners.
While touring the spa a young woman came up to our group. I assumed she was in her early twenties, although she might have still been a teenager for all I knew. A wide smile was painted across her face. My mind drew a parallel to the fake painted medieval stonework on the walls around us, and almost immediately I felt guilty. Who am I to judge the legitimacy of her happiness? She grabbed my hand. I remember her palms were surprisingly warm.
“I’m so glad you’re here! Scientology is amazing! It cured me of biting my fingernails!”
The girl seemed very happy. And her nails looked fantastic.