los angeles | From its very beginnings, the imposing marble edifice with the glistening copper dome rising 100 feet above the edge of downtown Los Angeles has been a major Hollywood production.
During the Golden Era, MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, along with fellow movie moguls Irving Thalberg, Carl Laemmle and the Warner brothers, helped bankroll the cavernous Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which debuted in 1929 as the cornerstone of the largest Jewish congregation west of Chicago.
The Tinseltown synagogue became known as the “Temple to the Stars” and served as the featured set location for everything from A-list weddings to an episode of “Entourage.”
Now, in the grand tradition of long-running Hollywood franchises, L.A.’s oldest synagogue is getting a $150 million reboot — just in time for summer release.
The sanctuary’s ornate front doors recently reopened for a public sneak peak: For the first time in nearly two years, visitors could see a restoration that includes newly repaired giant chandeliers and refurbished murals depicting the history of Judaism by the great film artist Hugo Ballin.
“I’ve peeked in to see it, and it’s inspiring and sort of awesome,” said prominent Los Angeles public relations executive Steve Sugerman, whose family connections to the congregation date back to its founding.
The sanctuary officially opens just in time for High Holy Days — on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 4 .
But that’s just the beginning. By 2020, synagogue leaders plan to have overhauled the entire block of Wilshire Boulevard that the temple occupies, replacing a parking lot with schools, a public exhibition space and a social services center that will include a food pantry and medical, dental and other services that will be open to everyone in the multiethnic neighborhood.
“We call it tikkun olam,” says Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, citing the tenet of Judaism that directs its practitioners to make the world a better place. “We take this imperative to help improve and repair our world very seriously.”
When he became the congregation’s senior clergy nine years ago, Leder and his board of directors quickly realized one of their first tasks in accomplishing that goal would be doing something about the aging temple. It may have been a Hollywood blockbuster when it opened three-quarters of a century earlier, but it was beginning to fall apart.
While the 4,000-pipe temple organ could still produce the music of angels, and the intricate stained-glass windows continued to send into the sanctuary an astounding array of colors that changed with the time of day, some other parts of the building had been made out of cheap, studio-back-lot-quality materials.
Like so many things in the movie business, parts of the building are not what they seem, said the temple’s executive director, Howard Kaplan, as he led a recent tour through the building while restorers hammered and drilled away.
“This is concrete molded with rubber so it will look like wood, and they painted it to look like wood. But it’s not wood,” he said of what restorers discovered when they began to renovate a hallway leading into the main sanctuary.
The building’s majestic copper dome, he noted, had originally been made out of tile — and apparently not very good tile, at that. It began to leak almost immediately and was replaced more than 70 years ago.
The congregation might have abandoned the building, as Hollywood often does with old, worn-out movie sets.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple already had more modern satellite campuses in West Los Angeles and Malibu, and over the years the neighborhood just west of downtown had changed. Once it was part of the Mid-Wilshire District and home to the city’s movers and shakers. Today, it’s called Koreatown and is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, made up not only of Koreans but also Latinos, Japanese, Filipinos and others, including many recently arrived immigrants.
It was that diaspora, however, coupled with the building’s historic Hollywood pedigree, that strengthened Leder’s resolve to stay.
The stunning Ballin murals had been commissioned by the Warner Bros. studio and presented to the temple the day it opened.
The temple’s longtime rabbi, Edgar Magnin, had presided over the funerals of comedy greats Jack Benny and George Jessel.
Adam Sandler, Richard Belzer and others dropped by in later years to host comedy nights.
And congregation member and Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin even worked one of Leder’s sermons into an episode of “The West Wing.”
With his board’s approval, Leder launched an ambitious $150 million fundraising drive. So far more than $100 million has been collected, including a recent $30 million pledge from congregant Erika Glazer, daughter of wealthy shopping mall developer Guilford Glazer. All renovations are on schedule.
One of the congregants firmly behind the renovation from the beginning has been Sugerman, who says he grew up at the temple, as did his grandmother.
“My parents, their first date was the confirmation dance,” he said with a laugh.
But beyond his own personal interest, Sugerman says, it was important to maintain the temple and expand its commitment to the surrounding community “despite the significant cost and difficulty,” so that the legacy of those who put it there could be honored.
Indeed, just rehabbing the existing building would have been cheaper, Leder noted, but that wouldn’t have upheld the vision that Mayer, the Warner brothers, Laemmle and the others had when they moved a congregation founded downtown in 1862 to the edge of a barley field and laid the foundation for what would become one of the city’s most vibrant areas.
“If we only redid the sanctuary, it would have been a beautifully restored building that was empty most of the time, instead of a dilapidated building that was empty most of the time,” he said.
“It would have been like a guitar with no strings. It might be beautiful, but it won’t make very beautiful music.”