A few weeks ago, I visited L.A. to hang out with a close friend and escape the New Hampshire winter, which has actually been unsettlingly mild so far, but never mind. Along with window shopping, peeping at Katherine Heigl as we ate sushi, and driving to the Beverly Hilton the night Whitney Houston died — LOS ANGELES, YOU GUYS — we decided to have brunch at the Church of Scientology International Celebrity Centre. You can tell it’s “international” because of the ultra-sophisticated spelling of the word “center.”
Yes, the Church of Scientology serves a weekend brunch buffet for about $12 at the Renaissance Restaurant, inside the Manor Hotel, also run by the church. The Manor Hotel is the former Chateau Elysee, an apartment complex once home to stars including Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart; the church bought it in 1973. The restaurant, like certain areas of the Celebrity Center Centre, is open to the public. According to his own blog, an Austrian man named Helmut Flasch renamed and refurbished the restaurant at the request of some Scientologists he met while working the Los Angeles Airport Hilton Hotel. “All the above happened while NOT being a Scientologist, but hanging out at the Manor Hotel 24/7 got me interested in Scientology,” he writes, somewhat worryingly to a woman who recently hung out at the Manor Hotel. “This is a method of recruiting which L Ron Hubbard had talked about that will inevitably lead into people becoming Scientologists without trying.” Oh dear.
Nonetheless, my friend E. and I were curious, so we decided to check it out. I have a fondness for American religious oddities, and besides, brunch is the best. So we bought a Sunday New York Times and drove to Hollywood, where dreams of coffee and breakfast sausage come true.
Despite the photos of a jam-packed patio on the church’s website, there were only a few other occupied tables when we arrived around noon on a Sunday. A friendly Russian (?) woman led us to our seats outside and asked if we wanted coffee. We traipsed inside to help ourselves to the buffet, which was exactly what you’d expect of a nice-but-not-too-nice hotel: Salad, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and lunch foods like crepes and lasagna, all having sat in their warming dishes for several hours. Like all mediocre restaurants everywhere, the Renaissance serves fruit salad heavy on the cantaloupe. But it was a decent spread, and cheap, and we happily loaded up our plates. I texted my husband that any religion with deviled eggs this good can’t be all bad.
As we were eating, a few little girls ran happily around the courtyard. The sun shone. A Church of Scientology staffer with an earpiece circled the perimeter, talking intensely on the phone. After finishing our meals and making a dent in the paper, E. and I got up to stroll around the beautiful open courtyard. We checked out a little waterfall and a babbling brook lined with flowers. It only felt natural to snap a few iPhone photos, which you see here.
After I took a couple of pictures, the air next to the waterfall shimmered for a moment and a blond man with a beard materialized, Star Trek-style. At least that’s what it seemed like to E. and me as we made frantic eye contact. “Hi!” the man said. “You know, we actually don’t allow photography here, because it’s a hotel, and the Celebrity Centre and all.” I looked around to see which celebrities I might have accidentally photographed — did I just have brunch with Tom Cruise? Are the ghosts of Davis and Bogart still hanging around? — but all I saw was a Midwestern-looking family eating eggs.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, and went to slip my phone back into my bag. “Actually, could I just take a look at the photos you took?” the man said. I don’t know what possessed me to say “Uh, sure,” to this crazy request, but the man had an earpiece and a precisely trimmed beard, I was on private property run by a violent religious organization, and my photos were genuinely innocuous. A stronger, more quick-thinking person would have said, “Sorry, no,” out of sheer curiosity, but alas. You go to brunch at the Celebrity Centre with the integrity you have, not the integrity you might want or wish to have at a later time.
I held up the phone and flicked through all five photos. “Gee, that’s a great shot,” the man said. “Amazing what these things can do!” I at least had enough self-respect to glare at him. “Ok, yes, these are all fine,” he said eventually. That’s when I truly felt like a patsy — when I understood that I was giving him the right to refuse or accept the very existence of my harmless, crappy iPhone photos. Meanwhile, the guy cheerfully introduced himself. The guy’s name was Guy. He asked our names, and asked if this was our first time here, and what brought us here. We answered vaguely but politely and scurried away. As we left the courtyard, we heard another earpieced guard quizzing a little boy about whether he’d been climbing on a fire escape, which we had totally seen him do. He said no, though. Brave, brave boy.
From there, E. and I went inside to check out L. Ron Hubbard’s office, copies of which exist to honor him in every Scientology Centre. We also explored the bookstore, which was a creepy nightmare all to itself. I bought an e-meter for $5,400, and followed the suggestion of a banner inviting me to complete my L. Ron Hubbard book collection in honor of the great one’s birthday.
Just kidding! Instead I nodded politely as the bookstore clerk, a shy Eastern European woman, told an excruciatingly delusional story about how Scientology single-handedly turned around the crime rate in Colombia. Then I waited patiently as she and her sweet coworker ineptly tried to get the sound to work on the TV so they could show E. and me a promotional video. Finally, I watched in horror as a male employee stormed in from nowhere and bullied them about what they were trying to do. “But which video are you trying to play? Why can’t you just explain to me exactly what you’ve been trying to do?”
This place probably made me too paranoid, but how did that guy know to storm in, since the bookstore is in a tiny windowless room? And why was he such a total jackass?
Afterwards we agreed to go on a tour, but instead we wound up stuck in a room watching videos with another super-friendly hawk-eyed employee who asked us for our names, our occupations, and what exactly we had heard about Scientology. “Oh, you know, I don’t know too much about it,” I said resisting the urge to ask this young woman if she read Lawrence Wright’s epic, damning, and fascinating piece of investigative journalism on the church last year. The first video showed us how to cure physical pain by reenacting the moment of injury and sort of hovering our hands over it or something. At another point, a boy becomes violently ill after eating some deviled eggs, which I took to be some sort of sign since I had just happily downed three Scientology-made deviled eggs and loved every bite. Eventually we got so bored we decided to go, a decision made completely in the language of desperate eye contact that we had perfected over the past few hours. ”REMEMBER, WE HAVE GO MEET RACHEL AT 3,” E. stage-whispered to me. I grabbed a flier advertising a special acting seminar with Erika Christensen on the way out.
To be honest, I could’ve stayed all day, but my heightened powers of eye contact were telling me that E. wasn’t that into the idea of spending eight hours listening to aspiring actors teach us how to cure ourselves of food poisoning with the power of positive thinking. She’s kind of an oddball like that.
Anyway, that was that. This was by far the creepiest experience with religion I’ve ever had in my life. And did I mention I’ve been to a basement museum devoted to nun dolls?