Remembering the big tent at Washington and Hill

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by Robert Docter – 

Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer and Dr. Jack Hayford announce the upcoming Greater Los Angeles Crusade. The announcement took place February 9 with over 400 local pastors and community leaders in attendance.

It was a kind of lazy, warm, early fall in 1949. Bugsy Segal and Mickey Cohen vied for headlines in the Los Angeles press. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, and the first “really” new cars were on the street in almost a decade. The Citadel Corps had moved from its historic skid row location at 4th and Main out to 48th and Hoover and into a big barn of a place they called the Los Angeles Tabernacle. I played in the band.

Things were quiet and calm—the Korean conflict was just starting to heat up—and very quietly, the Los Angeles Christian Business Men’s Association decided the town needed a spiritual revival.

People were still talking about what Billy Sunday had done for Chicago back in “the good ‘ol days,” and these dedicated LACBM members—many of whom attended Hollywood First Presbyterian Church—went looking for a principal evangelist to run this great revival. But first—they hired a public relations director. His name was Lloyd Docter and he was my dad.

The organizers had a difficult time picking their evangelist. There really weren’t any big national names on anyone’s lips. National media was pretty much limited to radio and magazines. Television was in its infancy. They spread out in their search and sent observers to visit a number of campaigns in various parts of the nation. When they returned a couple of the guys had very positive things to say about the Graham organization, but, I believe they might have been a little anxious about costs in relation to the size of his “team.” He had an assistant evangelist named Grady Wilson—a young energetic song leader named Cliff Barrows—a male soloist with the unique moniker of George Beverly Shea—and everyone always used all three names—and an organist.

They looked at the budget and scheduled him for three weeks. I suspect they wanted to capture some of the feel of an old time tent meeting where sawdust covered the ground inside a big, flapping circus tent. Los Angeles really didn’t have any auditorium or theater in those days, and even the Philharmonic Orchestra played in a downtown church.

Getting the word out
As far as publicity went, Docter was a natural. He seemed to know the city editor by name on every paper in town. For a number of years he had carved Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys in city rooms for staff members—and had been planting Salvation Army stories with considerable success in the papers.

Los Angeles did have a number of pretty good newspapers. There was The Los Angeles Times—run by the Chandler family—a staid, old, main paper that dictated much of went on in the city. William Randolph Hearst had two papers—The Los Angeles Examiner—his morning paper, and The Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express. This paper always appeared on the streets with the front and back pages printed on green paper. Hearst wanted to run things, but was having a difficult time breaking into the market. The Herald, which is what everyone called it, was the principal evening paper. The Los Angeles Daily News was a tabloid size paper, under funded, desperately, it seemed, to keep up with the big money boys. Several very good papers were published in neighboring cities, and the Hollywood Citizen News dominated the Hollywood scene with an advertiser out in the San Fernando Valley called the Van Nuys News and Green Sheet trumpeting store sales along with some Valley news.

BILLY GRAHAM PREACHES at the Greater Los Angeles Revival in 1949. Photo courtesy of BGEA.

Hearst says “Puff Graham”
During Graham’s crusade, Docter was able to arrange participation by a number of Salvation Army musical groups in the evening meetings—but getting stories published was difficult at the outset. It seemed the large population of this very complacent city wasn’t overly interested in an evangelistic campaign led by some unknown southern preacher until a few movie stars began showing up. The six thousand seats inside the big tent started filling up on a nightly basis, and the press started paying more attention to Docter’s stories, and, on occasion, even sent their own reporters.

One night Mickey Cohen showed up with his entourage and at the end of the service “hit the sawdust trail.” The papers had a field day.

Hearst, living in his “castle” at San Simeon, California, must have read some of these releases with interest. Late one evening his city editors at the Examiner and the Herald received a terse two-word telegram stating—“Puff Graham!”

From that time on Docter’s news releases found quick publication. Front page banner headlines spanning six columns across the top of the paper articulated a particularly challenging comment offered by Graham the night before.

People suddenly became very aware that a new voice was gaining national prominence proclaiming Christian love for one another while articulating a firm moral code.
The tent meeting was extended another five weeks, and before Graham left town he had spoken to more than 350,000 people.



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