If the extensive Tinseltown real estate holdings and roster of proud celebrity members didn’t tip you off, the Church of Scientology seems to have a bit of a thing for aligning itself with Hollywood glamour, and its fully loaded Washington outpost is no exception. The 16th Street Scientology Center, which made waves when it opened in 2009 thanks to its curious name (“Ideal Org”) and the traffic snarls it caused, hosted a performance by the L. Ron Hubbard Golden Age Theater Friday night. While there was no Tom Cruise cameo, the free performance offered the chance to see entertainment industry fandom onstage—as well as a peek inside the controversial (and litigious) religion.
Upon entering the center’s pristine halls, guests were greeted by a table of grinning volunteers who had each visitor fill out a personal information sheet (I opted to just list my name and phone number and was still allowed through, though there were lines for e-mail and home addresses and other information) and put on a nametag. After navigating tables of brightly displayed books and materials for sale and plenty more volunteers eager to chat, we were directed to an upstairs cafe room where an impressive spread of free sandwiches and snacks was flanked by more tables carpeted in the works of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s revered founder. Most prominently placed were the colorful stacks of volumes and audiobooks from Hubbard’s Stories From the Golden Age, the subject of the night’s performance.
Before he released Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health—the contents of which would evolve into Scientology’s core tenets—in 1950, Hubbard wrote pulp fiction stories in the ’30s and ’40s. The collection of 153 of those sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, and Western tales was the shameless star of the evening. Stories has its own theater company and, along with Hubbard’s other literary works, its own publishing house. The Golden Age Theater’s website lists scores of actors and actresses (mostly unknowns, though some recognizable character actors and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss stood out—really, Peggy? Never would have guessed) who perform the stories in the company’s signature nostalgic radio style in Hollywood and in appearances across the country. Friday’s one-night-only show was based on Hubbard’s “Tough Old Man,” originally published in the November 1950 issue of Startling Stories magazine.
The performance started about a half an hour late, I assume to provide for maximum mingling time in the cafe, and even then the actual acting didn’t get underway until after John Goodwin, head of Hubbard’s fiction publishing house, Galaxy Press, gave a lengthy presentation. Goodwin’s introduction felt like a bizarre extended infomercial, only instead of Wax Vacs or Stompeez it was for the Golden Age stories and audiobooks and how mythically badass Hubbard apparently was.
The performance itself wasn’t bad; in fact, the three performers were talented and entertaining. Structured as an old-time radio show in the vein of Gunsmoke or Abbott & Costello, and complete with retro mikes, the staged reading followed a trainee named Moffat assigned to legendary senior constable Keno Martin on Frontier Patrol service on a distant planet. No one has survived the old officer’s intense instruction before, but Moffat is determined, even as she uncovers that Keno is not what he seems.
Only narrator Gino Montesinos was credited in a pre-show press release, touted as having “supporting roles in Collateral, Cellular, and Bruce Almighty,” though a cross-check with IMDB would suggest all three of those were uncredited (and they left off his work on 2004’s SpongeBob SquarePants Movie). Which is not to say Montesinos is untalented. He has a solid stage background, and his expressive face and strong voice gave the performance steady energy and as much depth as a sci-fi pulp fiction piece can probably have. But the lofty Hollywood-praising description fit right into the golden age of stage and screen worship that permeated the evening. As Keno, actor and director Skip Harris was goofy and charming. The actress playing Moffat was also impressive, able to squeeze some engaging action and adventure out of the script without leaving her mike. The material was hardly Shakespeare, but it was fun, albeit silly, with some Twilight Zone-esque echoes. And the bare-bones radio format, combined with supporting sound effects and basic lighting, was an original and entertaining twist.
Everyone I interacted with at the Scientology Center was friendly—sometimes overly so—and the building was beautiful (the bathrooms were especially gleaming). In fact, I didn’t get much sense of the Scientology belief system at all, as the night was focused solely on Hubbard’s fictional works (however, if you consult Wikipedia, there’s not that much daylight between the two). What was unsettling was the smothering commercial quality, the focus on selling both the stories and Hubbard himself, that hung over the event—the actors performed on a stage beside a giant bust of the founder in case the rest of the evening didn’t get the point across.
If the Golden Age Theater was in fact trying to celebrate these classic stories through live performance, I could have classified my evening as enjoyable and even enlightening. But the push to jump on the L. Ron Hubbard bandwagon (complete with questionnaires and donation forms on every seat that posed checklists for you to do as an “LRH fan” such as posting online reviews about his stories and “work[ing] with your local libraries and schools to get them using LRH’s fiction”) made it clear old sci-fi wasn’t the only thing the Golden Age Theater was trying to promote.