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Crystal Cathedral teeters on the edge

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. – Capitalizing on the emerging car culture of Southern California in the 1950s, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller started a drive-in church and built it into an international televangelist empire, symbolized by the soaring glass Crystal Cathedral and its weekly "Hour of Power" show.

Now Schuller's life's work is crumbling.

Citing debts of more than $43 million, the organization declared bankruptcy this week in a collapse blamed by some on its inability to keep up with the times and a disastrous attempt to hand the church over to Schuller's son.

The church's failure to adapt to a changing landscape is ironic, considering that Schuller, now 84, was considered a theological radical during the Eisenhower years when he started preaching about the "power of positive thinking" from the roof of a concession stand at a drive-in theater. Followers could sit in their cars and listen to him through the movie loudspeakers that hooked to their windows.

Schuller tapped into powerful post-World War II cultural forces that were reshaping America, said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute of Religion Research.

"What he was preaching was seen a pretty heretical to a traditional religious world view at the time. But it worked because that's where society was," Thumma said. "Society was in their car. They had a very positive viewpoint of the world. We had just come back from World War II, we were all having kids, we were all going to college. He tapped into those different streams in the culture and turned them into Christian expression."

Schuller soon turned his humble pulpit into one of the nation's first megachurches, beaming his weekly Sunday service into 1 million homes worldwide through the "Hour of Power" TV show, which went on the air in 1970. Schuller became a familiar presence on television, a smiling figure in flowing robes, with snowy white hair and wire-rimmed aviator glasses.

In 1980, he opened the Crystal Cathedral, a 2,900-seat see-through church made of 10,664 panes of glass. A $20 million architectural marvel designed by the acclaimed Philip Johnson, it became a major Southern California landmark and tourist attraction. Schuller soon added a K-12 school and a tourist center.

(To this day, you can pull up to the Crystal Cathedral and listen to the service in your car through small speakers in the parking lot.)

Church leaders blame their predicament almost entirely on the recession, saying donations and ticket sales for their holiday pageants began to drop precipitously in 2008. The additions to the 40-acre grounds also forced the ministry to take out a mortgage that still carries a $36 million balance.

Attendance has dropped about 10 to 15 percent at services at the Crystal Cathedral in the past few years but still hovers around 5,000 each Sunday, church spokesman John Charles said. A Spanish-language service attracts about 2,000 and is growing rapidly, and a new Arabic-language service has about 400 worshippers, he said.

But those who have watched the church's fortunes decline believe Schuller — and later his children — failed to do much to attract younger people.

Newer evangelical leaders like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels began offering hip worship services and an emphasis on social activism and the latest technology. Schuller got left behind, Thumma said.

Schuller and family "stayed with the organ when everyone had gone to the rock 'n' roll band. He stayed with the robes when everyone else was reinventing themselves as bishops. In a time when most megachurces are going multisite and to smaller venues, he kept building bigger buildings," Thumma said.

The church has recently joined sites like Facebook and Twitter (Schuller has his own account), posts inspirational videos on YouTube and offers the Spanish and Arabic services, but those changes may have been too little, too late.

"I look at the 'Hour of Power,' and when the camera pans the audience, it's gray-haired people," said Kurt Fredrickson, assistant professor of pastoral ministry at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

The Crystal Cathedral also alienated older worshippers with the ill-fated attempt to turn the church over to Schuller's son, Robert A. Schuller Jr. The much-heralded changeover ended in a bitter and very public family spat, with the younger Schuller disappearing from the "Hour of Power" broadcasts and abruptly leaving the church altogether in 2008, less than three years after he assumed his father's mantle.

Last year, while announcing his own weekly TV show, Schuller Jr. said his father had resisted when he tried to introduce other media, such as cell phones and the Internet.

Sheila Schuller Coleman, Schuller's daughter, has since taken over as senior pastor and presides over the "Hour of Power" broadcasts with a rotating stable of guest preachers, including her father.

In the past two years, the church has laid off 250 of its 450 or so employees, sold its beloved retreat center, cut salaries and canceled contracts with more than 100 TV stations nationwide, Charles said. Family members took 50 percent pay cuts this year, the church spokesman said. He would not say how much they are paid.

This week, the church filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows a business to keep operating while it tries to put its finances in order under court supervision. The church said that for the time being, "Hour of Power" will remain on the air and the Crystal Cathedral will continue operating as usual.

Charles acknowleged the church could have reacted faster to changes in worship styles, but said: "There's always a fine line we have to walk. We want to gain new members and we want to keep the older members, but some members say, `I want it to stay exactly the way it is.'"

Huey Lewis explores "Soulsville" on new album

NEW YORK (Billboard) – Huey Lewis & the News recorded some of the most iconic pop-rock of the '80s, and notched two No. 1 albums, including 1983's seven-times platinum-certified "Sports."

Although the band has toured constantly, it hasn't released an album of original material since 2001's "Plan B."

Now the group is back with "Soulsville," an album of soul covers from the Stax Records catalog, due November 2 on WOW Records. The set includes the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself," Johnnie Taylor's "Just the One (I've Been Looking For)" and the title track by Isaac Hayes.

Billboard talked to Lewis about his classic soul influences, his business and his sideline as a film and Broadway actor.

Billboard: Why did you record an album of Stax soul?

Huey Lewis: It was actually my manager Bob Brown's idea. I was a little wary because I'm a big fan of this stuff. But I figured there's no harm in trying and working the songs up. I was wary because some of these performances are so great they shouldn't be repeated. But I think we've done it justice and we'll turn a lot of people on to this stuff.

Billboard: Among the songs you chose, were there any that were particularly challenging or that you felt were important to get just right?

Lewis: We knew you can't do a Stax record without an Otis Redding song, but some of them are untouchable. "Try a Little Tenderness" is out. "Just One More Day" was proposed, and I was wary in the beginning, because it's tough. I didn't know if I could cut it. But it was one of the last things we cut, and we cut it in one complete take.

Billboard: This is the first News album since 2001. Why did it take so long to get into the studio again, and why did you decide against original material?

Lewis: We're not spring chickens. And the public isn't clamoring for new Huey Lewis & the News material. We have written a few things, but you want it to be meaningful, so it becomes increasingly harder.

It's interesting to contrast the market now to the Stax period when the music was created by black and white people -- integrated musicians -- in a segregated society. Now society is integrated, but music is more segregated than ever. We've always enjoyed the gray areas of music, and unfortunately there's not a big commercial market for it. But I must say, now that we've got this thing out of our system I've actually got some ideas.

Billboard: What will you be doing to promote the record?

Lewis: We're going to tour, and I know we're going on Jimmy Kimmel's show at some point ... Commercially, I don't know. It would be wonderful if people would listen to it. That's all we hope for.

Soul music is a wonderfully short but fertile period in American popular music. This little period is a very important part, and looking back it doesn't sound that dissimilar from Huey Lewis & the News stuff. It's very strange to me, almost a new realization that, "Wow, clearly we were influenced by Johnnie Taylor." I've never heard it in our music before. Now that I hear those Johnnie Taylor tunes, I'm like, "Those tunes could have been our tunes."

Billboard: You've had success as an actor in films and on Broadway. Do you have any plans to continue pursuing roles?

Lewis: I have a couple things in the fire. I don't know if I should tell you. I did "Chicago" on Broadway for a couple of years, and I may do that again, to be honest, because it'd be fun. (Roles) just don't come any better. But there's a lot of other stuff that I'm just not willing to do, like reality shows. To me that's not creative.

Billboard: How have you weathered changes in the business and kept the band going?

Lewis: I'm a small-business man. I have 25 employees, we have a pension plan, we have a health plan. We have a rehearsal space and an office. I have to make enough money if I want to keep this thing going, so I have to work. I play "Heart of Rock N' Roll" and "The Power of Love" for the best money. I'm very happy to play my songbook as long as I'm paid for it. We love doing it. We play our songbook 70 nights a year because I have to keep my business alive. I didn't get a bailout.


Project X Design sees red with customized Rolex submariners

Project X Designs has just revealed its latest in Rolex customization: two stylish "Double Red" submariners based on the 16610LV Rolex design. The watches feature G10 Nato Straps and come in a choice of a DLC coated case, or satin finished stainless steel. Each finish will only be made in a series of 24 pieces.

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