Photo: Republic Studios President Herbert Yates marries Vera Hruba Ralston in 1952. Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Note: The death of former First Lady Nancy Reagan has renewed interest in the Little Brown Church, where she and Ronald Reagan were married in 1952. Here is Mary Mallory’s post from 2012.
Originally ranch land that helped support the city of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley sometimes seemed slower and a tad more old fashioned than the big city that soon subsumed it. Life revolved around work, family, and the church. With the construction of the Mack Sennett Studios in North Hollywood in 1927, First National Studios in Burbank in 1926, and finally Walt Disney Studios in Burbank in 1938, population exploded. Many churches were built to keep up with growing congregations, but with many plants establishing work shifts around the clock, those needing spiritual sustenance at odd hours seemed left out.
The Rev. John H. Wells changed that. Originally from the Midwest, Wells began preaching in February 1910 at the Christian Church of Poplar Bluff, Mo. Wells and his family moved to California in the 1930s. He noticed that swing shift workers at dark moments of faith lacked a place to meditate, pray, or ask for guidance. In 1939, Wells and a few volunteers built a small wooden building on land owned by the Christian Church at 4418 Coldwater Canyon Ave. as a place for worship open 24 hours a day.
Named for the church in the song, “the Little Brown Church in the Vale,” the small Little Brown Church’s sanctuary seated 100 people at capacity. The building remained open all day every day for those needing to pray.
Because of its intimate size, couples began gravitating to the church as a place for a small and private weddings. Celebrities in particular were drawn to the hidden in plain sight facility just off a major street, a place forgotten by photographers and newshounds.
The first movie star married at the Little Brown Church seems to have been Cliff Arquette in March 1946, who wed Darlene Sammons. Others quickly followed, with actress Janis Paige marrying Frank Martinelli Jr. on Dec. 27, 1947 in a dress given to her by mogul Jack Warner, per the Los Angeles Times.
Future President Ronald Reagan married Nancy Davis here on March 4, 1952. Nancy Reagan writes in her book, “I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan,” that “we decided on a simple ceremony at the Little Brown Church in the Valley, with only our best friends Ardis and Bill Holden, attending. The Little Brown Church was small and out of the way and seemed like a good place to be married quietly.” Builder John H. Wells married the couple.
A few days later, on March 12, 1952, Republic Studios President Herbert Yates, 72, married one of his studio’s major stars, Vera Hruba Ralston, 31, at a small ceremony also led by Wells.
Entertainment industry folk seemed drawn to the church. Actress Mary Beth Hughes married David Street on April 29, 1948, at the facility. Blustery actor Jack Carson married Lola Albright in August 1952, followed later in the month by makeup man Frank Westmore, who joined hands with Ginger Clayton.
Other 1950s weddings here included actor Tom Tully’s marriage to Ida Johnson in June 1954, with director Don Siegel serving as best man; makeup man Bud Westmore’s ceremony with Jeanne Shores on April 1, 1955; and relative and also makeup man Frank C. Westmore’s wedding to Johnnie Fay Rector in June of that year.
Boxing legend James C. Jeffries somber memorial service occurred in the little chapel on March 7, 1953.
The 1960s saw other celebrity ceremonies at the church. Sportscaster Gil Stratton married Arline Marie Norvas in March 1961, and Charles Chaplin Jr. wed Marta Brown here in April 1962. In June 1962, Walt Disney gave away bride Thelma England Blount, his secretary, in her wedding to Tom Wilck. Actress Patty Duke married Harry Falk Jr. at the Little Brown Chapel in November 1965, followed by William Wellman’s daughter Cissy Wellman marrying Bob Donner on Dec. 12, 1965.
The Los Angeles Times interviewed Wells on Feb. 25, 1970, celebrating his 60 years of ministry. The minister noted that the chapel was still open 24 hours a day but times had changed. “We are robbed or hit by vandals at least once a month, but it is a risk we must take.” Malicious damage was increasing, as cushions, candles, and other things were stolen, but money left as offerings in boxes inside could not be seized, as they were guarded by burglar alarms. Wells estimated that the chapel performed 600 weddings a year for a $10-$40 contribution, with over 13,000 occurring since the Little Brown Church opened in 1939.
Weddings, baptisms, and memorial services still occur at the little church. In 1989, the Little Brown Chapel merged with the Central Christian Church of Van Nuys, also affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, as the congregation was outgrowing the size of the sanctuary. Services still occur early Sunday mornings and late on Sunday afternoons, and the little church still acts as a sanctuary of rest and solace for those in trouble.