Illuminating the Sun-Drenched Crystal Cathedral

In the 1960s, Reverend Robert H. Schuller had a dream. He wanted to create a church open to all, and open it was. Embracing the California culture of the automobile, Schuller created a drive-in church where you could sit in your car and listen to the service (much like a drive-in movie where Schuller was the star of the show). Schuller also had a love for contemporary architecture and commissioned California architect Richard Neutra to build the first chapel in Garden Grove, just south of Los Angeles.

Today the site is better known for its towering Crystal Cathedral, a glorious glass house of worship designed by legendary architect Philip Johnson (someone who certainly knows a thing or two about glass houses). Dedicated in 1980, the Crystal Cathedral is the home of Schuller's Crystal Cathedral Ministries that today boasts a congregation of over 10,000 members, and serves as the “studio” for Schuller's Hour of Power television broadcasts.

The building is quite awe-inspiring, with 2,890 seats and space for up to 1,000 singers and musicians in a 185'-long (55.5m) chancel area constructed of Rosso Alicante marble, quarried in Spain and cut and polished in Italy. The Cathedral has an exceptional pipe organ, one of the five largest in the world. The altar table and pulpit are made of granite, and the 17'-tall (5m) cross has antiqued 18-karat gold leaf.

There is a lovely shimmer to the 10,000 silvery tempered-glass windows that are held in place by a lace-like frame of white steel truss. Behind the pulpit, two motorized 90'-tall doors open electronically to allow the morning sunlight and warm breezes to enhance the worship services (the building is actually naturally cooled rather than air-conditioned).

So that everyone can see, services are broadcast on a giant indoor Sony Jumbotron screen, and on a NitStar screen outside, directly adjacent to the Cathedral, for “drive-in” worshipers, in keeping with Schuller's original church. Five Sony video cameras and a Grass Valley video switching system facilitate the broadcasts. Three of the cameras are on pedestals, with the other two on rolling dollies (one of these can also be used as a handheld).

“There are two feeds for the video broadcasts of the Sunday morning service. One is for the interior Jumbotron and the exterior screen. The other mix is for the television show, the Hour Of Power. This is not a live broadcast, as it is edited and shown one-week later via satellite uplink,” explains Jim Coleman, who has been the art director at the Cathedral since 1975 and worked very closely with Terry Larson, who did the lighting design at the Cathedral for 25 years and recently passed away.

One of the challenges in lighting the two Sunday morning services in a giant glass room is the sun. “Shadows can vary from one service to another,” says Glenn Grant, the in-house LD at the Cathedral. “The sun comes directly in the large open doors so we try to match the exterior lighting and minimize the effects of the sun.” Grant started working at the Cathedral as an assistant stage manager 12 years ago and took over the lighting about 18 months ago, working as an assistant to Larson for almost a year. The lighting crew also includes assistant LD Keith Levitt and board operator Kris Silver.

The lighting rig in the Cathedral is hung on a series of catwalks that run across the ceiling. “One of the problems is finding effective positions and not interfere with the aesthetics of the church,” says Grant. “We hide things as much as we can and try not to use too many fixtures. We try to get an even wash from the catwalk above the south balcony.”

The rig includes 14 Martin Professional MAC 2000s, 18 MAC 600s, 60 Strand SL ellipsoidals, 200 Altman 6×22 ellipsoidals, 120 Altman 6×16 ellipsoidals, and a battery of PAR cans. “We try not to use too many of the PAR cans,” explains Grant. “They light up too much of the building.”

This part of the rig is used primarily for The Glory of Christmas and The Glory of Easter, the two large holiday spectaculars presented at the Cathedral, which are now lit by Grant. Flying by Foy and 16 Columbus McKinnon Lodestar chain hoists and motors assure the heavenly ascent of the live angels (eight for Christmas and six for Easter) who are lit with seven Strong Super Trouper followspots. “We have new Super Troupers on order for this year,” notes Grant. “The current ones are about 20 years old. We're looking to continue to update the fixtures.”

In fact, the lighting has been an ongoing process at the Cathedral. “Strand Lighting has been working closely with the Cathedral for the last 10 years and has participated with them in supporting their lighting needs for both broadcast and live performance,” says Peter Rogers, Strand global sales and marketing director. This includes recent updates of the entire control system, with a Strand 550i console with 2,000 channels now in place along with a backup Strand 510i rack-mount, also with 2,000 channels (the consoles are located on the mezzanine level along with the sound console). There is also a portable Strand 300 Series console.

A second section of the rig is for the television broadcasts, with a mixture of Strand Quartzcolor fixtures including 28 HMI 4kW fresnels for frontlight, four 2.5kW HMI fresnels for backlight, six 1.2kW HMI PARs for fill, and three 12kW HMI fresnels focused on the pulpit for general wash light from the front. All the fixtures are powder-coated in white to blend as much as possible with the structural trussing of the building.

Two Compaq iPaq PDAs running Strand's Wireless Focus Remote software are used for focus of the lighting instruments. “The remotes are great with the height we have in here,” notes Grant. The main catwalk is 80' from the floor, with two other catwalks, one at 100' and the one for the TV lights at 50'. “The remotes allow two people to focus at the same time,” says Grant, who finds the tall trim heights somewhat of a challenge. “We use a lot of very narrow beams,” he says.

The HMI ballasts are located in a room referred to as “the sauna,” under the pipe organ. There is also a downstairs dimmer room for the 576 Strand 2.4kW SLD dimmers. The house lights are run by 96 Strand CD80 dimmers and a Strand Premiere architectural control system. DMX data distribution is via Strand's ShowNet network with six SN103 nodes and one SN100 video node. The house lights are mostly PAR cans and not used during the services, but rather during the live pageants.

A new visitor's center is currently going up on the Cathedral grounds, designed by Richard Meier of Getty Museum fame, once again underlining Schuller's love for modern architecture. Clad with stainless steel panels, the new building will house a 300-seat theatre in the basement, to be used for an orientation film about the Cathedral and for student productions of musicals (the complex includes a private academy with a performing arts major available). Strand Lighting is active in the planning for the new theatre as well as upgrades for the original chapel in the Neutra building, where an old Strand GSX console has been replaced in the past few weeks with a new 300 Series desk.

“The concrete is poured and there is an orchestra pit,” says Tom Ruzika, who is serving as a lighting consultant for the project. On the drawing board is a motorized rigging system and Strand theatrical lighting package. “The interior design of the building doesn't allow for catwalks, which is why we are considering the motorized rigging,” adds Grant.

On the 10th anniversary of the Cathedral, a highly polished stainless steel bell tower (with a 52-bell carillon) and spire were added to the Cathedral. “I'd like to illuminate the spire at night,” says Coleman. “It would be a beautiful beacon of light.”

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.