When I was a lad, our family made just one trip to California. It was in the early 1960s. We drove down to see the freshly minted 8th Wonder of the World: Disneyland.
We boys couldn’t wait. I remember Dad being jazzed as well.
While in Los Angeles, our plan was to drink in as much of the city as we could before returning to the desert. And fortunately, at the motel, an enterprising old gent found us and, for a fee, offered to drive our car and keep us out of the freeway free-for-all.
Dad bought in.
Turned out the old guy knew his stuff. He buzzed us to the Hollywood Bowl, Knott’s Berry Farm, Santa Monica. But he kept checking his watch. There was one thing we simply would not, could not miss, he said: The giant stained glass window of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Maybe because our license plates said "Utah," he turned the pilgrimage to Forest Lawn into a quest for the Holy Grail. And soon, we were winding through the “somber theme park” called Forest Lawn.
For those who’ve never been there, Forest Lawn is a cemetery filled with marvels, wonders and clever ways of being “laid to rest.” It’s Disneyland for dead people. Folk singer Tom Paxton spoofed it in a song:
“I’ll lie beneath the sand,” he sings, “with piped in tapes of Billy Graham. Oh, take me when I’m gone to Forest Lawn!”
I remember, once we arrived, I stared at the Da Vinci window with awe, not only because our guide made a big deal of it, but because my parents bubbled and gushed over it (maybe to please him).
At any rate, the window has lived for 60 years in a little sun-lit corner of my brain. And a couple of weeks ago, when my son and his family made their first trip to Los Angeles, the memory of the trek to Forest Lawn came flying back.
I visit Los Angeles quite a bit these days, so I decided next time I’d hop up to Glendale and revisit the window.
I even searched it out online. (One of the places where the history is shared is on Forest Lawn's website at forestlawn.com/the-window-that-almost-wasnt).
The founder of Forest Lawn, Hubert Eaton, was gasping at the glory of the stained glass in Italy when his guide said he knew a woman whose work was just as good.
Eaton tracked down Rosa Moretti and commissioned her to do a 30-by-15-foot replica of Da Vinci’s masterpiece.
Months later she sent Eaton a letter saying the figure of Judas had broken five times. One more break and she'd consider it a sign to quit, she said.
Eaton held his breath. The sixth time, Judas held.
The window was installed at Forest Lawn in 1931.
But here’s the kicker. Forest Lawn recently renovated the mausoleum. The Da Vinci piece, once back-lit by artificial light, now beams like a star in the sunlight. And other pieces in glass, The Crucifixion, The Resurrection, have been brought into high relief to create a vision of God's kingdom and glory. The word on the street is “don’t miss it.”
So, like a knight heading off on another crusade, here I am again mounting a trip to Forest Lawn to see a window that's as wonderful as fireworks on the water.
In fact, I'm building a whole trip around it.
And I suppose that's fitting.
Life is a funny old dog. It always finds a way to come back to bite you — or give you an affectionate lick.
And on the scorecard of my life, I'm going to count this as a lick.