By Jiggs Gallagher, October 17, 2016: Adventists of a “certain age” will remember Westbrook Hospital, the syndicated drama series with stories based loosely on a mythical Adventist hospital, or at least a hospital with an Adventist chaplain, trying to help people through various medical and spiritual crises. It was produced at the Adventist Media Center after its formation in the mid-1970s, and into the decade of the 80s. The production was identified with the Faith for Today television ministry.
Adventists of an even older “certain age” will remember that Faith for Today had an even earlier incarnation that was not without distinction. Begun in New York City in May, 1950, “Faith” was founded by an Adventist pastor of a local church in the city, Pastor William Fagal with his wife, Virginia. They developed the weekly half-hour series for WABC, the ABC affiliate television station in New York City. It was literally a “mom-and-pop” operation in the beginning, with the Fagals writing scripts, developing programming, serving as hosts and operating a Bible correspondence school modeled after the long-successful Bible lesson program of radio’s Voice of Prophecy in California.
Fagal was a determined genius in getting the church to undertake such a demanding weekly broadcast. Many of the church fathers, at the time, saw the emerging medium as the devil’s plaything, much as they viewed the Hollywood film industry.
Fagal thought differently. He thought television would be the “next big thing,” and that it was well suited to communicating the Gospel to the masses. He would write scripts for volunteer “actors,” who would tell moralistic stories. Sometimes he himself would act in the dramas, but other times he and his wife would wrap up the story at the end of the half-hour, and make a book offer or other give away, as a way of enticing people to write in for the Bible lessons. It was said he drove from Brooklyn into Manhattan, with the script positioned on his steering wheel, memorizing his lines so he could deliver them. This was in the days before script “crawls” or Teleprompters. The show was filmed at Charter Oaks Studios on Manhattan’s East Side.
Faith for Today became the prime Seventh-day Adventist television presence, moving from WABC to the ABC network nationally on Sunday mornings. In those less pressured days, networks offered religious, children’s and public affairs programming as “sustaining,” meaning that no commercials were aired during the broadcasts and the network did not charge the producer to air it. Sunday mornings in the 1950s were thought of as a relatively dead time, audience-wise, and broadcasters were just happy to fill the time with something worthwhile. How times have changed!
Faith for Today was the first (and is still the oldest) religious broadcast in the nation of all faiths. Later, around 1956, Adventists tapped Pastor George Vandeman to begin a second program, It Is Written, which was syndicated nationally (and is still produced today) with a more overtly preaching format. Nontheless, Faith for Today thrived through the 1950s, 1960s and into the early 1970s. The Fagals went to fulltime work with the program, moving its headquarters to Nassau County on New York’s Long Island, to a suburban town called Carle Place. The program became a media ministry of the denomination, raising much of its own budget but also benefitting from a North America-wide church offering each February. They hired staff to produce the dramas, people to run the Bible school, and even a sacred-music male quartet, again modeled after that of the Voice of Prophecy.
However, with the decline in Pastor Fagal’s health and a move to California with the consolidation of Adventist broadcast efforts in the new Adventist Media Center in Newbury Park in 1973, the “steam” of the old format was running out. While the Fagals remained with the organization, and were integral to communicating with the Adventist population, producers decided to go with a newer, more contemporary drama format. The result was a half-hour, somewhat soap-opera styled drama series called “Westbrook Hospital.”
The producers hired actors from the Hollywood film and television industry, readily available considering their suburban Los Angeles location. One of the early writers for the Westbrook series was Donald Davenport, a recent La Sierra University graduate who wanted to develop his skills writing for television.
Photo: Don Davenport today.
Donald cut a dashing figure at the Media Center as a young man in his 20s. He lived aboard a sailboat moored in the Channel Islands Harbor in nearby Oxnard, and he drove a nifty sports car. He was hired as a writer, and he helped develop the series, and later worked on a feature-length film that Faith for Today developed. Davenport also kept his eyes and ears open to all of the interesting subplots and real-life action going on around him. He filed it all away in his memory bank, later moving on to other positions and finally establishing himself as a successful independent scriptwriter, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Earlier this year, Davenport reached back into his store of memories to pen the pilot for a new half-hour television series being developed as cable programing. He is using the working title “Worldly Kingdoms” to suggest Faith for Today’s inherent tension of trying to do the Lord’s work of spreading the Gospel through fictional stories using Hollywood actors and writers. The pilot’s script is a rip-roaring ride through the lives of those involved in the effort.
He tells the story from the point of view of a young assistant writer named David Stoddard, not unlike Davenport, newly hired on the show. He joins Westbrook Hospital, which he calls “Chicago Hope with a sermonette, where all of life’s problems get neatly solved in 28 minutes, 45 seconds and 15 frames.” The executive producer and the show’s producer have a lot of tensions with each other (the exec is more conservative; the producer is more liberal and was actually an actor on a prime-time network soap, running with a rather elite New York crowd). In one scene, a washed-up Hollywood actor who thinks the religious show is beneath his talents (but needs the job, working for scale) throws a tantrum on the set when an extra rolls a wheelchair over his expensive glasses, which he had just set down. The producer comes over to deal with his ravings, and says, “Watch your mouth, you syphilated skunk’s ass. It’s a Christian show, in case you hadn’t noticed.” In real life, the hapless extra responsible for the broken glasses was none other than Davenport, himself.
A subplot involves one of the Christian characters who hears that a local drive-in theater near the production facility has been converted to showing pornography. One evening he looks up the hill behind that theater, finds a residential area where he can hide his car and watches the smutty movie. He decides to pull a “Zacchaeus” and climb into a live-oak tree for a better view. Of course, in typical Hollywood fashion, the limb breaks and he comes crashing down to multiple injuries. His cover story at work (and to his family) is that he bravely broke up a robbery at the local drug store parking lot and the thugs worked him over. But his conscience bedevils him over the falsehood.
The absurdities and hypocritical developments of “Worldly Kingdoms” continue, until a real-life murder, which may or may not involve staffers on the program, takes place in the scummy environs of Hollywood.
The proposed series is not to be considered gospel. There are incidents adapted from real ones, characters shaped from actual people. Storylines are compressed and details merged. But, according to Davenport, it does represent the spirit of the times, when well-meaning people tried to use the tools of “Athens” to lead people to “Jerusalem.”
It will be most interesting to see if Davenport’s pilot pitch is successful, and we get to look back, not in anger, but more in bemusement and wonder at a seminal era in Adventist media.
Jiggs Gallagher is a senior editor for Adventist Today. As a matter of full disclosure; Gallagher worked for It Is Written at the media center during some of the same years that Davenport worked for Faith for Today at the media center.