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Hollywood, Studio City wards offer aspiring stars refuge

Working in entertainment industry poses special challenges to MormonsSomething here for headline

When Jay Godfrey and his wife went to Hollywood trying to break into the entertainment industry, they had high hopes — and a few big fears.

But those eased once they found an apartment, a kind Mormon bishop and the Hollywood Ward in California.

Hollywood is a tough town. But for Mormons seeking success in the entertainment industry, LDS wards can be a refuge and support. For Godfrey, a returned missionary and native Utahn who is attempting to carve out a career singing, acting and performing, the Hollywood Ward is "sort of like a home away from home."

"It's what I know," said Godfrey, who serves as the ward's elders quorum president. "It's familiar. We have great friends here."

A good percentage of the ward members are tied in one way or another to what they call "the industry." Courtney Cole-Fendley and her husband, Zachary, live in the Hollywood Ward boundaries. She has appeared on "Boston Public" and "Dawson's Creek," and was recently featured in a Taco Bell commercial that ran during the Super Bowl.

The ward setting provides an opportunity for members to bond as they share similar stresses.

"Some are here for the entertainment industry; some for other opportunities," Godfrey said. "There's a pretty good variety but with a lot of single people, about half the ward."

That poses some challenges.

"Hollywood's a tough town. It hurts more than it helps. I see a lot of people come in and go inactive. Hollywood has claimed them. There's a real culture in Hollywood that pulls in some good, active people. You're having to put all of your focus into the one thing and it's (usually) not the gospel," Godfrey said.

According to his bishop, Godfrey is an exception to the Hollywood rule. He came in with his eyes open and he's tenacious, both about his career and about the gospel.

"It takes incredible tenacity to be able to make it in that business," Bishop Phil Hanf said. "It also requires a lot of compromise."

Which is why Bishop Hanf is forthright when contacted by prospective members. Whenever possible, he'll refer them to singles wards in Santa Monica, Glendale or Sherman Oaks.

"The honest truth is when people call me, I attempt to persuade them to go elsewhere," he said. "This is an extremely tough, tough town."

Bishop Hanf said the vast majority of people who come to California seeking stardom are unprepared for the expense and time it takes to succeed in the entertainment industry.

"People are extremely naive about what it takes," he said.

Some never show up at church — even those who called before moving to Hollywood.

"I have 900 people on my ward list," Bishop Hanf said. "I never see 700 of them. The film industry operates seven days a week. So do the film schools. The thing I hear all the time is, 'We're putting the church on hold right now while we pursue our careers.' Well, if they expect blessings, it doesn't work that way."

In the Studio City Ward, there are so many people coming and going that the ward population almost completely turns over every year, Bishop Mark Mikolyski said. Ward members include Bart Johnson, known for his role as coach Jack Bolton in the "High School Musical" movies, and wife Robyn Lively, best known for her role in "Teen Witch." Jon Heder, aka "Napoleon Dynamite," also attends.

The Studio City Ward has quite a few very young members, child actors who come with their parents for a few months at a time.

"We have around 300 members — 50 percent of those are singles — moving in and out (each year). It's very challenging," Bishop Mikolyski said. "At the same time, it's a great blessing. We get to know thousands of new friends. They take care of each other."

To help create bonds and friendships quickly, Bishop Mikolyski makes sure special family home evening activities for singles are planned every first and third week. He also makes certain he's available when someone needs counsel. Since he's self-employed, Bishop Mikolyski can usually respond to a cry for help quickly.

"My policy is, I like to address a concern as soon as we can," he said. "My ward members can call on me 24-7."

Because the film industry is fickle and demanding, ward members face tremendous challenges both financially and emotionally.

"A lot are struggling," Bishop Mikolyski said. "There are the ones who just aren't getting the work they want, those who are finding work but not enough work and those who are working but even those working have challenges."

Not the least of which is the cost of living. One family in Bishop Mikolyski's ward decided to move back to St. George, Utah, and commute to jobs in Los Angeles.

There are also plenty of distractions for active Latter-day Saints and a multitude of temptations.

"They call this Tinsel Town for a reason," Bishop Mikolyski said. "But those who keep the laws of happiness do all right."

e-mail: haddoc@desnews.com