Scientology superstar draws crowds at opening

Some are there for their church. Others are all about Travolta.

St. Petersburg Times/March 20, 2007
By Robert Farley

St. Petersburg -- In her purse, she carried well-worn videos of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and Saturday Night Fever.

"Did you know John Travolta sings too?" Barbara Warren asked excitedly, pulling out a CD called Greased Lightnin' as proof.

Warren, 38, of Tampa dragged her husband to Williams Park three hours before Travolta's scheduled appearance Monday evening as part of the grand opening of the Church of Scientology's first recruitment center in St. Petersburg.

She hoped to catch a glimpse and maybe even an autograph from her "first love, ever since I started liking boys."

Warren knows little about Scientology except that "in Clearwater they are everywhere."

For more than 30 years, Clearwater has served as the worldwide spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology. But until now, St. Petersburg had largely remained virgin territory for the aggressively expansionist church.

Scientologists hope people like Warren will do more than snap photos of Travolta from across the street. The new life improvement center at 336 First Ave. N has 12 displays depicting the principles of Dianetics and Scientology. The center will have 15 full-time employees, some of whom will stand out on the sidewalk and try to persuade passers-by to come inside and test their stress, personality or IQ, all of which Scientologists claim can be improved with their courses.

Workers warned of still-wet paint late Monday afternoon as swarms of church staffers put the finishing touches on film and course rooms, where they will offer introductory Scientology lessons.

"If I could hang out with John Travolta, I'd join Scientology right now," Warren said.

"Oh, no, you're not," said her husband, Scott, shaking his head and laughing.

Travolta emerged from the new life improvement center with his wife, Kelly Preston, as a seven-piece marching band from Busch Gardens called the Mystic Sheiks of Morocco played Sweet Georgia Brown.

Minutes later, Travolta stood beside a bust of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and winged his speech, because, he said, he couldn't see a TelePrompTer that is usually used at Scientology events.

"Thirty-two years ago, I had a great life-changing experience getting involved in Scientology," Travolta said as city buses groaned in the background. "It saved my life. It changed my life."

There will be introductory Scientology courses offered in the life improvement center, he said, that are the same as the ones he took 32 years ago. "So I'm excited it's here for you all," he said.

He urged people to try some of the courses and "within minutes you'll find things changing for you."

Besides those who had come to see Travolta, the crowd was packed with a couple of hundred Scientology members from across the Tampa Bay area. Eric Mitchell, a real estate investor who has lived in St. Petersburg for 11 years, said he was excited and gratified that his church was finally coming to his hometown.

Noticeably absent were any anti-Scientolology pickets like those who have sometimes paced the sidewalks of downtown Clearwater.

John Long, executive director of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, took to the podium and touted the strides the city has made in attracting new business to downtown.

He praised the work of Scientologists to renovate the building, which was once the home to the Women's Town Improvement Association. It was purchased last year with donations from church members for $1.6-million. Although originally slated to open by the end of this past summer, the building remained largely untouched before the church began major renovations about six weeks ago, said Pat Harney, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology in Clearwater.

"We have another great cornerstone of our community," Long said.

On Sunday, the Church of Scientology held grand opening ceremonies for yet another life improvement center in Plant City.

As in Plant City, the St. Petersburg opening was a study in pomp as the guests of honor cut a huge red ribbon. Streamers flew and white doves were released. And Travolta swayed as the band played James Brown.

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