The Interplanetary Beliefs Of An Unusual Group In El Cajon
January 13, 2014 1:20 p.m.
Bill Perrine, director, "Children of the Stars."
Related Story: The Interplanetary Beliefs Of An Unusual Group In El Cajon
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. If you've lived in San Diego for a while and you don't know about the human areas organization you need to expand your horizons in more ways than one. The Unarians are a group in El Cajon who believe they've received wisdom on interdimensional science channel to the group's founder by space beings. The most famous of your Unarian was Ruth Norman also ministerial she led the group and started public access TV show which ran on stations across the country for many years. Director Bill Perrine has made a documentary on the students of Unarians called Children of the Stars which examines not only the offbeat group but also delves into the nature of belief. Bill, welcome to the show.
BILL PERRINE: Hi, Maureen. Thanks for having me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The image that many people might have of Unarians is a first arm in an elaborate wig and sparkling clothes speaking to a television audience from a throne with special effects of galaxies projected behind her. In fact, we have a clip from that public access TV show.
NEW SPEAKER: Uriel here. I'm so happy to see you this day. I would like to tell you of the wonderful ways of these beautiful spiritual rooms. Rooms filled with color and life and brothers all live in a lot of oscillation, where they live one for the other and not for man for himself.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What was up with that? I mean, what was the meaning of that sort of presentation, though?
BILL PERRINE: You mean her on the throne and everything?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah.
BILL PERRINE: She clearly established herself as, they would resist this word, but a prophet of some sort in the prophet has to be somewhat above its subjects. And I think that's a great deal of it, but she claimed to be in touch with higher powers. She claimed to have had past lives. Of notable people. All these things I think in her mind made are well worthy of a throne and she was a celestial being as for she was concerned. She did not die she passed into another dimension.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Bill, as I understand you saw the Unarians on television as a kid, what did you think when you saw the programs?
BILL PERRINE: It blew my mind. I mean, they are amazing programs, really if somebody hasn't seen it that's one thing that surprised me actually. I assumed this was universal experience for San Diegans was sitting up late at night and seeing the Unarians people. Evidently it isn't because it there's a lot of people who have not seen it. There such an unusual group in San Diego which is in many ways a conservative city I think it blew my mind to see these people 10 miles from where I live basically doing these incredibly strange things. Not only doing that, but getting it on TV right after the honeymooners or whatever rerun I was watching at midnight that night. I think it made a big impression on me as a kid.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's try to describe what this group is. It was founded by Ernest Garmin, Ernest and Ruth and they became the central couple of the Unarians. Did Unarians think Ernest Garmin was a God?
BILL PERRINE: No, they resist any sort of religious terminology for one thing. I should clarify that. They occasionally use the terminology, but they sort of repurpose it. They are not a religion as far as they are concerned, they are a science. That being said, they thought Ernest Norman had lived the life of Jesus at one point along with many others that are escaping me at the moment there are so many it's hard to keep up with. But again, they really thought of him as a scientist, but their definition of science goes well beyond sort of terrestrial concerns.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And he channeled a wisdom from, that was given to him by space beings?
BILL PERRINE: Yes, although really of most of that came in later through his wife Ruth Norman. The beginning he was more about past lives. That was his main thing and also he really was in a lot of ways a scientist. When you listen to his, when he read his writings they are very dry and very pedantic and very concerned with his version of physics and astrophysics and all that. Ruth Norman, when she came in the early 70s and sort of took it over started talking about others and spaceships and she started really doing the more theatrical side of it as well. It changed radically. That's I really the first 10 years or so of Unarians are somewhat I think under documented because it was not really as interesting as it became when she came into the fold.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And when she came into the fold and started to have the public access TV that we heard the clip from your documentary children of the stars, what was the basis though, for this emphasis on costumes and set building?
BILL PERRINE: I should first clarify that don't think that's actually from the TV show. They may have repurposed it for the TV show, but they made several feature films which are elaborate, which I'm sure you will are aware of and we'll get into and I believe that's from that. So that's not strictly, the TV shows or a little more straightforward in terms of bringing their teachings to people whereas the movies are sub Star Wars extravaganzas.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sub sub sub Star Wars, and these were reallylow-budget efforts.
BILL PERRINE: They were and they were. They were low-budget but the effects for their time and consider the resources are pretty extraordinary some of them. The arrival which is where I think the clip comes from there is this huge spaceship there are outer space battle scenes this as well before their people who did this in camera, with sets, they may be low-budget cheesy and even the Unarians who admit they are cheesy but they are really quite impressive feats that I don't think many people were doing things like that in San Diego in the early 80s, late 70s.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And there was a purpose for it beyond just simply making a movie. What was that?
BILL PERRINE: Yeah they were reliving their past lives. They are essentially improvising they would call it improvising I would call it improvising on camera. When you see somebody in the Unarian movie flying a spaceship and blowing up a planet, that person believes he is reliving a past life millions of years ago on a distant galaxy where he did that exact same thing. So when you see him acting and he's crying, he's not acting he's really can't because for him he is reliving what actually happened you start to process the evil that he has done. They believe all science fiction is real. Star Wars is real as far as they are concerned it's a recollection of George Lucas had of a past life that he translated into fiction. But once you learn not about Unarians, once you learn about them you really change my entire perception of everything they did. It suddenly becomes, there's a comic element to it, but it comes there's a paperless to it once you realize that and a depth that I find really fascinating.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's the point, too because I think it's really easy for most people not affiliated with the group to find the costumes and the space Brothers and as you say the fake spaceships, all of that I mean it's pretty laughable, right, but your documentary children of the stars is not about merely laughing at the Unarians. I mean, what intrigues you about their beliefs?
BILL PERRINE: It's exactly that. I'm fascinated by the way groups of people can reinforce one another's belief systems. And that applies to a lot of different groups applies to something so straightforward and mainstream as Christianity to something as wacky as we see it as the Unarians. You put people in a room together, this is really, it's a microcosm in Unarians because when you see these people get together one will remember meeting a fellow member 60 years ago, or 100 years ago in a past life in World War I and that person will take that memory and attitude and feedback to the other person. Then it feeds into the group and suddenly they are all remembering interactions they had in past lives hundreds of years ago and then when you have the science fiction element to it suddenly they are watching my gladiator was an example that was given to me by one of the members, William is a wonderful guy told me that when he saw gladiator he suddenly remembered when he was stabbed in the heart thousands of years ago in Roman times and that's why he has chest pains now and once he realized that he stopped having chest pains. But it's a loop that suddenly starts coming where they have their own beliefs and those are reinforced by science fiction movies which is reinforced by the group. So these things develop. That's why they have such a belief system that so far from what your average person-not to me is just credibly fascinating.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because it goes in a loop.
BILL PERRINE: Exactly, this belief loop. I don't know what to call it but it fascinates me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ruth Garmin, Uriel, died in the 90s, and of course she was the face, the focus of the Unarians for quite some time. What's going on with the group now?
BILL PERRINE: They are still around. I would encourage everybody listening to this to go up to El Cajon to the headquarters. It's open every day. It's fascinating. They're really sweet and wonderful people. But I think frankly it is somewhat in decline. I don't think it's nearly as robust as it used to be. They don't have anybody who's like Uriel, she's a charismatic figure and those are very hard to replace. I think she's irreplaceable it's much of a mundane organization and from what I've seen they are very active but it's not a huge group of people. And a lot of the theatricality is gone. They are not doing movies.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there any connection between the Unarians and Scientology?I mean they both came up at the same time in the 50s and they are both space elements in both of them.
BILL PERRINE: I guess they are both in of them contact religions that would be a way to connect them. I don't think there's any formal connection, not that I have encountered but they certainly came out of the same movement in the 50s when science fiction film started and it was all the postnuclear, we could die any second, there is space out there, all of this stuff came out the same time and groups like Scientology, Unarians, the [Ray alien] thing started at that time I could be wrong about that it was definitely a movement in the culture for whatever reason Unarians went in a very different direction than Scientology did.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Another fascinating element of your study of this I think is how people who have mindsets and beliefs that are so out of the mainstream also can just go and live pretty normal lives.
BILL PERRINE: Yeah, absolutely everybody I encounter a Unarian is basically a fairly normal person. They are eccentric in their own little ways but you know, one is a mechanic, a couple of them run a print shop in El Cajon. There are some retired ladies there perfectly lovely, nice people. They really are. I enjoyed my time with them a lot. But they lead very normal lives. That just happened to involve millions of years of past lives and thousands of galaxies.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of reaction have you gotten from your documentary Children of the Stars?
BILL PERRINE: Generally positive.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I mean do people look at and just sort of using perhaps the way most people use the late-night public access TV shows to say well, this is weirdo let's laugh, or is a deeper level coming through to you
BILL PERRINE: I've gotten both and I'm fine with both actually. I think it's a very entertaining film it's a funny film even I'm not making fun of them it's definitely a funny film. I think it's very entertaining but I've had both reactions I really have. Somebody said to me the other night the biggest compliment I've got was I watch this and I felt like I was a Unarian through the whole way. I was my idea I want people to watch it and actually have people feel like this was their indoctrination into it that way they would be forced to grapple with their reactions to this rather than just sort of standing aside and kind of laughing at them.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You had to grapple with your ideas about this, too because didn't the Unarians want you to join him?
BILL PERRINE: First of all I should clarify they do not recruit exactly. I mean they are not aggressive in the way that Scientologists and a number of other groups are. But I definitely got the sense and I heard from some people that various members thought I was a Unarian. I had, that I knew a lot about it and I understood it and I was basically Unarian and I would come to that realization and I didn't. I don't think I'm a Unarian. I respect their beliefs but I don't follow them in any way shape or form. But there is a moment in the movie where you will see that they sort of start bringing me into their own stories and it doesn't mess with your head, frankly. He really does. You start thinking in their terms and it's really disoriented.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that children of the stars will screen at the digital gym on El Cajon Blvd. In North Park and that happens this Wednesday night. I've been speaking with filmmaker Bill Perrine. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
BILL PERRINE: Thank you Maureen, it was a pleasure.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: be sure to watch KPBS Evening Edition at five, again at 6:30 PM tonight on KPBS TV. Join us again tomorrow on Midday Edition on KPBS FM. I am Maureen Cavanaugh and thank you for listening.