A Film Layered in Long Beach History
From our August 2018 magazine:
The 2007 film “License to Wed” tells the story of an engaged couple from Chicago, Ben and Sadie. Ben (John Krasinski) wants to get married in the Caribbean while Sadie (Mandy Moore) wants to get married at the church her grandfather built—St. Augustine’s. Ben agrees, but there’s a catch. Sadie’s pastor, the Rev. Frank (Robin Williams,) mandates an arduous marriage preparation course before the couple’s wedding, ensuing comedic situations throughout the film.
The iconic Italian Renaissance-style building that depicts St. Augustine’s church is none other than the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, located on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Third Street. The massive sanctuary at the church served as the cornerstone of the film, where Williams is seen behind the pulpit giving rousing sermons and praying fervently in the movie.
“We were supposed to be in the Midwest, technically Chicago,” said “License to Wed” location manager Tim Hillman. “The First Congregational Church was the perfect setting—I knew it was a winner right from the get go. The red brick was absolutely correct for the setting and production fell in love with it.”
The First Congregational Church in Long Beach is one of Long Beach’s most prized landmark buildings. With its stained glass windows and detailed brickwork on the outside, it’s hard to miss and has been a favorite for many film and television projects throughout the years, including “American Horror Story,” “Boston Legal,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Dexter,” to name a few.
“The church people themselves, too, bent over backwards to make the film shoot work for us, so it was great,” Hillman added.
Long Beach native Allison King grew up going to the First Congregational Church and now works on its building preservation project. King says the various layers and loops carved in the cornices surrounding the brick exterior tell a story dating all the way back to when Jotham and Margaret Bixby founded the church in 1888. Margaret Bixby, just like Moore’s character in “License to Wed,” came from a church background.
“It was always a liberal congregation,” King said. “Abolitionists from the East Coast who came west were looking for a place of worship—this was their church. When Long Beach started to expand, the Bixbys wanted to have a church that could hold a lot of people.”
In over 100 years of its history, the church has gone through several retrofitting phases and will have scaffolding on the outside in September when an exterior preservation project begins. King says the community has come together to see that this church stays structurally sound.
“I remember I was out there with one of the contractors and the electrician popped out from the project across the street and was like, ‘I used to go to your church camp as a kid.’ Every time I’m out there, somebody has a story about how the church impacted them. It’s nice to see.”
A smaller chapel built in the 1950s inside the church is currently used for weddings and other services. It was also used as Robin Williams’ office in “License to Wed."
“Robin Williams was one of the nicest guys I ever met,” Tim Hillman said. “Robin was sweet and he was funnier on set than he was in the movie—always having people laughing in stitches. The cameramen had to really hang on to their cameras because they were laughing so hard.”
The Senior Minister Emeritus, the Rev. Jerry Stinson of the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, posed with Robin Williams in a classic photo showing two ministers donning their clerical collars—just one of many layers now embedded into the fabric of the renowned Long Beach church.