While enjoying a lucrative career as a voice-over actress for national TV commercials, Omaha native Cathy Schenkelberg was also searching for personal meaning and peace.
That’s when she discovered the Church of Scientology.
“They tell you Scientology helps you become more yourself,” Schenkelberg said in an interview. “What happened to me is I became less myself.”
She says it also lessened her bank account, costing her nearly $1 million that she donated or spent on Scientology courses. It eventually left her broke.
“The great loss of money,” she said, “is nothing compared to the loss of time. Time is the most precious.”
After nearly two decades, she left the church in 2009.
The graduate of Roncalli Catholic High School is returning home to Omaha this week to perform her touring 75-minute one-woman show, “Squeeze My Cans: Surviving Scientology.”
The “cans” title is partly a reference to the church’s E-meters. Adherents grip two cylinders that look like tin cans and are said to act as a kind of lie detector that is used in what the church calls “auditing.”
Yes, the title is also an edgy double-meaning. The show’s poster is a drawing of female cleavage and a low-cut dress — Schenkelberg’s jab at Scientology.
She will perform Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Reverb Lounge, 6121 Military Ave., $20 per ticket (Tuesday is sold out); and at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Roncalli, 6401 Sorensen Parkway, $25.
Roncalli spokeswoman Maureen Irish said the school is happy to welcome Cathy back and is pleased she will donate $10 of each ticket price to the school.
Attendees must be at least 18, Irish said, and the provocative poster was deemed inappropriate for a Catholic school.
“It’s definitely a play on words,” Irish said. “We want to make sure it doesn’t offend anyone or discourage anyone from attending.”
Schenkelberg said her show is provocative and edgy, and explains how she got “sucked into the vortex” of Scientology.
“It tells how a Catholic girl from a wonderful family searches for higher purpose in life and ends up in a cult,” she said. “It kind of goes full circle, bringing me back to my roots.”
Cathy was the seventh of 10 children of Gil and Barbara Schenkelberg, a fire captain and a homemaker. When Cathy was 13, her brother Mike, 19, swerved to avoid an accident and slammed into a pole near 65th Street and Ames Avenue.
She was angry at God for his death, she said, which led to her search for answers.
Meanwhile, she performed in Roncalli musicals and played volleyball before majoring in musical theater in college.
She moved to Chicago, acted in stage plays and soon got lots of voice-over work. She taped commercials for Gerber, Sears, Chevrolet and others, and voiced cartoon characters, too.
She soon was making nearly $400,000 a year, she said, and then one day a friend mentioned Scientology.
The church was founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, who was born in Tilden, Nebraska, and raised in Montana and the state of Washington. He died in 1986.
Schenkelberg said she began taking inexpensive Scientology courses, but was eventually “brainwashed and manipulated.” Higher levels of courses became much more expensive.
Among celebrity Scientologists are John Travolta, with whom she says she had a friendly relationship, and Tom Cruise.
Years ago, Cathy was called to an audition for what she thought was a Scientology training video. When asked what she thought of Cruise, she said he was “narcissistic” and “a baby.”
Her interview abruptly ended, she said, and another actress told her the video was an audition to be Cruise’s girlfriend.
Schenkelberg has told that story to various news media, prompting a denial from the Church of Scientology: “There was no project, secret or otherwise, ever conducted by the church to find a girlfriend, by audition or otherwise, for any member of the church. The Church of Scientology would like to make clear that participation in the church is purely voluntary.”
Others unhappy with the church have spoken out, including actress Leah Remini (TV’s “The King of Queens”).
She has produced an A&E series, “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.” She previously wrote a book, “Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology.”
Schenkelberg, who is single and has an adult daughter, says she will be happy to see family and friends in Omaha, as well as others who want to learn and be entertained by her show. She says she is thriving spiritually, and is happy and healthy.
“The basis for my show was to heal and forgive myself for the choices I made in those nearly two decades,” she said. “I get to walk through and share a part of me that could be anyone. I call it therapy for my soul.”