The most famous woman you’ve never met
The hottest ticket on Broadway continues to be “The Book of Mormon,” a musical that pokes fun at the Mormon faith in particular and Christianity in general. It is also full of profanity and blasphemy. If there was a show called “The Book of Muhammad,” the Eugene O’Neill Theatre probably would have been burned down by now. New Yorkers are selective when picking their targets.
Now there’s a new musical called “Scandalous,” about a colorful, some would say corrupt, evangelist named Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Foursquare Church. In the early part of the 20th century, Aimee was more famous than any TV evangelist today. She combined a considerable amount of show business with an equal amount of religiosity and packed them in at her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, which remains in operation today, long after her death.
“Scandalous” has just begun previews. I saw it in development and thought it excellent. Carolee Carmello, the actress who plays Aimee, is superb. She is on stage most of the show and commands it better than any TV evangelist ever has.
In her prime, Aimee was the scourge of fundamentalists. They denounced her as a fraud, a tool of Satan, and worse. And there was ample evidence to support many of their claims. On May 18, 1926, Aimee disappeared for five weeks. She claimed to have been kidnapped and held for ransom. Witnesses placed McPherson in a seaside cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea with her married radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston. The Los Angeles district attorney filed obstruction of justice charges, a trial followed and McPherson’s fantastical story landed on the front pages of newspapers around the country.
You’d think this would interest a New York audience, which in the past has turned out to see plays about corrupt religious leaders, “Elmer Gantry” comes immediately to mind. And an uncorrupted evangelist named Billy Graham turned out hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers during his 1957 Crusade, filling both Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.
The book and lyrics for “Scandalous” were written by Kathie Lee Gifford, who is controversial in her own right, not because she is guilty of any of the sins associated with Aimee, but because she is a Christian who tries to live a life pleasing to the One she follows. There are people who still dislike Gifford for talking so much and so glowingly about her children and husband on the old “Regis and Kathie Lee” show; she now co-hosts the fourth hour of the “Today” show on NBC.
Gifford, who is a friend, called me to talk about the show she hopes will appeal to all faiths and none. She wants people to know that “Scandalous” isn’t about promoting faith. It is a creative work of theatrical art. It’s entertainment and should be seen as such.
For years numerous groups, starting with the Moral Re-Armament movement of the ’30s, to the Hayes Commission, which censored Hollywood films of material it deemed too racy, to the Moral Majority, have denounced films, TV shows and the performing arts for their content, but put no real effort into creating better entertainment of high quality that people of faith would see. This failure all but ensured what the late Richard John Neuhaus called the “naked public square,” a culture absent a conservative biblical and cultural voice. Kathie Lee Gifford has created good entertainment and with “Scandalous” she attempts to lights a few candles in a dark arena.
Liberals and conservatives, religious or not, ought to love “Scandalous.” Buy a ticket. Go see it. Be entertained. Appreciate the unique power and strength of Carolee Carmello.
Secret Service agents study counterfeit bills in order to better identify the genuine article. Even if you’re a skeptic about religion, you might be better able to judge authentic faith after seeing the counterfeit.