Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
In the 1920s and ’30s, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was also one of its busiest: feeding millions of starving people during the Depression, preaching salvation in Christ to tens of thousands every week and founding a Christian denomination that carries on her legacy to this day.
But this “first Christian superstar” also fell victim to the trials and temptations of her glamorous Hollywood world in a spectacular fall from grace that trumps even today’s most scandalous headlines.
Her rise, her fall and the powerful story of her redemption have now inspired another Christian celebrity, Kathie Lee Gifford, to retell the story of this meteoric evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, in a Broadway musical audiences are raving about called “Scandalous.”
“I interview movers and shakers, I have for years,” Gifford told WND. “There’s pretty much no one of note in the world today in popular culture that I haven’t interviewed at one point or another, and even with everyone I’ve interviewed, no has fascinated me more than Aimee. Her life is simply too unbelievable to believe.”
The founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, McPherson was a hugely successful, pentacostal evangelist who both tapped into the power of Hollywood media (she was notably only the second woman to be granted a broadcast license in the U.S.) and scoured the most despised places of Los Angeles to take a message of hope in Christ to those who needed it most.
“She did things no woman had ever done before and no woman has done since,” Gifford said. “She was a complete visionary. She was a pioneer.
“What I love most about her was she was not the hellfire and brimstone, Bible-thumping caricature of a pastor that unfortunately the media has become all too familiar with,” Gifford continued. “She was a woman who started out her career with incredible sincerity. As a young woman she went into brothels and bars and wrestling arenas, movie houses, she went where hurting people were just to tell them that God loved them and had a plan for their life. Instead of preaching at them, she was loving them. I can’t even imagine what our world would be like if more of that was done in the churches, synagogues and mosques of today.
“Too often in our culture, people of faith – any faith – are portrayed as a fool or a phony. And that’s as ugly to me as homophobia or racism or any kind of bigotry, and yet it’s like the last bastion of condoned prejudice in our culture,” Gifford commented. “What I loved about Aimee is that she was sincere, she started out as sincere as anybody I’ve ever encountered. But the very world she went to save, Hollywood, is ultimately the world that seduced her.”
Aimee Semple McPherson
Indeed, through McPherson became famous for her flashy brand of evangelism, she later became infamous for a series of events that shocked the nation.
By 1923, McPherson had become so successful she built a “megachurch” in Los Angeles’ Echo Park called the Angelus Temple, where she preached to packed crowds of over 5,000 people three times a day, seven days a week – often personally bringing in prostitutes, drunks and the homeless and seating them right up front. When the Great Depression hit, the Temple was credited with feeding over 1.5 million hungry people – a legacy of caring for the poor and despised that continues to this day.
But in 1926, McPherson’s name became synonymous with “scandalous” when she suddenly went missing.
Some thought her drowned; others thought she had run off in an elicit affair. Still others cried it was all a publicity stunt. But even more startling than her disappearance, McPherson five weeks later wandered out of the Mexican desert, claiming she had been kidnapped, drugged and held for ransom.
Trials ensued over McPherson’s disappearance, and the grandiose tale brought her detractors out of the woodwork. Shortly thereafter, her church faced divisive arguments and lawsuits, and she fell out of favor with the press. An emotional breakdown, a divorce and remarriage – contrary to the teachings of the Foursquare Church – nearly brought McPherson’s ministry tumbling down.
But only after all the scandals did McPherson lead her church in feeding the hungry during the Depression and earning federal recognition for selling war bonds during World War II.
Gifford told WND that the story of McPherson’s fall and redemption is what makes “Scandalous” so powerful.
Of McPherson’s fall, Gifford explained, “There’s a song at the end of the show called ‘What Does It Profit?’ and it basically says, ‘I gained the whole world and lost almost everything that mattered,’ which is from the Scriptures.”
Gifford said the refrain is common in Hollywood, “Yet it’s true for every one of us: When we let go of the hand of God, why are we surprised when our life descends into chaos?”
“I also see, at times, how I got seduced by this world that is very seductive – that avenue that you have to be on to be successful in my business, the ego you have to have, the ambition you have to have, the choices you have to make,” Gifford told WND. “But I care less and less about where Aimee was during those five weeks, to me that’s not even the issue. The issue is that she let go of the hand of God, because every single one of us has been someplace, sometime in our life that we shouldn’t have been and we made a choice. And so I love the human story of Aimee: her failures, her foibles, her flaws, her neediness – those are the things that as a woman fascinate me. It’s probably because they resonate within me.
“A reporter asked me, ‘Why would you want to write a musical about her? She was such a hypocrite,’” Gifford related, “and I responded, ‘Who in your entire life, including you, isn’t?’”
Gifford also gave WND a sneak peek at the powerful conclusion of “Scandalous”: “After we see her rise to fame in the first act, we see her fall from grace in the second act, but then we see her at the very end, and in all great literature there’s always a redemptive element, a lesson to be learned about the human condition, and that’s what we learn when Aimee is redeemed at the end of the show and she sings a song called ‘I Have a Fire’ that just lights it again for her and she goes back and finishes the work she was born to do – she did her greatest work after her scandal, even though she was reviled by the press and most of the public.
“She was an outrageously brave, courageous, deeply flawed woman, and I’ve grown to love her and admire her and be frustrated with her,” Gifford said. “Yet I deeply love her for the message of her life, which is the last line she sings, ‘I say life is surely worth the courage that it takes to stand up every morning and face yesterday’s mistakes.’”
Carolee Carmello as Aimee Semple McPherson in "Scandalous"
Gifford, who is the book writer and lyricist for the musical, as well as contributing to some of the music, told WND that every show has been met with a standing ovation, and some theatergoers have returned a second, third and even fourth time to see it. She said a survey of the show revealed 99 percent of people who have seen “Scandalous” say they liked it and would recommend it.
“People are crying at the end,” she said, “because they have things they think are hopeless too: ‘I’ll never be forgiven for that,’ or, ‘How could I ever come back from that kind of a scandal or that kind of bad mistake?’ But the musical affirms if Aimee could, then we all can.”
“Scandalous”, starring two-time Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello as Aimee Semple McPherson, is playing now at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, in New York, N.Y.