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Nearly a century ago, Aimee Semple McPherson led a colorful life as a media-savvy preacher. Now she's back on Broadway as the protagonist of a new musical penned by 'Today' cohost Kathie Lee Gifford.

By Karen Valby
Updated November 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson

type
  • Stage

Imagine a woman with the theatricality of Lady Gaga, the reach and motivational spirit of Oprah Winfrey, the shrewd determination of Hillary Clinton, and the folksy zeal of Sarah Palin. That’ll give you a sense of Aimee Semple McPherson, the early-20th-century evangelist and subject of the new Broadway musical Scandalous (opening Nov. 15). ”If you put the top powerful women in the world together today, they would not be what Aimee was in the 1920s,” says Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the show’s book and lyrics. ”She was the most powerful, most provocative, most celebrated, most controversial woman of her generation.”

Sister Aimee, as she was known, grew up on a farm in the Canadian hinterlands giving sermons to her dolls. At 25, she left her second husband and packed her two young children and her mother, Minnie, into a car emblazoned with religious slogans. Dressed in her signature white servant’s uniform, she crisscrossed the U.S. spreading her Pentecostal message — even bursting into brothels or boxing rings. ”I know a lot of you folks came to gape at a woman preacher,” McPherson sermonized. ”But while your mouth is open to gape, I’ll pop the gospel in.”

McPherson’s true genius was in her canny exploitation of media, like becoming the first woman to preach over the radio. She launched a women’s magazine, appeared on Broadway stages, hired press agents, and mounted elaborate publicity stunts. She chose L.A. as the site for the Angelus Temple, a prototype of the modern megachurch.

As her fame grew, so did the pedestal from which she would fall. In 1926, McPherson vanished from a California beach and was feared drowned. Five weeks later, she stumbled out of the desert in a Mexican town, claiming to have been kidnapped by a mysterious couple. The fact that she appeared in good health, wearing pristine clothes and a new watch, fueled outraged rumors that she’d been shacking up the whole time with the married engineer of her radio show. (Two grand juries considered but dismissed charges that she’d lied about her supposed ordeal.) Pete Seeger later satirized the scandal in ”The Ballad of Aimee McPherson.”

”At the end of each day,” McPherson once wrote, ”dear people would go to their homes arm in arm, while I would sit in silence, watching the last light extinguished in the big auditorium and the last happy couple disappear in the darkness.” In 1944, she died at 53 in a hotel room after ingesting a fistful of barbiturates. Despite reports of suicide, the coroner ruled it an accidental overdose. Carolee Carmello, who stars as McPherson in Scandalous, finds inspiration in her legacy. ”The message of the show is that even if you make mistakes, you can pick yourself up and still have an incredibly positive impact,” she says. ”Aimee was fragile and foolish and flawed,” says Gifford. ”And who among us isn’t?”

Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson

type
  • Stage
director
  • David Armstrong

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