(OC WEEKLY cover story, reprinted on the occasion of Gene Scott’s death, February 24, 2005)
One night a few months ago, I was flipping the TV dial when I came across an unforgettable scene unfolding in the sprawling back yard of a Pasadena mansion. Three flawless, buxom young lovelies were doing some very professional-looking bumping and grinding to the accompaniment of the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” while a well-groomed old man watched impassively from a chair. There was a phone number at the bottom of the screen, and every now and then, an announcer’s voice drifted in, urging me to call. The camera stayed locked on the women for several long, head-spinning minutes, and the more I watched, the more disconcerted I became.
What the hell was this?
Finally, the song ended and the show cut away to a studio, where the old man was sitting in extreme closeup before an out-of-focus, pale-blue backdrop. “Now that you’ve seen what I got waitin’ for me at home,” he said, sparking up a fat stogy with a pistol-shaped lighter, “you should all be extra nice to me for comin’ down here to talk to ya.”
I finally recognized the old man, sort of. He’s Dr. Gene Scott, the TV preacher who owns that red neon sign in downtown L.A. that says JESUS SAVES in letters so big you could probably read it from outer space. For as long as I can remember, he’s been on TV, seemingly 24 hours a day, talking about Jesus in a surly Southern drawl while wearing two pairs of glasses at once and various eye-catching hats–a sombrero, for instance, or a collegiate mortarboard, or a king’s crown. The few times I had actually tried to listen to what he had to say, I’d quickly gotten bored and given up. I certainly wasn’t bored now. Instead of offering an explanation for what a squad of dirty-dancing bimbos was doing in the middle of a religious broadcast, the uncharacteristically hatless Scott plunged right into berating his flock for not sending enough cash. Soon he was so furious that he couldn’t continue, and, with a mighty puff on his cigar, he vanished in a cloud of smoke.
We were then treated to footage of Scott’s girlies riding some beautiful, high-class show horses around a track at a place an onscreen caption identified as the Silver Oaks Ranch. This was just too much, so I called the show’s 800 number and demanded to know what was going on. The operator just laughed good-naturedly, like I was a child asking why the sky is blue. “Dr. Scott owns a lot of beautiful horses,” he told me, “so why shouldn’t he have some beautiful ladies around to ride them?”
I got very little out of him (he even dodged my question of what happened to Scott’s trademark hats). But before I hung up, the operator offered me some advice: “Just keep watching the show, and sooner or later, everything will become clear.”
I followed his suggestion, but what I saw in the following weeks only raised new questions. The bimbo boogie sessions turned out to be a regular feature; night after night, I’d tune in just in time to catch a few minutes of his women jiggling themselves sore to tunes like “Addicted to Love,” “Raspberry Beret” and, perhaps most memorably, a Dixieland version of “When the Saints Go Marching in.” The good doc also escorted his lady friends to the Kentucky Derby and the International Stamp Collectors’ expo, took endless bike rides with them, and, on at least one occasion, snuggled up in bed with them while he went through his mail on the air. There’s none of that humble-barefoot-shepherd malarkey for Scott; this is one preacher man who likes livin’ large. The amazing thing was that, for all the quality time he spent with such lovely ladies, he still seemed to be in a perpetually rotten mood.
The show freely mixed Scott’s live performances with taped bits 5 or 10 (or more) years old, and it became apparent that, over the decades, the man has changed his look more often (and more drastically) than David Bowie. On one viewing, he was clean-cut, wearing the dark, conservative business suit of an insurance salesman; the next time, he sported the look of a decadent ’70s rock star, with long blond hair, a floppy hat and a yellowish fur coat; other times, he’d wear a leather jacket and dark glasses or a tuxedo and a pith helmet. In the early days, he often paused midsermon to look at his studio audience and ask, “I’m not boring you, am I?” as if he actually cared. Today’s Scott, by contrast, often barks, “Am I borin’ ya?”–his tone making it clear that if anybody said yes, he would kick their ass. He was a moody, often fire-breathing tyrant on the air, taking a near-fiendish delight in abusing his cringing staff for even the smallest slip-up. Once, a cameraman accidentally jiggled the camera while Scott was giving us a tour of some of his fascinating oil paintings, and Scott became furious. “Don’t move the camera until I TELL you to!” he barked. “I’m the director here. I’ll show you what I WANT to show you, and then you can play with the camera all you want!”
The doctor went no easier on his flock. Once, when they weren’t ponying up the dough to his satisfaction, Scott referred to them as “dumb, Christian quote-unquote assholes!” Another time, he warned them that unless they shaped up quick, God “might let you live this next year without Him so you can see the difference.”
I couldn’t imagine why people followed the man. His sermons were certainly far from compelling. He could, and often did, spend hours explaining how the King James Bible botched the translation of a particular word from the original Hebrew. He was also big on the sort of dodgy mystical material you used to see a lot on In Search Of, often reading aloud from highly questionable volumes on the legendary lost continent of Atlantis or expounding at length on his pet theory that angels built the pyramid at Giza (Jeez-uh, as he pronounced it). When he was in one of his rare jocular moods, he treated his followers to readings from joke books. Mostly, however, he just roared at people to send him money. And they did.
If I could have dismissed Scott as a charlatan, the whole thing might have ended there. But the man spoke of the Resurrection with such passion and at such length, day after day, that it seemed impossible for the whole thing to be just an act. Occasionally, the doctor would address some of the mysteries that plagued me: one time, he read a note from a viewer asking why he always had pretty women around him. His answer: “To keep the ugly ones off me.” But it didn’t take long for me to realize that watching the show most definitely would not answer all of my questions.
Eugene Scott was born Aug. 14, 1929, in Buhl, Idaho, to W.T. and Inez Leona Graves Scott, a traveling preacher and his teenage bride. In many ways, it was a childhood straight out of a Southern gothic novel. When Gene was still a child, his mother gave birth to premature twins, one of whom died within hours. A month later, Gene began to suffer from strange convulsions in the middle of the night, and his mother had a vision: she saw a stairway roll down from heaven and come right down beside her bed; then two angels descended and stopped in front of Gene. “Oh no, Lord,” Leona cried out. “You can’t take Gene.” The angels heard her and picked up the remaining twin instead. Gene survived the night, but his brother didn’t. The incident convinced Scott’s parents that their son was bound for glory.
Soon after, the family moved to Gridley, California, where Gene’s father agreed to head a church whose previous pastor had crucified himself on a tree. Young Gene was well-liked in town, and he excelled in school; in the seventh grade, he brought home a straight-A report card with a note from his teacher that read, “Do you know you have a genius for a son?” He played on his high school basketball team, although he took some guff from his dad’s congregation for showing his legs in public.
When he came of age, he enrolled in the philosophy of education doctorate program at Stanford University, still somehow finding time in his hectic collegiate schedule to wed his high school sweetheart, Betty Ann Frazer, and work alongside his father at the Assemblies of God church on weekends. Soon, however, the pervasive secular skepticism of his Stanford peers rubbed off on him, and he suffered a paralyzing spiritual crisis, although he re-discovered his faith before graduation. For his dissertation, he summed up his life’s goal with a quote from the American Christian philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr: to “descend from the anthill of scholastic hairsplitting to help the world of men regulate its common life and discipline, its ambitions and ideals.”
After earning his doctorate in 1957, Scott taught at a Bible college in the Midwest and helped Oral Roberts establish a university in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although Scott speaks with a certain grudging admiration for Roberts today (“I believe that Oral believes he saw a 900-foot-tall Jesus . . .”), the tension that eventually caused them to part ways is also clear (“. . . I guess it takes 900 feet to convince him”). On his TV show, Scott often tells the story of the days he spent golfing with Roberts. Roberts was a sore winner, and every time he trounced young Scott on the green, he walked away, leaving the golf bags behind for Scott to carry. Finally, the day came when Scott won. He still cherishes the memory of strolling off and leaving his golf bag for a chastened Roberts.
Post-Roberts, Scott rose steadily through the ranks of the fundamentalist Christian Assemblies of God movement, resigning as a member in good standing in 1970 to found his own Oroville ministry with his father. In the early ’70s, he was asked to take over the 45-year-old Faith Center Church in Glendale, a position that came with four broadcast stations and a $3.5 million debt. Scott agreed to sign on as pastor, provided the church leaders resigned and he got complete control. He never seriously imagined the church would go for it, but they did. Scott went on the air in 1975, and although his show was a hit virtually from the start, his early years of broadcasting were personally trying. His 23-year marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly, crumbled almost immediately after he became a star (he calls his ex-wife “the Devil’s Sister” and adds that if he goes to heaven and she’s there, he’ll move to another planet). In the ’80s, Scott was hit by two financial disasters. His 1983 refusal to turn over his financial records for an FCC investigation cost the church three broadcast stations; four years later, the church lost a $6.5 million deposit when Scott tried to renege on a deal to buy a historic Los Angeles church.
These blows could have destroyed Scott, but they only strengthened his resolve. After he lost the broadcast stations, he kept his show on the air by buying time on national TV and cable outlets. He also devised an ingenious system to keep the government out of his financial affairs by demanding that his followers “give without strings”–i.e., donate their cash without having any idea what it’s going to be spent on. “The spirit of life goes to work for you . . . only if you give materially to me,” Scott says. “You should give to me if I wanted to go out and buy a rock band or the Mustang Ranch.”
He has survived his trials and prospered beyond belief. Today his program is available, by radio or television, all over the world, 24 hours a day. He lives in a mansion, consorts with beautiful women and owns classics of impressionist art. (He hangs his own paintings beside them, feeling that their beauty upgrades him; he claimed he keeps the women around for the same reason.) He races horses, hunts, smokes and swears a blue streak, and his followers love him for it. He’s even taken a dazzling bride 20 years his junior (and damn pretty on horseback), Christine F. Shaw. Many famous people have sung his praises, from Tom Bradley to Buffy Saint Marie. Years ago, he achieved the ultimate pop-culture milestone when he was parodied (by Robin Williams, no less) on Saturday Night Live.
Perhaps most intriguingly, he was even the subject of a documentary by Werner Herzog, the mad-genius director most famous in this country for his epic tale of obsession, Fitzcarraldo. When I discovered that the film existed, I had to see it. But the tale of the months that I spent looking for a copy could easily make another article. Suffice it to say that, in the end, I tracked down God’s Angry Man at a wonderful place in L.A. called Mondo Video A-Go-Go. The fellow behind the counter explained that Scott was so incensed by the film that he threatened to sue, and it was pulled from circulation. The tape I got at Mondo was actually a grainy video of the film being projected on a screen. The sound was terrible, but because this was one of the few surviving copies, how could I complain? According to the guy at Mondo, the person in the tape who’s watching the film being projected is none other than Dr. Scott himself. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I like to pretend it is.
ME WATCHING DR. SCOTT WATCHING GOD’S ANGRY MAN
The film begins with Scott midtantrum, screaming himself purple at an unlucky studio engineer: “Give me the volume! When I yell, I wanna be heard! ‘Cause I only yell when there’s an occasion for yelling! [He turns, speaking to us.] God’s honor is at stake every night. This is not a show; it’s a feast! A feast of the faithing experience.”
Later, we catch up with him in the back of a moving limo; he’s beardless, blond and dressed like an undertaker. He reminds me of Dennis Hopper. He seems almost like a different man from the grizzled prophet I see on TV every night, but his eyes have the same chilly blue glow. He offers a few choice words for nosy reporters like me. “I kid the media,” he says, “and say they worship the Great God Two-Sides, because if they went down on the beach to report on the sun comin’ up, they’d add a line that there are some on the beach that say the sun didn’t come up. . . . I have a conviction: if you know your subject, you cannot avoid coming to a conclusion.”
As he speaks, I realize that despite the reams of material I’ve gathered on the man, I’m still nowhere near coming to a conclusion about him. Is he a fake? Is he a true believer? After all this time, how can I still not know? While I’m puzzling over that one, we’re treated to a brief interview with Scott’s parents (two sweet old folks who clearly think the world of their son) and a television segment where Scott counts the pledges as they roll in. It comes to a quarter of a million dollars in 16 minutes, a total Scott is content with. For now.
At this point, I’m pretty convinced he’s a shyster, but the next segment finds him matter-of-factly outlining his schedule: three to 10 hours of live television daily, two separate two-hour services on Sunday, board meetings, conventions, pastoring another church in northern California, visiting sick church members, writing and publishing religious texts, leading tours of the Holy Land, visiting an orphanage he supports, and more. It’s a dizzying lineup, far more than any man could do purely to keep up appearances. I’m as confused as ever.
Then the film strikes an unexpectedly poignant note. Scott sits silently in his study for a long while, his face unreadable. “Let me tell ya what makes me happy,” he begins. “Get me on a jet, [and fly me] 8,000 miles to a city where nobody knows me. I’d like to . . . just not have some life-or-death struggle.”
For the first time in all the time I’ve been studying him, Scott looks lost. “I am too good to be really bad and too bad to be really good,” he says. “I don’t enjoy being the good guy, ’cause I’d rather do some hellish things. . . . My dream is to go somewhere where I can lay on the beach and read books and do my thing. . . . I dream of [going] to Australia and getting a college-professor job where nobody knows me, teach about Plato and go out back and hunt rocks. Now, that probably exaggerates it, but that’s what I’d like, just to get away from this mess.”
The film really comes to life in its final minutes, beginning with a scene taken from Scott’s show. He is in closeup, his face a mask. “I will not be defeated tonight,” he whispers. “Five phones are available, and one person has the key.”
There’s a nearly 30-second pause–it feels longer–until at last Scott speaks. “Not one more word tonight,” he vows, “till that thousand comes in.”
Then there are two minutes of some of the most agonizing silence I’ve ever experienced. At first, Scott just sits there, his eyes boring a hole into the viewer. After a long while, he oh-so-casually shuffles some note cards, but the tension is building by the second. Eventually, we cut to a big-haired operator in the studio, who is weeping beside her silent telephone. After a moment, the operator next to her begins to cry as well. They’re tears of fear; the women know what’s about to happen. Scott looks like he’s going to explode at any second. Finally, he does.
“Do you understand that GOD’s work hangs on 600 MISERABLE dollars?!” he roars. “And you SIT there, GLUED to your chair! How long must I teach you the principles of spiritual warfare?! Thirty thousand means nothing now; GOD is being held up to an open shame! . . . It has NOTHING to do with money . . . [and then aside] at this point.”
He savors each word like William Shatner playing King Lear. “People who [sings] ‘I Surrender All’ will let GOD, for an HOUR, hang over PEANUTS!”
Overcome with disgust, he can scarcely continue. “The network oughta be SHUT DOWN,” he spits, “as Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, if God can’t find four people. What IS Christianity?! Games?! Gimmicks?! Words?! Massage?! [I must have rewound the tape five times for that one.] Or life and death?!”
Finally, his rage is so over-the-top that even he can barely keep a straight face. “Husbands and wives, if I was married to either one of you I’d get up and kick both of you. If you got somebody sleepin’, go jump in the middle of their gut. This is WAR. God’s honor is at stake!”
The money comes in at last, even more than Scott asked for, but by now, it’s too late to please God’s Angry Man. “We’re well over,” Scott screams, “after I YELLED at you. Why didn’t you do it ’cause you love GOD?”
With a growl, he throws a wad of paper at the camera and storms off, whether to go fume in his dressing room or laugh himself sore, I honestly can’t guess.
The next scene features Scott in his study, quietly and candidly discussing his utter lack of privacy. He says that for security reasons, he’s never, ever alone, and the only thing he owns that nobody else has access to is a zippered black bag he carries with him at all times. “I hope somebody thinks $10 million in gold bars is there, for the simple dignity that there is something I don’t have to go naked about,” he says. “Maybe there’s dirty socks [in there]. I hope when I die . . . the government bureaucrats salivate themselves sick getting into this bag. [It] may be my memoirs. My simple dignity of privacy is restricted to that bag. That’s all I got.”
Forget the government bureaucrats; I’m salivating over that damn bag. What treasures does it contain? Perhaps the key to the man’s whole life–his Rosebud–is in there! My mind is reeling with the possibilities when I suddenly realize that Scott has just answered one of the interviewer’s questions with a line I have to scribble down: “No man should be boss who wants to be a boss. He’ll abuse his authority.” The astonishing thing is that he sounds like he means it. Is this the same Gene Scott who shrieks at his staff every night on the air?
At the scene’s end, Scott talks about the pains of the life he’s created for himself driving him to tears on a weekly basis. The interviewer suggests that Scott must be a lonely man, which Scott almost simultaneously affirms and denies: “Oh yeah, sure. Who could I have as a friend? Every friend is a potential enemy until this job is finished . . . I guess I’m lonesome sometimes, but I’m more of a loner than lonesome. I don’t have any close friends, no. Yeah, I’m lonesome.”
There’s a long pause as Scott looks off camera at the interviewer. The shot holds for just a bit too long, and Scott starts to break into a sly grin. The shot holds, and the grin gets wider.
The film concludes with a bizarre scene from the era of Scott’s FCC troubles, the time of the FCC monkey band. In those days, when Scott was feeling particularly hassled by the government, he’d holler, “Bring me that monkey band!” and one of his helpers would hurriedly wind up a gang of piano-playing, cymbal-crashing toy monkeys, a bizarre toy-shop caricature of our government at work. The concerto usually ended with Scott taking up a bat and whacking the gears out of one of the band members. The scene is almost frighteningly odd, but Scott’s delight is infectious.
“You hit ’em on the head, and all they do is squawk!” he cries. “Look at ’em! There’s your bureaucrats! Wouldn’t you like to grow up and be a bureaucrat, if you’re a kid watchin’ this?! That’s our government for you! Haw haw haw!”
Shortly after I saw God’s Angry Man, Scott’s nightly shows took an ugly turn. I watched for weeks, but I never managed to figure out exactly what happened; apparently, Scott discovered that one of the women in his employ had been saying unflattering things about him on the telephone. It never got any clearer than that, but for the next few weeks, Scott raged endlessly, hideously, against this woman in particular (“She was like a blob, expecting me to stuff food into her opening. Well, I don’t touch an opening like that!”) and all women in general (“God is the ultimate chauvinist . . . I’ve never met a woman who didn’t need a man to lead her around”). The incident brought out the beast in him, and soon Scott was enacting his own words about bosses who want to be bosses. “Hell, this ain’t a democracy” became his new favorite phrase. He began to spend his Sunday sermons screaming at his congregation that he is literally a chosen one, selected by God before he was born to lead a select handful of followers, a “master race” in the fight against the forces of Satan. These followers absolutely will not ever talk back to the boss.
“I don’t care what I do,” he told them more than once. “If you think it’s wrong, I don’t wanna hear about it. I do what I do because God wills it, and if you don’t like it, you can get the funk out.”
His flock sat silently through every rant, only piping up when he barked a question at them: “Am I boring you?” Of course, there could be only one answer.
SIT UP STRAIGHT AND NARROW
At 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I was outside the imposing University Cathedral in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. After repeated, unsuccessful calls to arrange an interview with Scott, I had given up and made a reservation to attend one of his services. I was greeted (intercepted, really) at the door by a doughy, smiling fellow who checked my name on the reservation list and then proceeded to brief me on the rules for the two-hour service: absolutely no talking, no wiggling in my seat, no getting up to go the bathroom. “We wouldn’t want to get Dr. Scott mad, now would we?” he said with a laugh.
I’m a shaggy creature, clearly out of my element, and I could tell my appearance made the man nervous. As he escorted me to my seat, I noted with a chuckle that I was in the next-to-last row, far away from the cameras.
The cathedral interior is a gorgeous, brassy, kitschy mess, a mix of the UA theater the place once was and the pulpit to the world it is now. They’ve hardly tried to hide the past; the drop curtain still says THE PICTURE’S THE THING and UA in giant, ornate letters. The crowd was an odd mix of blue and white collars, with a couple of girls floating around dressed like they were at a Cramps show.
It was well past the scheduled starting time when the curtain went up; but when it did, there was Scott on a stool, sharing the stage with a few musicians and a sports-bar-style big-screen TV. The crowd applauded thunderously for what must have been a full minute until Scott finally snapped at them to stop it already. The band immediately struck up and performed a few numbers, although I was disappointed that they didn’t do “Kill a Pissant for Jesus,” a song Scott’s been known to call for on occasion. The musical interlude gave me a chance to inspect the enormous mural behind Scott. At first, I took it to be a religious scene of some kind, but it turned out to be a ’30s-style painting of a bunch of cowpokes heading for the last roundup.
After the third song, Scott came forward to speak. He wasn’t far in, though, when he broke off to look ominously in my direction.
“I’m about to embarrass somebody in a minute, if they don’t sit up.”
There was dead silence all around me. I was slouching in my seat a little, but I was 25 rows back and in the dark. Could he possibly mean me?
“You sit up now, or I’ll putcha in a wheelchair. I’m serious. I’d make no exceptions if my own mother was sitting here.”
Everyone around me was now sitting up so straight I could practically hear their spines cracking. I briefly considered slouching over even further (getting thrown bodily out of the cathedral sure would have made a dramatic closing for this story, wouldn’t it?), but I decided to play along. I sat up, and Scott launched into a bitter rant against reporters. I’m sure he wasn’t talking about me, but it was one hell of a spooky coincidence.
From there, Scott mounted a fresh attack on the mysterious woman who had wronged him, pledging that, in the future, he would be more intolerant of dissent and more generally unlovable than ever. The crowd laughed and applauded wildly at that one, and while they were still recovering, Scott announced that it was “offering time.” The words left me momentarily dumbfounded, until a bunch of men bearing red cloth sacks came bounding down the aisles and all of the churchgoers gave them cash. When the men got to me, I waved them away, and I could immediately sense waves of hostility emanating from the churchgoers around me. I stopped myself from slouching guiltily down in my seat just in the nick of time.
When Scott preaches at the cathedral, he works before a large, white board, writing in red and blue and green and black pens. He never erases; he simply writes over old words with darker pens. By morning’s end, they make some interesting, Kandinsky-like patterns (for a time, the ever-entrepreneurial Scott sold the boards when he was done with them). The one drawback to the system is that, after a while, the messages are virtually indecipherable; detail upon detail piles up until it becomes such a jumble that your brain starts to hurt. Eventually, my eyes glazed over, and with the scant reasoning power I had left, I started trying to organize this article in my mind. It seemed impossible; I’d gathered enough material for a book about Scott, and more details kept coming in, but I still had no clue about what makes him tick.
When I came out of my reverie, Scott was winding up a speech: “God doesn’t like failure, and mankind, as it stands, is God’s great failure. . . . I want the world to know its hate is returned.”
HEAVEN CAN WAIT
When the service was over, I went upstairs and looked at Scott’s world-renowned collection of Bibles. Some were on metal pages; some had pages as big as a car door. There were a few of Scott’s books for sale, most of them transcripts from his TV sermons. His flock was all around me, looking at the merchandise with wide eyes. What did they see there? What was in it for them?
I didn’t care anymore. I went downstairs and stepped outside. It had rained the day before, and all of a sudden, L.A. was beautiful. It felt good to get away from that dark room and free from God’s Angry Man. I crossed the street to my car and drove through crowded downtown streets, glad as I rarely am to be alive in my own godless world.