Oct 3, 2013

The stunts of televangelist Gene Scott

One of the more peculiar characters in the history of televangelism was California's Gene Scott. Televangelism has never attracted the staid and conventional, but Scott was peculiar even in that rarefied company.

Like, for example, when he decided his television ministry needed an equestrian team. Describing the decision in the LA Times in 1994, Glenn F. Bunting writes:
To attract new viewers, Scott ... decided that his church needed a TV sports franchise, something comparable to Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves. Enter the equestrian team. 'There are so many horses' asses on television that I wanted to show the world what a whole horse looked like,' Scott is fond of saying.

Using proceeds from the sale of his art prints, Dr. Gene Scott Inc. acquired the Silver Oaks Ranch in Bradbury, valued at $11 million in 1989, and a stable of more than 100 show horses that are now believed to be worth millions.

First-time viewers 'stop to see the horses because they are a class act,' Scott told viewers in January. 'And before they know it, this cigar-smokin' preacher is talkin' about something a little different than a rantin'-and-ravin', hellfire-and-brimstone hypocrite preacher. And they stop to see the horses and end up hooked on the teachin'. That's it. All you get on this network is me and the horses and the music. Clear?'

'Clear!' his volunteers shouted obediently from behind studio phone banks.

'Just thought I'd say that. Get on the telephone!'
The horses were a stunt, but a stunt that cost a lot of money and was, in the end, also deeply connected with the idea of the show and the presentation of the man himself. The same was probably true of his trademark cigar, the dancing girls, the wacky hats, and the odd worship songs such as "Kill a Pissant for Jesus." They seem to signify nothing and, also, a lot.

They seem to be evidence of a man unhinged, but also of a man who knows exactly what he's doing.

Or maybe it's just a certain kind of off-kilterness. In 1981, Werner Herzog -- himself a connoisseur of off-kilterness -- did a documentary on Scott. It originally aired in West Germany with the title Glaube und Wärhung, "Belief and Currency." In the US, it was retitled God's Angry Man. Though the documentary is from before the hats and horses, Scott's peculiarity is on full display.

If nothing else, the man had the incredible skill of making fund raising suspenseful.