Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Kate Chisholm

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Kate Chisholm

Article excerpt

She was the sequinned star of the airwaves back in the 1920s, the first preacher to realise the potential of the wireless, long before Billy Graham and co. But who now has heard of Aimee Semple McPherson, the radio evangelist? Born in 1890 and raised on a farm in Canada, she was converted as a teenager by a Pentecostal preacher whom she married and joined on his missionary travels. When he died she took up preaching herself, moving to Hollywood and becoming enormously popular as a great healer of the sick and saviour of souls, dressed up for the part in a long white figure-hugging gown adorned with a huge glittering cross. Naomi Grimley told her story for the World Service's The Documentary .

Sister Aimee had a huge temple built in Echo Park, designed on the outside like a white wedding cake with a huge neon cross on top. Inside she created not a church but a theatre with three levels, balconies, an orchestra pit and a stage. But that wasn't enough for Sister Aimee. She may have been in Hollywood, home of the movies, where she could hire its designers to help her create each week a dramatised version of Moses on the Mountain or Noah in his Ark. But she also understood the power of radio, of the bond created between unseen speaker and listener at home. On top of her theatre were two radio masts, beaming her words into the homes of millions of Californians.

At the height of her fame, though, on 18 May 1926, Sister Aimee disappeared from the beach where she was last seen going for a swim, only to reappear as if by magic five weeks later. The newspapers, sensing a scandal, slaughtered the reputation of this bright, glamorous woman who had made her fortune and taken religion out of the church and into the home. She claimed to have been kidnapped and kept hostage in Mexico, but the press accused her of having an affair with her radio engineer. Was she a charlatan or a Christian pioneer? Grimley left us to make up our own minds in this classic feature (produced by Nick White, with just enough, but not too much background sound).

Sister Aimee sounded just like Monroe as she flirted with the microphone, inviting her listeners to share with her the troubles of life and to put themselves in the hands of God. But how sincere was she? Was she just play-acting? If the actor Samuel West is to be believed we should have been able to work this out by hearing her voice on air. …

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