By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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!"