Frisbee depicts Calvary Chapel’s straight-laced founder, Chuck Smith, who conducted services out of a tent in Costa Mesa in the late 1960s, being urged by his tearful wife to reach out to those lost hippie souls on the streets. So one of the Smiths’ kids swooped up the first dirty, bearded hippie he found one night and plopped him in front of Pastor Chuck. Lonnie Frisbee, fresh off an LSD trip, quickly bonded with the preacher, became ordained at Calvary and joined Smith in dunking thousands of young converts in the baptismal waters off Little Corona beach. With Frisbee serving as the face of the Jesus People Movement, Calvary Church membership swelled. Frisbee went on to play a part in the dramatic growth of another Orange County church, John Wimber’s Vineyard Church, and he influenced Greg Laurie, the founding pastor of the Riverside-based Harvest Crusade. But Frisbee maintained the official histories of these churches ignored the hippie preacher because he had admitted to gay trysts before and after being “saved.” He died of AIDS in 1993 at age 43.

Following a solid run on the festival circuit, Frisbee made the leap to PBS, picking up a regional Emmy award nomination in the San Francisco Bay Area market and making Di Sabatino back that $40,000 and more. Variety praised it as an “engrossing documentary,” and Erik Davis, author of The Visionary State on California’s eccentric religiosity, wrote on that it is “a straightforward if exemplary documentary—concise, intelligently edited and utterly fascinating.”

Dave Rolph, the pastor at Calvary Chapel Pacific Hills in Aliso Viejo, worked with Smith on the church history. He tells the Weekly he found the documentary “mostly fair,” though he believes the story is told through the eyes of Frisbee’s ex-wife, Connie Bremer-Murray. Rolph disagrees with the film’s assertion that Smith, Wimber and Bob Mumford, who helped create the late ’70s/early ’80s charismatic Shepherding Movement, deserted Frisbee at his darkest hour. “The one who deserted Lonnie was Connie,” Rolph asserts. “Chuck Smith was there for Lonnie, trying to help him, after Connie had given up on him. Connie’s guilt about that colors her perspective, and David bought into that.”

Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman (above) had a record of success together and on their own (top)
Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman (above) had a record of success together and on their own (top)
The cover of Norman's Frisbee "survey disc"
The cover of Norman's Frisbee "survey disc"

“I just think it overstated Lonnie’s role in the founding of Calvary,” says Chuck Girard, a Frisbee friend and successful Granada Hills-based Christian musician who appeared in the film. “Otherwise, I thought it handled all the surrounding issues in a fair and balanced way.”

Reached at the University of Chicago School of Divinity, Christian scholar Brad Collins declares, “David did a good job of offering different perspectives on the pivotal moments in Lonnie Frisbee’s life and the complexities of his succession of mentor-pupil relationships.”

Peter T. Chattaway, who interviewed Di Sabatino and reviewed Frisbee for Christian Today magazine, called it a “fascinating and complex look at a controversial figure from that era, and I applaud David’s willingness to grapple with the issues raised by these people. Pretty much everyone should be able to find something thought-provoking in there.”

Despite good tidings, the Frisbee experience left Di Sabatino wondering why more Christians did not “get it”—if they even saw it. He learned some pastors told their flocks to avoid the film lest they turn into homosexuals. “I find that frightening,” Di Sabatino says. “There is a strident, militant, fundamentalist stream of thinking in American Christianity that just doesn’t get it that it is okay if people have flaws.”

*     *     *

If any flawed Christian genius deservesthe big-screen treatment, it’s Larry Norman.

Merging faith and rock & roll started early for Norman. Growing up in San Francisco, he would hit the road with his deeply religious father on missionary visits to prisons and hospitals, but back home, the boy was fascinated with the music of Elvis Presley. (Ironically, Norman joined his childhood musical idol in being inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 2001.) By 9, Norman was writing and performing original rock songs that incorporated spiritual messages. He left home in the mid-1960s and moved to San Jose, where he got involved in the local mainstream-rock scene, joining brothers Geoff and Robb Levin in forming the band People! They were signed by Capitol Records in 1966 and hit No. 14 on the Billboard Top 20 in June 1968 with their cover of the Zombies’ “I Love You.”

As a solo artist, Norman snagged the services and London studio of the Beatles’ legendary producer, George Martin, for 1972’s Only Visiting This Planet, which was later voted the greatest Christian rock album of all time. Along with Norman’s So Long Ago the Garden (1973) and In Another Land (1976), Only Visiting This Planet is highly coveted by collectors. Look the albums up on eBay or Amazon, and you’ll be amazed at the prices each fetches. They are also said to have inspired Dylan’s Christian trilogy Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981).

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