I'll never forget the night, now more a decade past, when I was flipping around the TV dial and witnessed the legendary TV pastor, Dr. Gene Scott, engaged in a sultan-like display of decadence in the backyard of his Pasadena mansion. He was relaxing in a folding chair and smoking a giant cigar while three young ladies who looked like Baywatch extras entertained him by bumping and grinding to the accompaniment of the Eagles' "Heartache Tonight." This went on for several minutes, and every now and then an announcer's voice would drift in, encouraging me to call a phone number at the bottom of the screen and donate cash.
I'll also never forget Scott's line when the taped segment ended and we found him back in the studio, addressing his flock: "Now that you've seen what I got waitin' for me at home," he said, firing up another impressive stogie with a pistol-shaped lighter, "you should all be extra nice to me for comin' down here to talk to ya."
For decades, Scott had been a fixture on the UHF dial. You'd be flipping around, any time of the day or night, and there he'd be, staring at you in extreme close-up and talking about Jesus in a steady, mesmerizing drawl, often sporting two pairs of glasses at once and an array of eye-catching hats: a sombrero, a collegiate mortarboard, even a king's crown. Most of the time he was low-key to the point of tedium, dissecting the fine points of scripture for hour after hour. If you stuck around long enough, he'd usually get into UFOs or Atlantis or other wackjob stuff like that, all in the same professorial, soporific tone. But every now and then, whenever his audience wasn't pledging enough for his satisfaction, he'd suddenly fly into a terrifying, murderous rage, roaring at the camera and denouncing us as all as useless, faithless fools. It was strangely reassuring; whether you were home sick from school or staggering in at 3 a.m. after a night of wretched excess, you always knew you could turn on the TV and Dr. Scott would be waiting for you, cigar in hand, ready to tell you all about Joseph of Arimathea and call you a fathead.
I'm not sure when Scott introduced the dirty-dancing bimbos into his show, but they soon became a welcome addition—tasty cookies to help wash down his rather dry sermons. You could say a lot of bad things about Scott, but nobody could ever call him a hypocrite. In an era when other TV preachers were constantly being busted for consorting with fallen women and living large on the hard-earned cash of their followers, Scott somehow made such deeds into selling points. He would demand your money and he'd spend it any way he saw fit, and if that included hiring strippers to dance for his pleasure, well, we could like it or we could (literally) go to Hell.
Scott was such a fascinating and peculiar character that he inspired me to a write an OC Weekly cover story ("God's Angriest Man," Jan. 3, 1997). At that point there wasn't much to be found about him online (this was pre-Google, pre-Wikipedia) so I spent months digging through the crumbling archives of my local library, uncovering endlessly contradictory info about the man. One story portrayed him as a scary, staff-abusing tyrant with possible mob ties, while the next painted him as a quiet and basically solitary soul leading a near-monastic existence, spending so many hours on live TV every day talking about the Resurrection that he barely had any time left to get home to the harem of babes that awaited him. I learned that Scott owned an impressive stable of show ponies and one of the foremost collections of Bibles in the world—Bibles the size of your thumbnail, Bibles the size of a screen door. I learned that Robin Williams had impersonated Scott on Saturday Night Live. I crammed my head full of facts about him, but none of those facts seemed to bring me any closer to understanding who this man really was or why he did what he did.
Eventually I trekked all the way to downtown LA to rent a fritzy copy of Werner Herzog's fantastic 1980 documentary about Scott, God's Angry Man. Along with showcasing some of Scott's most spectacular on-air tantrums, the film showed Scott backstage, candidly discussing his life and the nature of his faith. I'd been prepared to dismiss him as one of the 20th century's greatest scam artists, but when he spoke of Christ, there was something in his eyes that was undeniable and genuine. While I came away from the film more confused than ever, I felt definitively confused. I had to accept that in the end, there was no understanding this guy. Somehow, someway, he was a scam artist and a true believer. He sold the snake oil . . . and he was also a client.
When Scott passed away at age 75 in 2005,I felt a twinge of sorrow knowing that we'd never see his like again. But then, a few months ago, something strange and wonderful happened.
I was flipping the TV dial one restless night and I found a sermon by pastor Melissa Scott, a pretty, painted lady with big, 1987 hair and a priest's collar. She had something of Gene's piercing intelligence and conviction, along with his borderline lunacy and seemingly unbounded contempt for the audience. I imagined she was the good doctor's daughter, but the truth was much more exotic.
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Melissa Scott is Gene's widow: 39 years younger and a hell of a lot prettier than her late hubby, but just as full of holy piss and vinegar. Although there is still some uncertainty on the matter, various accounts have pegged her as a former porn star who worked under the name Barbi Bridges. ("I am the chiefest of sinners," she has said. "Whatever you've heard about me, I'm worse!") Apparently Gene's fans first noticed her as one of the chippies in his backyard chorus line, but she so charmed the Doc that eventually the other girls vanished from the Scott telecasts, replaced by footage of Gene and Melissa riding some magnificent horses around the palatial grounds of the Scott estate. Soon she was joining him onstage at the University Cathedral for the Sunday sermons, often taking the mike to warble a few hymns. According to various sources, Gene actually proposed to Melissa on the air.
If all of this sounds a little second- or third-hand, that's because, just like Gene, Melissa Scott is a deeply controversial, endlessly perplexing and perhaps ultimately unknowable creature. Her Wikipedia page was subject to so many revisions and so much vandalism that in January it was locked from view to any but the site's inner circle. Google just pulls up a bunch of blog posts tearing her down or fawning over her unimpeachable wonderfulness, while the official Scott website remains as terse and low-tech as ever—virtually unchanged since I researched my original story half a lifetime ago. It's 1997 all over again, and while I'm tempted to go see what I can dig up at the library, I think I'll pass this time. Perhaps we should all just accept that where the Scott empire is concerned, the Lord moves in some very mysterious ways indeed.
Wherever Gene Scott is now, at the right hand of God or the left hand of, er, somebody else, I like to imagine that he is sitting back with a celestial stogie and observing Melissa's progress with a smile. Whether Melissa Scott is doing God's work or not, she is certainly doing Gene's. The King of Weird TV is dead. Long live the Queen.
CATCH MELISSA SCOTT ON KCAL-TV CHANNEL 9 OR KCOP-TV CHANNEL 13. SUN.-THURS., 2 A.M.; ION-tV, UHF CHANNEL 30. MOST WEEKNIGHTS. HER PROGRAM ALSO STREAMS CONTINUOUSLY AT WWW.DRGENESCOTT.COM.