In 1993, I attended an extremely curious Easter Sunday “church service”—and I use that term loosely—along with a motley crew of congregants assembled in downtown Los Angeles. Dr. Gene Scott, the mad minister of America’s low watt TV stations, presided over this occasion. I convinced a British friend of mine—who had never heard of him or seen his show—to go with me because I thought that it would be totally hi-larious, a veritable laff riot… but we’ll get to what really happened soon enough.
Dr. Gene Scott was the utterly unhinged UHF television evangelist who grew in fame (and apparently fortune) during the Reagan era with his berserk, conspiratorial lunatic rantings that occasionally—only very occasionally—mentioned Jesus or had some sort of what most people could agree was “religious” content. Mostly he talked about UFOs, gambling on horses and his much-hated ex-wife. I first became aware of him on WPGH, a Pittsburgh market UHF station. He must have purchased late night airtime from them and from a number of other channels around the country. As the 1980s wore on, Gene Scott became very, very hard to miss on cable: If you were flipping channels, depending on the time of day, the guy might be on as many as five of them simultaneously. He continuously boasted of being broadcast in South America, South Korea, and the Caribbean. That in America, he was on, somewhere, during each hour of ever day, seven days a week, 52 weeks out of the year.
Now that’s a lot of TV, you might be thinking, and you’d be right, but Gene Scott could talk. And talk and talk and talk. Like a speedfreak can talk. And smoke cigars. And stare directly into the camera, refusing to “preach” unless the donations started to roll in. When Scott’s show first came on, it was extremely low budget. Often—very often—Scott’s show would consist of him sitting in a chair on a bare studio floor with a chalkboard behind him, holding a stack of index cards. He would pretend that on each of these cards was written the sum of a very large donation that had just come in over the telephone and he would rattle them off, rapid-fire, and throw the cards over his shoulder as he did so. Scott would have you believe—although it was an obvious lie—that he was getting a thousand dollars, not twenty bucks, not even $100, but a thousand dollars—if not more—from each and every caller!
In a flat monotone, Scott would say “Dallas, TX—$1000. Portland, OR—another $1000. Phoenix, AZ, a donation of $3000—see they aren’t CHEAP in Phoenix like they are in Portland an’ Dallas—Scranton, PA—that’s $4000 from Scranton. Maybe I will preach after all…” and so forth and so on. He would often claim five figure donations several times an hour. To hear him claim even that a $100k donation had just come in hot off the wire was not unusual in the least. What did the IRS make of all this, I wonder?
It was patently obvious that Scott was lying, but even if the threadbare set and the absurd amounts of the supposed donations he was claiming didn’t clue you in immediately, the band who “appeared” (after he’d ask for a “little tinkle on the keyboards”) were from another show entirely, like he had purchased stock footage from another low watt religious broadcaster. Or something. He would pretend they were in the studio with him, even though they obviously weren’t. The phone bank operators that he cut away to, they, too, were from someplace else entirely, but he would pretend they were in another room, just down the hall. It was absurd. He would have no interaction with them, because, of course, no interaction was possible! Scott was crazy enough to think that no one would notice, but everyone did. I’d guess that he had no more than three or four crew members to begin with—when Scott’s show first came on, it was extremely low budget—but his operation seemed to grow pretty quickly. Eventually he hired an actual band, a bigger studio, and real phone operators.
Gene Scott would berate, belittle, bully and bark at this viewers with extreme contempt and tell them that they weren’t deserving of his “teachings.” When he did deign to “preach,” he did a variant on the trick that Glenn Beck uses today to browbeat his lowbrow listeners: Scott would take his blackboard and scrawl something across it that was supposedly written in Greek, or Hebrew or Arabic and then he’d go off on a long-winded diatribe that had nothing to do with that or with anything else. In one memorable program Scott asked his audience if they were any “more tired” this year than they were last year. He couldn’t exactly hear them, but assumed the answer to be “yes” and concocted a ridiculous fantasy about radio waves emanating at the Tropic of Cancer that were making everyone docile, sleepy and compliant.
And then he’d say something like “The government wants to have me killed. Because I know too much. If you want me to LIVE so I can come back here to tell you more about this IMPORTANT INFORMATION tomorrow night that nobody else has, then you need to send me money TONIGHT so I can protect myself!”
The following night, Scott appeared with two vicious-looking, growling Doberman Pinschers and a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He read off the various things trained Doberman attack dogs were capable of (like ripping your head off, etc) and after each one, he would nod affirmatively, look directly into the camera and say flatly—and meanly—“My dogs can do that.”
Dude was a showman, but Dr. Gene Scott was also the most out-of-his-mind person who had EVER been on television up to that point on a regular basis. I didn’t watch his show every night, but I did watch it frequently enough. I’d usually flip between early Letterman and Scott’s ranting and raving.
Another distinguishing characteristic of Gene Scott’s enigmatic TV preacher shtick was that he always sported different kinds of hats, like a pith helmet, a fisherman’s cap or a sombrero. On more than one occasion he wore a handkerchief tied in four knots like a Monty Python “Gumby,” with square Johnny Rotten sunglasses. One night he would have long hair and a beard, the next night, the beard was gone and the hair short again. The night after that, he’d have a new mustache. His glasses changed a lot, too. Every night he would look totally different.
If you watched his show regularly, the first thing you would wonder would be “Who would give this incoherent, incomprehensible crank their money?” The second thing you would notice, especially if you’d been gone for a while, was how his production values continued to rise over the years. Obviously people were sending him money. But who were they?
I was about to find out. I called the RSVP number listed in an LA WEEKLY ad for Scott’s church and before I could politely inquire about tickets, I was yelled at by a woman with an accent who identified herself as “Doc’s assistant.” She GRILLED ME about WHY I wanted to attend that Sunday’s service. I wasn’t prepared for how aggressive she was but managed to (perhaps) convince her that I just wanted to check it out and that my request for entry was an innocuous one.
It was obvious that she was trying to tamp down any potential disruption of the Easter Sunday service and that it had happened before. She was hardcore and deeply suspicious of me, it was quite apparent.
So as I mentioned at the top of this article, I planned to go to see Gene Scott with a friend of mine, and that she had never heard of Gene Scott and had absolutely no idea what she was in for, only, as I promised, that it was going to be extremely amusing. So on Easter Sunday, at the appointed time, we showed up at the United Artists Theatre in downtown Los Angeles at 927 S. Broadway.
Twenty years ago, downtown Los Angeles was only barely starting to become gentrified and the stark human horror the area was then known for has been gradually moved east since that time.
This was not the case in 1993 and I assumed that the United Artists Theatre would just be some shithole that Scott and his low rent hijinks were taped at.
Au contraire! In fact, this was not just any old United Artists Theatre, it was THE United Artists Theatre that was built by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin.
It’s an incredibly opulent movie house—one of the greatest in Los Angeles—a Spanish Gothic masterpiece with marble floors and brass accents. Flanking the stage there was an amazing tapestry curtain made from when the Theatre originally opened depicting scenes from famous silent movies with a big UA logo when the curtains were closed. My memory of the tapestry is that it was around 150 ft tall. Even in the late 1920s, something this elaborate and this size, still would have cost over $100k. I couldn’t believe that Gene Scott owned this building.
Before we could poke around for more than a single minute, we were warily greeted—if that’s the right word for it—by the woman on the phone who identified herself as “Doc’s assistant.” She was a mean-faced middle-aged Korean lady and she sternly told us not to whisper to each other, not to fidget, not to do anything that would break his concentration or disturb “Doc” in any way, not to go to the bathroom and don’t dare yell something or else we’d be in “big trouble!”
After that stern warning, she told us that these two security guards would take us to our seats. They did and then they sat right down on either side of us!
The lights went down and the service started soon enough. The stage was huge and a large group of musicians, the sort you might see at the Grand Ole Opry, walked on and started up on a Statler Brothers-sounding hymn. Then they started to build the suspense for “Doc” who soon arrived onstage with diamond encrusted sun glasses (we were inside of course), an expensive black suit, and cowboy boots. He was greeted like he was Elvis. Exactly like he was Elvis.
Scott immediately sat down on a chair, crossed his legs and lit up a cigar. His opening remarks had to do with marrying a couple in Saratoga, where he’d gone to watch his horses race, the day before. They were sitting in the front row and he made reference to the fact that they’d both been committing adultery behind the backs of their previous spouses and he laughed about it, like it was all a big joke to him.
Like “Doc’s assistant,” most of his congregation, more than half, were of Korean descent and then the next largest group was a mix of what can only be described as cowboy hat-wearing rednecks and their families, but they were a “type” that you do not get in Los Angeles, but that you would see in Texas maybe. Hispanic cowboys, too. There were also several members of the audience who didn’t fall into either of those disparate camps, Korean or cowboy, but who appeared to be people who’d come in from local homeless missions. And us. We were probably the most conspicuous people there, in a sense.
After some decidedly non sequitur preaching, the proceedings went right off the surrealism scale when “Doc” announced—by grabbing a mic, pulling it close to him and saying this in way that you could tell it was a sort of anticipated catchphrase of his—that it was “Offerin’ time!”
The entire audience jumped to their feet and started waving sealed tithing envelopes around, like they were on the fucking Price is Right or something. It was super tweaked. I wasn’t about to give a dime to this dude, so I merely sealed an empty envelope and stuck it in the plate when it was passed to me.
When the rawkus “Offerin’ Time!” settled down, “Doc” preached a lil’ more and then he asked for a “tinkle” on the keyboards. A tinkle, he said, for “a piss-ant.”
The audience roared!
What? Yes, I said a piss-ant. The band struck up the tune and sang a song called “Kill Some Piss-ants for Jesus.” You probably think I’m pulling your leg, but I’m not (see below). Who could—or would—make up something so damned stupid? It’s not like I am boasting about this or anything!
“Kill some piss-ants for Jesus”
After this he did another nonsensical Easter-themed lecturette and then he announced that there would be a SECOND “Offerin’ time!” This one transpired with the same jump up and down, wave your envelope around mania as before! I mean, wouldn’t most people just split their intended donation into two envelopes? Why were they so EXCITED? Did he get noticeably more money with two than one? Perhaps he did. Perhaps his congregation simply were that stupid.
All I know is that by this point, we’d had it. It was such an incredibly deflating encounter with a small segment of the human race that neither of us had known existed an hour before. These people were brainwashed by NOTHING WHATSOEVER—at least Scientology gives you a little pop psychology—Gene Scott offered his flock not a damned thing, just piss-ants, supposedly biblical jabberwocky and two opportunities to give him money in one hour! Was L. Ron Hubbard ever that blatant?
The entire thing was bonkers, barking mad, paranoiac, you name it, but I can’t exactly say that it was the fun, fun, fun time I’d promised my friend it would be. In fact, it was probably one of the single most depressing things I have ever witnessed in real life. These people were devolved, the types you might see at a Sarah Palin book signing, but with less intellectual focus. To sit among them was not the cheeky good fun I anticipated. It was just sad, demented and horrifying.
My friend took the lead and told the security guard, “Look, we have to go. Let us out of here, I’m not feeling well, I think I’m going to throw up.” The sea parted immediately with that line, but before we were out the door “Doc’s assistant” was demanding that we stop, come back and report to her immediately! Her attitude was a joke—-like she was Ilse Koch or something—and we told her to go fuck herself and walked out.
We barely said a word in the car. We went to an outdoor cafe for lunch and hardly said a word to each other there either. After an experience like that one—watching cud-chewing fools being parted from their money by a megalomaniac master grifter who didn’t even have to try—we found that there was nothing much left to say.
There’s almost ZERO evidence of the many thousands of hours of television Gene Scott taped over his career to be found on the Internet. This is the largest chunk I could find. Although it doesn’t cut away to Playboy playmates riding Scott’s horses and the normally bullying “Doc” is seen here in a somewhat uncharacteristically jovial mood, this long-winded, apparently drunken diatribe about women wearing pants is still classic mid-period Dr. Gene Scott.
Werner Herzog’s 1981 film about Dr. Gene Scott, God’s Angry Man: