Televangelism for the jet-set: The rise & fall of the ‘World Action Singers’ of the 1970s

“The World Action Singers, ORU students who love to sing as they prepare for their responsibilities in tomorrow’s world.” In the 1970s Richard Roberts greeted millions of Americans on his evangelist father’s prime-time television specials and syndicated weekly programs. His group the World Action Singers flew all over the globe in a private jet to exotic locations such as Hollywood, Alaska, Hawaii, London, and Japan, earning them the nickname “The Worldly Action Swingers.” Meanwhile, back home at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma they were reportedly receiving 32,000 pieces of fan mail a day. By 1980, despite their near-perfect public image, The World Action Singers found themselves facing multiple scandals, serious financial crises, and a loss of approximately 40% of their audience.

Oral Roberts was a televangelist pioneer who trained a generation of jet-setting, superstar pastors. In the sixties, he hired Oklahoma architect Frank Wallace to sculpt a multimillion-dollar dream campus in one of Tulsa’s classiest suburbs. When it opened in 1967, ORU’s space-age academy resembled Disney’s Tomorrowland and instantly became the finest example of modern architecture at any university in the world. Located in a sunken garden in the heart of the campus, a 200-foot Googie-influenced building called The Prayer Tower was topped by a gas flame which lit up the evening sky. Pylon-like columns, gold-tinted windows, CityPlex Towers, a state-of-the-art Aerobics Center, and a geodesic dome gave ORU a Jetson’s city quality. It was a building named Baby Mabee which opened in 1971 that was used as a television studio for the production of Roberts’ specials. (FYI, Elvis Presley’s live album Elvis - Sold Out! was recorded at the adjacent Mabee Center in 1974).

Oral’s third son, Richard Roberts was working as a singer at parties and pizza parlors in the Tulsa area. When it came time for college he rebelled against his father by attending the University of Kansas instead of ORU and married his girlfriend Patti against the wishes of his family and friends. Soon after, Oral called Richard and Patti into his study, sat them down by the fireplace and began to weep. Oral explained that he had a terrible dream where God told him that if they should continue living an “unchristian life” outside of ORU then they would be killed in a plane crash. Richard and Patti immediately returned to Tulsa and formed the wholesome, singing and dancing sensations the World Action Singers made up of a dozen elite ORU students including Kathie Epstein who would later become known as Kathie Lee Gifford. With flashy sets, costumes, well-choreographed dance sequences, the World Action Singers were an overnight success and reached millions of viewers every week.

But while Richard and Patti maintained a Ken & Barbie facade on television, behind the scenes their behavior was far from perfect. Richard had a reputation for off-campus smoking, drinking, and womanizing. He even maintained a difficult reputation on-set, and one day snapped at producer Jerry Sholes by exclaiming, “Is he a director or a pussy?” without any regard to the Christian students within earshot. As the 1970s went on it became increasingly difficult for Richard to put in a full work day, he was often MIA or leaving set early to go golfing. Meanwhile, ORU was knee-deep in cash: the Roberts enjoying vacations, expensive cars, shopping trips, and flying around the world in luxury, all at the expense of the school. Frank Schaeffer (son of the famous Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer) was the first to call Richard and Patti out on their behavior, describing their lifestyle as “poisonous.” According to Frank, his confrontation with the Roberts was successful, with Richard finally admitting “You’re right, you’re right, this is terrible. We need to get out.”

In 1977, Oral Robert’s prophecy came true in a shocking roundabout turn of events when Rebecca Roberts (Oral’s oldest child) and her husband were killed in a plane crash. Soon after, Richard and Patti’s marriage fell apart. Oral previously had a strict policy against divorce, however, he bent the rules and gave Patti permission to end the marriage. She later described it as “a corporate marriage designed not to upset the flow of dollars into the prized ministry.” Controversy quickly arose when the divorce went public, and combined with serious financial crises regarding construction on the campus, the Roberts began facing opposition from even their most devoted followers in the early ‘80s. Despite Richard’s fast efforts to re-marry (he wed a 23-year-old named Lindsay Salem within a year of the divorce), ORU would never fully recover. Over the next several decades the university would rake up about $52.5 million in debt which left its once beautiful campus in shambles. The Prayer Tower considered the symbol of the university, became rusty, and the tiled steps to the library ended up in complete disarray, missing almost all of its tiles.

After filing for bankruptcy the Roberts began making headlines in the worst possible ways: Richard got a DUI after an Oklahoma highway patrolman clocked him going 93 miles per hour in his Mercedes, then Lindsay Roberts was formally charged with using the university as her personal ATM. In addition, Lindsay was charged with placing hundreds of calls to “underage males” late at night and hosting sleepovers with teen boys in her compound’s guest house. After nearly five decades of reaching millions around the world, the Roberts dynasty finally collapsed. The World Action Singers left behind dozens of LP’s which were released on Light Records. Although their TV specials could easily be called an imitation of The Lawrence Welk Show, they are strangely haunting nonetheless. The “now sound” vocal harmonies and dance routines are so perfectly arranged they leave behind a plasticine smell in the air suggesting that perhaps something just isn’t quite right.








Posted by Doug Jones
09:37 am



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