Not too long ago, worlds collided a bit for me. I was flipping through channels one afternoon and caught the tail end of the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye and found myself becoming captivated by the sight and sounds of this unique, controversial figure (singer and evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner.) The next day, I was surfing the net and came upon a page of abandoned theme parks. I live near one or two amusement parks that eventually failed and were left to fall into disrepair. I find the subject interesting, but also sad and sometimes eerie. So, imagine my surprise when I (on still another of my antique shop forages) came upon the find profiled today: Jim and Tammy Bakker Present the Ministries of Heritage Village Church.
It's a large, hardbound book documenting the creation of Heritage USA, a gargantuan amusement park and Christian community created by televangelist Jim Bakker and his crew. The volume (likely sold on the premises in one of its many gift shops) is 208 pages long, is in full color on heavy stock and overflows with Bible quotes, photos of the Bakkers (even in 1906, at least one of them had big hair!) and their various projects and programs and is a priceless remnant of what was once a highly successful venture that swiftly became a devastated and abandoned wreck.
The book gives a bit of vague back story on the Bakkers (which I have added to in order to give more details.) Jim was a North Central Bible College student who graduated there (after having already abandoned plans for a career in journalism) to become an evangelist. His grandfather had founded an Assembly of God church in Michigan in 1923. His wife, Tammy Faye LaValley (who he married in 1961), originally from Minnesota (which accounted for a sometimes strident accent that would later be parodied by some of her impersonators), was a fellow student at the Bible college and paired with him to spread the word of God as they knew it. (The book conveniently omits her mother's divorce and the fact that six of her siblings were half-brothers and sisters.) They had married on April 1st, April Fool's Day. They eventually left to work in Virginia for Pat Robertson in the early days of The 700 Club and the Christian Broadcasting Network (then only reaching a small regional audience.) Part of their repertoire was a set of puppets, as their contributions were primarily aimed at drawing in younger viewers.
A dust-up in 1972 between Robertson and Jim Bakker (reportedly over their individual philosophy) lead to Jim and Tammy Faye moving to California. While there, they partnered with old pals Paul and Jan Crouch (if you've ever stumbled upon a lilac-haired televangelist with more makeup than Tammy Faye ever dreamed of, that's Jan!) They formed a show called Praise the Lord and, after leaving California within about a year's time, proceeded to build their own network, The PTL (for “Praise the Lord,” get it?) Network in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Most of this is skimmed over, simply referring to The Bakkers working various places until founding their North Carolina ministry.)
In time, this became a mammoth success (notable, as well, for steadfastly accepting people – and money – from all walks of life including minorities, ex-cons, homosexuals, etc...) Jim Bakker placed an emphasis on accruing wealth and always building, building, building. In 1978, the Bakkers were able to found Heritage USA in nearby Fort Mill, South Carolina, a mammoth, sprawling site consisting of 2,300 acres! Within the complex, one that continued to develop with startling rapidity, there was a hotel and convention center, a broadcasting facility, a worship hall, campground accommodations including lodges and cabins, a train, a swimming pool, skating rink, tennis courts and a fully functioning water park complete with wave pool, slides and so on, all with an emphasis on clean family activity with a Christian foundation and mission statement. (Some of the more cynical onlookers dubbed the place “Six Flags Over Jesus!”) Jim, as a boy, allegedly built churches from the ground up alongside his father. You can see from all the sweat and dirt caked on Jim Bakker's filthy clothing in this shot to the right just how grueling it was and how involved he was in the act of construction. Ha! It took some dough to create all this, too. Tellingly, page 18 of the 200+ page book is a full page photo of a collection plate being passed.
Additionally, in an effort to create what would eventually be a city of sorts, there were condominiums, a retirement community, security and all sorts of outreach programs. Youth organizations, sort of like Christian Cub Scouts and Brownies, called Royal Rangers and Missionettes were formed. Nearby prisons were given attention through sermons, songs and testimonials. A food pantry distributed generic, no-brand groceries to the needy. There was even a place for unwed or otherwise troubled mothers-to-be, where the ladies could ride out their pregnancy in comfort and style, the babies, in some cases, being adopted into the Christian homes of the members of the congregation.
I've known many pregnant gals who, despite fallen arches, strained backs, stretch marks and just plain general discomfort, have described the gauzy, blissful aura about them depicted in this particular soft-focus shot.... NOT! What is it with people wanting to portray pregnant women in a hazy, glowing light like this?!
The commemorative book even goes so far as to include several baby pictures of little ones who were rescued and placed into Christian homes through the on-site PTL "Tender Loving Care" adoption agency. Additionally, families could “adopt” an expectant mother, being there for her along the way with advice and support until the big day finally came (when, presumably, they would take the baby for themselves and send the birth mama packing?)
The site also offered marriage counseling and couples therapy, presided over what seems (above) to be a replica of Boss Hogg's wife from The Dukes of Hazzard. Get a load of the muumuu and hair on her! The couple on the opposite page look properly Stepford-ized. I wonder if they remained together after this and, if so, for how long. Lord knows they felt the need to snuggle up closely in this love seat, leaving room in it for at least one more person.
No stone was left unturned in presenting a destination in which everyone is neatly dressed (and covered up) and either beamingly happy or otherwise enthralled. This full-page shot of a deeply-moved elderly patron even has a big tear on her cheek about to drop at any minute. Maybe her hands are in pain from having a jewel-encrusted ring on nearly every finger? Let's just say that there was definitely some manipulative marketing going on.
Inside the hotel, there was a Main Street style aisle of stores. It resembled an old-fashioned, outdoor avenue of shops, but was all inside, making the stores easily accessible and available year round. This photo depicts the so-called “sumptuous” buffet in one of the restaurants, consisting of sliced tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce and a basket of wavy potato chips, fresh out of the bag...
More appealing to my tastes is The Heavenly Fudge Shoppe in which employees whip together fat, dense varieties of the homemade treat. (Incidentally, even though this ministry stemmed from fundamental Assembly of God and Pentecostal beliefs, I think my own Southern Baptist grandma might not have liked the name "Heavenly Fudge Shoppe" as she seemed to think that we as mere sinning mortals weren't capable on Earth of knowing what was truly "heavenly" in the afterlife.)
Over at the condominium and house area, check out the resident couple here who are enjoying a sterile-looking cup of coffee in the eat-in kitchen of their state-of-the-art abode. Not only do the appliances in this kitchen not match one another (gasp!), but this serves as pictorial evidence of what some kitchens might have looked like in their hey day which are now being “flipped” on every other HGTV program for their godawfulness! (Perhaps “godawful” is a poor choice of words for this posting. LOL) My “favorite” is probably the vomitous backsplash that features a tile pattern with a cat peering through a nonexistent window! Talk about “taste specific...”
I might be wrong, but I don't believe Mulberry Towers (see the artist's rendering here) was ever completed.
The water park was nothing short of jaw-dropping in its size and scope. This was the mid-80s and while it may have later been topped in expanse and excitement in the type of rides, this was quite a place back then. In the shots of the water park and the regular swimming pool, both, there is a (deliberate?) absence of two-piece women's swimsuits. This being 1986, most of the rest of the world was embracing bikinis and, in some cases, those ghastly French cut ones (in which a lady had to be in absolutely prime physical condition to even look passably good), but not here.
Jim had help (obviously!) in preaching and serving the countless throngs of people who attended the church there. Look at this family of a fellow pastor, a Reverend Dortch. The son looks positively possessed! I've put an inset of little Damien's demonic face onto the page that was not there originally so that it can be seen in its larger state. (And, no, that's not really his name.)
The Bakkers consisted of Jim, Tammy Faye, Jamie Charles (later to go by Jay) and Tammy Sue (who I always confused with Pia Zadora when I was young!) Somehow this shot (on the left, lower right) of the family in bed struck me as funny, with Jim and the kids congregated to one side while Tammy Faye, completely separate, contends with the family pooch.
There were several "celebrities" who made appearances on the PTL Network. Billy Graham visited, as did Norma Zimmer, the final Champagne Lady of The Lawrence Welk Show. There's a whole section of the book devoted to the guests who came to tell their stories of faith on the air, many of them fellow televangelists like Robert Schuller and Oral Roberts. Born-again football player-turned-actor (and needlepoint aficionado) Rosey Grier showed up. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Pat Boone and Gavin MacLeod did as well (though for some reason, MacLeod was hilariously depicted in his The Love Boat costume. Surely a show that portrayed illicit romance and skimpy bodies wouldn't exactly be embraced by the church.)
Efrem Zimbalist Jr was a frequent guest. Art Linkletter appeared, sharing the stage with young Jay as working with children was his specialty. Dean Jones was a guest, as were Lisa Welchel (of The Facts of Life) and Dick Wilson (the grocer, Mr. Whipple, who implored everyone not to squeeze the Charmin!) If I were Willa Dorsey (whoever she is) I would have sued over this photo. The Beverly Hillbillies' Donna Douglas looks mighty creepy here, as if she's about to head to an altar and sacrifice that goat!
Mickey Rooney and his eighth wife (!) Jan came to call. This was his final (to date - the man is ninety-one!) marriage and seemed to be the most successful after thirty-three years, with them even doing a cabaret act together, though he accused her son earlier this year of committing elder abuse (financially) against him. A restraining order was issued! Pearl Bailey dropped in. Even Mother Angelica, a Catholic TV personality came on The PTL Network! One hopes that Mama Ange had no clue what sort of behind the scenes machinations were going on.
If Donna Douglas looked scary, Broadway actress Carol Lawrence looked downright vampiric in her commemorative book photograph. What in the world? The celeb section comes to a close with actor James Hampton and Della Reese, among others (not all of these people and pages are scanned in here. I must say I typically try to avoid stars who have appeared on programs like this. Fortunately, for me, few of my favorite stars ever have!) Billy Graham was well thought of enough for his childhood home to be brought to Heritage USA and reconstructed brick by brick, then restored to look exactly as it did when he was a little boy!
This was the '80s, when conspicuous consumption was the rule and taste was often left to the wayside. Holidays brought out the garishness to an even higher level. The Living Christmas Tree was a huge conglomoration of choir members, staggered on top of each other. On the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary, Tammy Faye came up with what might be one of her all time most unfortunate get-ups. In what can only be described as a full-length, mermaid-style, off the shoulder doily with a choker and a "hat" that looks like a tulle, sequined SWAT riot-gear mask that slid to her left.
Believe it or not, I have still not covered EVERYTHING in this sizeable volume. However, suffice it to say that The Bakkers sought to keep going. They already had what amounted to a small city (with its own ZIP code), but were far from finished. The end of the book (published, as I said, in 1986) has several artist renderings of planned structures. There was a positively humongous structure called The Ministry Center, a place so giant in scope that it almost become mind-boggling. There was also a 21-story Heritage Grand Tower hotel complex (this was very nearly completed, but not quite.)
One of the most blatantly Babel-esque ideas was this preposterously phallic Crystal Tower, a soaring, glittering structure over 30 stories high. This was meant to be a time-share establishment. 165,000 people gave $1,000 apiece in order to help get it built and earn a four-day vacation stay in it. After the bottom fell out of the entire enterprise and fell into bankruptcy, each of those people received the sum of $6.54 back... One would think that the circumcision-minded folks behind this design would have found a way around having that bit of "foreskin" at the top.
Not content to have state-of-the-art hotels, housing and churches on the premises, Jim Bakker actually planned to recreate the ENTIRE ancient city of Jerusalem on the grounds of Heritage USA! There was already a place called The Upper Room at the park, based on a location in The Holy City, but now he wanted to recreate the actual city itself. They had the room and... they had the money. The place was phenomenally successful, third only to Disneyland and Walt Disney World in attendance amongst theme parks. (Six-million people came there during its peak year.) What's more, because of the religious affiliation, it was tax-exempt for a significant period of its existence!
Near the end of the book, a drawing of Jim and Tammy Faye, surrounded by all their visionary buildings, stated "The Dream Never Ends." Except... it did. The dream ended with a resounding thud. It seems that Jim had taken part in a sexual encounter with a twenty-one year-old secretary in 1980 (during an alleged low period in his marriage) and now there was threat of extortion. The ex-secretary and part-time nanny, Jessica Hahn, claimed date rape (thanks to a drug she said was slipped to her) while Bakker claimed the one time incident was consensual (though he felt he was set up.) Things got even messier when the incident led to an investigation of fraud charges and their "friend" Jerry Falwell stepped in to run PTL in the meantime. Bakker was convicted of fraud, sentenced very heavily (45 years), Tammy Faye eventually divorced him (marrying his former best friend and contractor Roe Messner, who also did jail time!) and Falwell took over the PTL and Heritage USA and even went so far as to accuse Jim of homosexuality. He famously promised to descend in one of the water park's steep slides if he could raise $20 million and when the money came pouring in, down he went, fully dressed in a suit and tie. The photo of him in the slide was selected by The Associated Press as one of the top 100 national photos of the century.
The circus-like debacle was played out in the media, with Saturday Night Live offering up frequent parodies of The Bakkers, easy targets thanks to their colorful personalities. Phil Hartman was Jim while Jan Hooks was Tammy Faye, inevitably ending up with mascara pouring off her face just as Tammy's did in several news conferences and interviews. SNL had them visiting Dana Carvey's The Church Lady on Church Chat and they also figured into a skit which had prison-escapee Jim on the lam, with Tammy Faye as his driver, but joined by fellow celebrity convicts Leona Helmsley (Nora Dunn) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (Victoria Jackson.)
As if things weren't surreal enough, Hahn (the once-virginal victim) wound up getting a plastic surgery makeover along with breast augmentation, moved into The Playboy Mansion and posed in the men's magazine at least three times! Quite a leap from the pure, church-going gal she was when she used to watch Jay and Tammy Sue for their parents. She also became a companion to raucous rocker-comedian Sam Kinison, appearing in his music video for the song Wild Thing. Oddly, Jan Hooks portrayed her, too, on Saturday Night Live.
Bakker eventually had his sentence reduced to 18 years and was out after having served 5 of them, penning a book called I Was Wrong that miraculously seemed to both win him fans who had previously disdained him while vindicating him in the eyes of those who'd always believed he was inncocent of the charges brought against him. He remarried and now works out of Branson, Missouri as a televangelist with far less grand aspirations and surroundings.
Tammy Faye became an unlikely gay icon, winning fans through her accepting attitude (and built-in camp factor!) She took part in the reality show The Surreal Life, which had her living amidst actor Erik Estrada, rapper Vanilla Ice and infamous porn star Ron Jeremy. She made friends with them all, though not without some speedbumps along the way. In 1996, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and temporarily beat it. Later, though, cancer surfaced in her lungs. She fought that battle from 2004 until her death in 2007. Her final (hauntingly emaciated) TV appearance was on Larry King Live, a show she'd been on many times. One of the segments of The Eyes of Tammy Faye had her touring the now-deteriorated grounds of Heritage USA, the pool filled with murky water, the foliage overgrown, the outdoor furniture rusty and decrepit.
The significant plot of land is now a mixture of dilapidated, weed-ridden attractions and functional properties. The Bakkers' old office complex, a pyramid-like building, was (is?) home to the The Laura Ashley fashion company's U.S. headquarters. That seems fitting since God knows the congregations took her floral and lace concoctions to their hearts for many a year. A new owner has restored the better part of the old Inn, with church services taking place in the expansive lobby and most of the rooms restored. (I can't deny there is something sort of creepy about the fact that the same beds and artwork are used in the rooms, however, since the place was abandoned for a time!) The hurricane-damaged, unfinished 21-story tower is intended to be a retirement community. Nevertheless, these restored properties still overlook the skeletal remains of other neglected attractions, buildings and sites.
We may never know all the truth of this messy saga, but it surely ranked as one of the major scandals of the 1980s and continues to fascinate today. I do not share the beliefs of most of the people involved, but I can't help pointing out that I do think that Tammy Faye had genuine faith in what she was doing. Whether she was deliberately blind to the happenings around her in order to enjoy the things around her (check out her wedding ring in this shot... a large - everything was! - gold band with rows of diamonds at each end!) or was really that naive, I'm not sure. I do think that in the end she learned a thing or two about what matters most in life and what matters not. Hopefully, her ex-husband is truly the same way now as well.