"I sat in the orchestra pit of the huge auditorium at the Angelus Temple...the crowd spilling into the aisles. Many were on crutches or in wheelchairs. Suddenly a figure with bright red hair and a flowing white gown walked out to the center of the stage. In a soft voice, almost a whisper, she said, 'Brothers and sisters, is there anyone here who wants to be cured tonight?'...One man said, 'I can't see out of one eye.' She asked. 'Do you believe, brother?' And suddenly, the man cried, 'Yes, sister, I can see, I can see!' And the audience went crazy. To a woman dragging herself across the stage on crutches she said, 'Throw away that crutch!' Suddenly, the woman threw away her crutch and ran into Aimee's open arms. I left that service exhilarated, renewed."
Actor Anthony Quinn, working as a musician in the Angeles Temple, 1925
Unlike the Grand Jury which had indicted Sister Aimee (above left), her mother Mildred Kennedy (above, right), her alleged paramour Kenneth Ormiston, and two others at the end of August 1926, the preliminary hearing before a judge to determine if there as sufficient evidence that the accused had committed the crime, would be held in public. The alleged crime, which H.L.Menken failed to recognize, was not that the lady had lied to defend her honor. She and her co-conspirators had paid others to lie under oath. McPhherson's affair was not a criminal issue, but the coverup implied that there was something of value that had been unlawfully gained, i.e. donations to the Angelus Temple. And that would be a criminal act. But Aimee realized she would be doing her fighting, not in court, but from the pulpit. As Menken predicted before the hearing even began, “...Aimee has the radio, and I believe that the radio will count most in the long run.”
This was her home turf. Reverend Shelton Bissel, an Episcopalian minister from Boise, Idaho, and author of the book “Unofficial Christianity”, described Aimee's usual services as “ A sensuous debauch served up in the name of religion.” In his article entitled “Vaudeville at Angelus Temple”, Bissel paid a Sunday night visit to Aimee's Church. He reported, “At 6:15 the doors swing open.... Within fifteen minutes the huge (5,500 seat) auditorium with its two flaring balconies is completely filled...Suddenly through a door far up on the wall...appears Mrs. McPherson. She is clad in white, with a dark cloak thrown loosely around her shoulders; her rich auburn hair, with its flowing permanent wave, is heaped high on her head....on her face is the characteristic expansive, radiant McPherson smile. She is a beautiful woman, seen from the auditorium...Assisted to her "throne," she gracefully seats herself, turns to her audience—and her microphone—and is ready to begin.”
Once she began speaking, said Bissel, the lady was transformed. “Without one moment's intermission, she would talk from an hour to an hour and a half, holding her audience spellbound.” Another observer added that her speech “... was hopeless as a sermon, but it was consummate preaching....She knew what she was after, and she got it.….She moves the microphone from time to time. She rests her hand lovingly upon it. She never shifts her position one step away from it. All her climaxes are enhanced to the listening thousands throughout southern California and near-by States who regularly "tune-in" on Sunday nights. Radio KFSG is as dear to her as the five thousand and more in Angelus Temple.”
But as Sarah Comstock wrote in Harper's at the time: “It is in what she terms 'illustrations' that she gives full vent to her showman's genius. These are her master effort, a novel and highly original use that she makes of properties, lights, stage noises, and mechanical devices to point her message. Heaven and Hell, sinner and saint, Satan, the fleshpots of Egypt, angels of Paradise and temptations of a bejazzed World are made visual by actors, costumes, and theatrical tricks of any and every sort that may occur to her ingenious mind - a mind which must work twenty-four hours to the day to pave the way for the lady's activities.”
And that mind was busy, writing 13 of her illustrated sermons, 175 hymns and even operas. In one “illustration” titled "The Green Light is On," Aimee rode down the temple aisle on a motorcycle dressed as a policeman (above). In a raging thunderstorm a dozen maidens held onto the Rock of Ages while sailors pulled them to safety in her dramatic sermon, “Throw Out a Life Line”. In another production, a live camel plodded onto the stage of her church as an analogy of overworked parishioners. She was, wrote a critic, “playwright, producer, director, and star performer in one...a complete vaudeville program, entirely new each week, brimful of surprises for the eager who are willing to battle in the throng for entrance.” And at the center of it all was Sister Aimee. When Wendell St. Clair was entrusted with leading a small portion of one “illustration”, he noticed the light on the pulpit intercom was blinking. “I picked up the phone and all I heard was, "Pep it up! Pep it up, pep it up!" I was so humiliated because there was no mistaking the voice... Aimee Semple McPherson."
When charged by cross- town evangelical competitor Methodist Robert Schuler with demeaning Christianity, Aimee replied, “Show me a better way to persuade willing people to come to church and I’ll be happy to try your method. But please . . . don’t ask me to preach to empty seats. Let’s not waste our time quarreling over methods. God has use for all of us. Remember the recipe in the old adage for rabbit stew? It began, “first catch your rabbit.” And as the trial began, Aimee had a new rabbit to catch
A quarter before ten that Monday morning, 27 September, outside the courtroom of Municipal Judge Samuel R. Blake, “A barrage of flash... "booms" in the corridor announced the entry of the famous religious leader and her mother ...All in black Mrs. McPherson looked fresh and apparently prepared for what the day might bring...A wide rimmed black hat...hid the wealth of bronze colored hair...cameramen sought positions on Judge Blake's bench from which to "shoot" the evangelist and her mother, flanked by attorneys as they sat at the counsel table. Smiling sunnily, Mrs. McPherson talked with her mother and the attorneys. Though she appeared in her usual happy mood, a close look seemed to disclose a suggestion of worry lines about her eyes.”
That first day Agnes Callihan, a maid at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, testified that while the Angelus Temple was under construction Aimee Semple McPherson had stayed at the hotel. And on one occasion Agnes had seen Kenneth Ormiston entering the preacher's room. That evening Aimee debuted a new program on her radio station, what she called her “daily bulletin”. It would be heard by 200,000 listeners across Southern California, parts of Arizona and Utah. She denounced the maid's testimony as “ dirty filthy, innuendo.”
“The vile insinuations which fell from the lips of Mr. Keyes during his examination today, “ began Aimee, “could not, in my opinion, exist in the mind of any pure man! He has subjected me today to the most exquisite cruelty and suffering that the human mind can conjure up. Asa Keyes—if you are listening in, you are a dirty, lecherous libertine!I urge every single taxpayer listening to my voice to contact your office and demand immediately an accounting of the money—thousands upon thousands of dollars—that you have been squandering...for what we are supposed to believe are investigations into my integrity.”
By weeks end the press had heard testimony from five witnesses found by Assistant District Attorney Ryan in Carmel, each of whom put her in a seaside resort during her “kidnapping ”. In her daily bulletin Aimee now took the gloves off. “Everybody knows that Asa has his hands pretty tight around my throat just now,” she told her listeners, “and wants to squeeze a little tighter every day until he chokes the life out of me...This is what is called a preliminary examination...Mr. Keyes’s office boys usually attend to such things. And I ask now...upon what theory does he need two able assistants to prosecute poor me in this preliminary hearing.” Behind the scenes Aimee had hired her own private detectives to investigate her opponent, telling them, according to one witness, “Get something on him that’ll stick”’ She signed a deal to syndicate a series of newspaper columns titled, “Saint or Sinner? Did I Go from Pulpit to Paramour?” Her own answer, of course, was no.
In her sermon that Sunday night, Aimee pointed out she had once considered District Attorney Keyes a friend - that she had allowed him to address her congregation - and that she had even endorsed his election in 1924. Why had he now become her enemy? She asked the 5,500 in the temple, and the hundreds of thousands listening in on the radio, “Did the overlords of the underworld who are fighting me, and who are heavily interested in Los Angeles, have anything to do with it?” Having reached the conclusion that they were, she continued, “Mr. Keyes means to do a-plenty to me right away! He has already blasted my name with trumpets across the world...if his word is the Gospel—that I am the worst ever.”