Senator Obama, Meet Reverend Gortner
One of the curious things about this ever-curiouser election is that half the time it seems like any of its interesting or unusual features ties in, somehow, with someone or something closely associated with the days of cold duck, bell bottoms and shag carpets – in other words, the Nixon Era.
A case in point came up in an article that appeared in last Saturday’s Washington Post. It concerned the efforts of Danielle Allen, a highly-respected political scientist and fellow of the Institute For Advanced Studies (the place in Princeton which sponsored Einstein’s post-1933 research) to determine just how the claim that Sen. Barack Obama was a Muslim began circulating on the Internet. The Post reported that she managed to track the rumor’s primary point of circulation to posts that appeared toward the end of 2006 in, unsuprisingly, Freerepublic.com. One of the “Freepers” most active in discussing the charge against Obama – disproven time and again, but still believed, according to recent polls, by at least 10% of the electorate – was a regular at the site known as “Eva.” Professor Allen discovered that “Eva” was Donna Shaw, a 60-year-old teacher in rural Washington state. Ms. Shaw told the Post’s reporter that “Obama’s ability to captivate audiences made her deeply uneasy because his ‘tone and cadence’ reminded her of the child revivalist con-man preacher Marjoe Gortner.”
For anyone who was a teenager or older in the 1970s, the name instantly evokes a curly-haired, lanky figure shouting from a pulpit, or shambling through a dozen or more cheezy movies (both on the big screen and TV), or, later, gliding through the intrigues of Falcon Crest. But for anyone under 35 (unless they’ve come across his six dozen clips at Youtube or the three or so pages devoted to him in Christopher Hitchens’ bestseller God Is Not Great), the reaction almost certainly is, “Who?”
So here’s a quick biography, partly drawing on Wikipedia’s entry (which can be found, along with representative Youtube footage of Obama and Marjoe, at the Right Rev. James W. Bailey’s self-proclaimed “pro-American art blog”):
Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner – the second name is a combination of Mary and Joseph – was born in January 1944 in Long Beach, California, the son of an itinerant evangelist. At the age of three, the toddler’s father noticed his uncanny self-possession and remarkable verbal skills. The elder Gortner promptly began schooling Marjoe in the Bible and fundamentalist theology. By 1948, such was the youngster’s progress that he went on the tent circuit, billed as the world’s youngest ordained minister (though by what institution or church remained a mystery).
Before long, Marjoe began officiating at weddings in southern California. One of these ceremonies was captured by a newsreel crew and a Life photographer, and thus the adorable, curly-topped four-year-old became a coast-to-coast celebrity. For the next decade, he toured America with considerable success, drawing crowds that sometimes numbered in the tens of thousands.
But with puberty, interest in Marjoe waned. Around his fourteenth (or, as sometimes stated, sixteenth) birthday, his father vanished with his accumulated earnings. A disillusioned Marjoe then parted with his mother and drifted to Santa Cruz, California, where he was taken in by an “older woman” who saw to it that he finished high school, then studied at San Jose State College. There, he fell in with rock musicians and the nascent hippie community, spending many an afternoon in Haight-Ashbury.
By the end of the 1960s, nearing his mid-twenties and in need of money, Marjoe took up the ministry again, this time featuring his musical talents heavily and working the tent circuit he once wowed as a curly-haired moppet – but now with moves borrowed from Mick Jagger and Hendrix. For a few years he did fairly well – but there was a difference. For most of his time as a boy preacher, Marjoe had done it for the love of God. Now, he was doing it for the love of Mammon.
In 1971, after meeting two filmmakers (the late Howard Smith, who was also the Village Voice’s “Scenes” columnist, and Sarah Kernochan, from a socially prominent New York family), Marjoe decided to undertake one last revival tour, with a camera crew in tow. Smith, Kernochan and their cohorts filmed Marjoe unleashing the Holy Spirit before the multitudes, preaching the gospel, healing the sick, counseling the troubled – and, backstage, cold-bloodedly (yet somehow disarmingly) explaining just how he spun the crowds and staged his miracles – a real-life Elmer Gantry for the Jesus-freak generation. The resulting film, juxtaposed with archival footage of the boy preacher, became the documentary Marjoe, which was released to rave reviews in late July 1972, and won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature the following year. (The film is now available at Amazon, as a download and on DVD, and can also be seen in nine segments – “Marjoe 1,” etc – on Youtube.)
And thus it was that, even as Nixon and McGovern vied for the attention of the voters, Marjoe Gortner provided a colorful sideshow in the world of pop culture. Once the film was released, of course, his days on the Pentecostal circuit were over. His first move was to try to redefine himself as a rock star; an album, Bad But Not Evil (borrowed from his self-description in the film), was released by Chelsea Records (also the musical home of Lulu and Wayne Newton at the time), and a single, “Lo And Behold,” rose to #109 on the Billboard chart. But it went no higher.
Following an authorized biography by Steven Gaines (later to write the life of Halston), and an article for Oui magazine in which he analyzed the appeal of the teenage Guru Maharaj Ji (who was filling stadiums during the Watergate era), Marjoe ventured into acting. He made his debut in a supporting role in the 1973 TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders (starring Telly Savalas in his debut as Kojak), and then got seventh billing in the all-star disaster movie Earthquake, playing a mad grocery clerk who gets to romance Victoria Principal. More movies, mainly for TV, followed. Especially notable was Pray For The Wildcats, in which the onetime Hashbury habitue played a hippie menaced by sadistic bikers Andy Griffith and Robert Reed. (Sheriff Taylor and Mike Brady on Harleys? Rest assured that wasn’t too out of the ordinary in the world of 1970s TV movies.) And then there was The Food Of The Gods, in which Marjoe (along with Pamela Franklin, Ralph Meeker and Ida Lupino) was menaced by giant worms, rats, and wasps in a loose adaptation of the H.G. Wells story. (The latter film is especially well represented on Youtube, and it’s also worth noting that Michael Medved, in his pre-radio days, ranked it Worst Rodent Movie Of All Time in his book The Golden Turkey Awards.)
But by 1980 the movie roles were drying up and Marjoe, after getting excellent notices as a maniacal thug in When You Comin’ Back Red Ryder? (and awful ones in Starcrash), moved to the world of series TV. He appeared twice on Fantasy Island then went on to guest shots on Hotel, The A-Team, and Matt Houston. He spent the 1986-87 season playing Vince Karlotti on Falcon Crest.
The end of the Reagan era also saw the conclusion of Marjoe’s acting career (except for an appearance in the 1995 Western Wild Bill as, naturally, a preacher). Around 1989 he moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, and launched yet another career as a fundraiser for charitable events. His primary work for the last two decades has been to preside over Marjoe Gortner Entertainment, which, most recently, has produced star-studded TV spectaculars out of the Banff Springs Hotel in Canada to benefit Robert Kennedy Jr’s Waterkeepers Alliance. According to an employee who recently posted at the Ex-Christians message board, he no longer gives interviews or answers questions about his past.
And that’s the sixty-year career of Marjoe in a nutshell. Here’s a Youtube clip (one of the segments of Marjoe) in which the semblance to Obama seems particularly visible.