"Aimee Semple McPherson is the most famous woman nobody's ever heard of," says Today Show host Kathie Lee Gifford of her new musical, Saving Aimee. A flamboyant Los Angeles-based evangelist, Time magazine named McPherson one of the most influential people of the 20th century, and Gifford calls her a forerunner of the women's rights movement: "People should know about her every bit as much as they know about Susan B. Anthony."
If Gifford's show has the success she hopes for, that may soon be the case. The musical, for which Gifford wrote the book and lyrics, is the true story of the rise and fall of the Jazz Age's most successful preacher, a woman who becomes seduced by the very world she set out to save. Best known for playing to huge audiences in a sophisticated metropolis, Sister Aimee, as she was called, was megachurch when megachurch wasn't cool. "We're talking about someone who looked at everything they use in Hollywood to build the devil's kingdom and said, 'I'm going to use it to build God's,'" says Gifford. "Charlie Chaplin designed her sets. She baptized Marilyn Monroe and gave John Wayne his first acting job."
Gifford says her show doesn't shy away from scandalous elements of McPherson's story either, such as her 1926 trial in which she stood accused of faking her own kidnapping in order to cover up an extramarital affair. Saving Aimee premieres at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater on Oct. 20 with two-time Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello in the title role. If that nine-day run goes well, says Gifford, Aimee may soon be spreading her message on Broadway.