Television

The Motorcycle-Riding Evangelist Behind Perry Mason’s Sister Alice

Aimee Semple McPherson’s sermons were even more theatrical, and her kidnapping was even more mysterious.

Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice in HBO’s Perry Mason and Sister Aimee Semple McPherson.
Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice in HBO’s Perry Mason and Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO and Bettmann via Getty Images.

This week’s episode of HBO’s Perry Mason was all about the Radiant Assembly of God, the fictional Los Angeles church led by enigmatic faith healer Sister Alice McKeegan, played by Tatiana Maslany. Although the church showed up in the first episode—Mason is investigating a kidnapping gone wrong involving members of the congregation—in this second episode, we get to see a great deal more of it, including both a normal service and a funeral service. It’s a very California church even for California, involving costumes, pageantry, and radio, and it’s all clearly inspired by the real life and career of Aimee Semple McPherson, a radio evangelist who played an enormous role in the civic life of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. To understand Sister Alice, it helps to understand the strange story of the preacher she’s based on, which involves a still-mysterious kidnapping and even wilder theatrics.

And to understand Sister Aimee, it helps to understand her backstory. She got her two last names from her first two marriages, neither of which ended well. Originally from Ontario, she moved to Chicago in 1908 with her first husband, Robert Semple, who converted her to Pentecostalism, took her with him on a missionary trip to China, and promptly died of dysentery. After returning to the United States, she married again, this time to Harold McPherson, an accountant. In 1915, she abandoned McPherson and set out on the road with her children to preach the gospel, fulfilling a promise she’d made to God while suffering from appendicitis. Her husband joined her and made a go of it for a while, but he ultimately went home to Rhode Island, divorcing her in 1922. In 1918, at the age of 28, McPherson arrived in Los Angeles in her trademark “Gospel Car,” a 1918 Oldsmobile with “JESUS IS COMING SOON—GET READY” painted on the side.

By the time she reached the West Coast, McPherson already had a reputation as a faith healer, and she continued her work in Los Angeles, preaching at a rented location while raising money—more than $250,000, ultimately—to build a permanent church in Echo Park. Angelus Temple, with its enormous central dome flanked by columns, opened to the public on New Year’s Day of 1923. On Perry Mason, the Radiant Assembly of God’s church uses the façade of the Second Church of Christ, Scientist in West Adams, which has its own columns, though not quite as many as Angelus has.

The main sanctuary of Angelus Temple, often credited as the first American megachurch, could accommodate 5,300 people, with loudspeakers installed outside to accommodate overflow, a detail shown on Perry Mason. The construction of the church spurred a wave of retail and residential development around it, making McPherson perhaps the first person to gentrify Echo Park. In 1924, she launched her own radio station, KFSG—the call sign stands for “foursquare gospel”—and erected two gigantic radio towers atop the temple.

McPherson’s radio ministry made her nationally famous, but it was her mysterious disappearance and reappearance in 1926 that made her nationally infamous. McPherson vanished after going swimming at Ocean Park, and many assumed she’d drowned. At one point, the police received a ransom note asking for $500,000, signed “the Avengers.” Five weeks later, she showed up in Mexico, claiming to have escaped from kidnappers named “Rosie” and “Steve.” The public was skeptical—not least because a former KFSG radio operator disappeared at about the same time and was seen in Carmel with an unidentified woman. When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford disappeared on “the Appalachian Trail” then returned only to admit he’d actually been having an extramarital affair in Argentina, Slate’s Timothy Noah compared the episode to the alleged kidnapping of Sister Aimee:

The trouble was, her story was deeply suspicious from the start. Her shoes were unscuffed, the Mexican shack where she claimed she’d been held could not be located, and although she’d disappeared from sight wearing a bathing suit, she reappeared fully clothed. Prosecutors became so frustrated with McPherson that they went after her for perjury. The investigation that followed uncovered considerable evidence that Sister Aimee had in fact run off with her lover, an employee and radio engineer named Kenneth Ormiston.

But McPherson stuck to her story, and to this day it’s unclear what really happened. By Perry Mason’s era, McPherson had more or less weathered the storm, and Angelus Temple was a well-known tourist destination.

That had everything to do with Sister Aimee’s illustrated sermons, which invite a more direct comparison with Sister Alice’s. Like Alice’s spectacular services, Aimee’s combined old-time religion with new-time Hollywood special effects. In Perry Mason’s second episode, Sister Alice delivers a sermon apparently based on 1 Corinthians 10:21 and “illustrates” it by having seven women onstage with her wearing robes labeled with the names of the seven deadly sins. At a key point in the sermon, another seven women dressed as angels, representing the seven heavenly virtues, take to the stage and give their halos to the seven deadly sins. (There’s also someone on stage wearing biblical robes and a long fake beard, swinging around a gigantic prop pocket watch, whose presence isn’t explained but is probably related to the New Year.) It’s a pretty wild service, but Sister Alice has nothing on Sister Aimee. In Marcus Bach’s 1946 tour of upstart religions, They Have Found a Faith, he described one of McPherson’s illustrated sermons:

That night Sister gave us “The Green Light Is On.” The opening remarks were the deafening roar of a motorcycle speeding down the ramp with the cutout open. The world’s greatest evangelist sat in the saddle dressed as a speed cop. She rode expertly. … She drove recklessly to the front of the auditorium, slammed on the brakes, blew a screech on a police whistle, raised a white-gloved hand to the congregation, and shouted: “Stop! You’re speeding to hell!”

For a sermon entitled “Eighteen Day Diet or the Skeleton Army,” McPherson covered the stage with bones, which then “became clothed with sinews and flesh” through special effects. Another service featured McPherson dressed as an admiral, the choir dressed as sailors, and appearances from Christopher Columbus (there to recite Joaquin Miller’s poem) and someone dressed like the Gorton’s Fisherman (there to play “Listen to the Mocking Bird” and “The Old Oaken Bucket” on a tin whistle). And then there’s the amazing Fox Movietone newsreel in which Sister Alice tells the story of Daniel with the help of a live lion. Footage of McPherson’s illustrated sermons at Angelus Temple is hard to come by, but silent footage of services there proves that they were at least as raucous as the ones shown on Perry Mason:

Perry Mason’s Sister Alice doesn’t correspond perfectly with Sister Aimee. For one thing, by 1931, McPherson’s reputation was bigger and more complicated than Sister Alice’s seems to be, mostly because of her disappearance. You can get a sense of that from this newsreel outtakes from 1929, in which McPherson observes, “Aimee Semple McPherson and the name Angelus Temple have sometimes … seemed synonymous with trouble and with tests” before telling an earlier version of what would eventually become Christopher Walken’s “Two Little Mice” speech from Catch Me if You Can:

Although McPherson died in 1944 of an apparently accidental overdose of sedatives—her body laid in state for three days while 45,000 mourners paid their respects—she’s attained a long afterlife in the nation’s cultural imagination. In Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel Elmer Gantry, she’s a radio evangelist named Sharon Falconer. In Barse Miller’s 1932 painting Apparition Over Los Angeles, she’s floating in the sky over Angelus Temple, accompanied by clouds shaped like moneybags. In Nathanael West’s 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, she’s a faith healer known as “Big Sister.” In 1976, Faye Dunaway played McPherson in a TV movie (Bette Davis played her mother!), and in our day, Kathie Lee Gifford wrote a musical about her. This year, she’s having a bit of a television revival: Both Perry Mason and the current season of Penny Dreadful feature McPherson figures. The Foursquare Church still has congregations across the country, and Angelus Temple still has weekly services in Echo Park, but Sister Aimee lives on where she always belonged: Hollywood.