Kathie Lee Gifford comes to Seattle with a tabloid story to tell

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Kathie Lee Gifford photograph provided by The 5th Avenue Theatre

By Travis Mayfield

She gave John Wayne one of his first acting jobs.

She baptized Marilyn Monroe.

She is credited with selling more war bonds than anyone in Hollywood and feeding more than a million people during the Great Depression.

She was a faith healer, a mega-church evangelist and the original tabloid queen.

“She’s literally the most famous woman we’ve never heard of,” said Kathie Lee Gifford in a recent interview in Seattle. “I’m trying to change that.”

That is why Gifford (the Kathie Lee Gifford, Today Show host and former Live with Regis and Kathie Lee co-host) is telling the story of Aimee Semple McPherson.

And she’s telling that story in song

“I’ve always said Billy Graham would make the worst musical because there is no scandal in his life,” said Gifford.  “With Amiee there was nothing but scandal.”

This fall Gifford is bicoastal, flying between Seattle and New York City as she continues to host the successful fourth hour of the Today Show and ‘birth’ her musical Saving Aimee at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

The musical tells the story of McPherson’s life:

Tangled with scandalous love affairs and a tabloid-frenzied trial, this powerful new musical tells the real-life story of Aimee Semple McPherson — the charismatic leader of a theatrical super church in 1920s L.A. who was equally passionate about saving souls and making headlines.

“She just broke all the rules and yet she accomplished an amazing legacy that lives on today,” said Gifford over a break from rehearsing the show.

In a nutshell Gifford, who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical, said McPherson was a faith healer and an evangelist during the 1920s and 30’s in Los Angeles.  She was married three times and divorced twice.  

“She was the defendant in the trial of the century.  She was accused of running off with her sound engineer, her married lover, to a love nest in Carmel,” said Gifford.   “But she said, no no, I’m a Godly woman and I was kidnapped and held for ransom for five weeks in Mexico.”

The district attorney didn’t believe McPherson’s story and brought charges against her because two people died in the search for her.

“And our show is told through the lens of the court,” said Gifford.  “Which is a metaphor for life.  We’re all on trial from the moment we’re born.”

It’s easy to see why Gifford might be drawn to McPherson’s life and story.  But she says she doesn’t want to preach at people.  Instead she sees this play as a way to share the story of this incredible woman, who just happened to be scandalous and filled with faith as well.

“I have a journey with God in my life that centers me and grounds me and has since I was 12 years old.”

Gifford has never been shy about her own faith, crediting it as the single best way she thrives even with all the pressures and stresses in her life.

Still she cringes when some have called her ‘religious.’

“I don’t like religion,” she said.  “But I love relationship and I have a relationship with God that is profoundly deep and real and nothing can shake it.”

Grabbing my hand as she spoke, Gifford said she isn’t looking for the hand of God during tough times like many people who have said they found God ‘in the foxhole.’

“I’m already holding that hand and I just grip it tighter,” said Gifford as tears welled up in her eyes. “I already have it and I just cling closer to it.”

That faith relationship is reflected in her everyday life, whether it is with guests on her television show, actors she’s working with on stage or her own children.

“It’s hard to love your neighbor as you love yourself,” Gifford said.  “It makes you get up out of your own stinking selfish self and concentrate on the person you are talking into instead of how do I look.”

Yet she said it is the best way she knows of reducing stress in her life.

“I find that the people who are the most stressed out are really the people who are really the most self absorbed.  And when you’re not self absorbed you are going to have less stress in your life.”

Humor and living by a dad’s good advice

It isn’t just her relationship with God though that gets her through.  If someone starts to laugh at Kathie Lee Gifford, that someone is very often Gifford herself.

“If I can make fun of myself before someone else can point a finger, it endears you to people,” said Gifford.

“Crap happens,” she giggled.  “But you move on from it and you rejoice in the good stuff and the blessings we have.”

And Gifford readily admits a lot of crap has happened in her life and in her career.  She’s faced everything from a tabloid sting exposing her husband’s infidelity, to the very public accusations that her clothing brand was being manufactured in ‘sweatshop’ conditions.  She’s raised two children and balanced a career on the stage and in front of the cameras.  Through it all however, she’s just kept laughing and forgiving.

“The most miserable people I know are the people that all day long look at what’s negative in their life and let negativity into their life,” she beamed.

Despite her critics and her occasional tabloid fame, Gifford continues to reinvent herself and remain authentic both to her loved ones and to the public.  She forgave her husband after the affair and they remain happily married to this day.  She fought the sweatshop allegations and lobbied both industry and lawmakers for changes.  She founded and funded two shelters in New York City to care for young children infected with HIV or born addicted to drugs.

Gifford also embraces the advice her own father passed along to her over the years.

On work, “My dad said, ‘honey find something you love to do and then get paid for it.’”

On life, “It’s not a sin to make a mistake honey, it’s a sin not to try”

On everything else, “Go out there and attempt to be the best they ever had.”

God’s hand, dad’s wisdom and the right partners

As Gifford confidently looks forward to the next chapter in life she is filled with hope.  She believes a successful run for Saving Aimee in Seattle will catapult it to Broadway.  Under the direction of David Armstrong and a cast packed with Tony award winners, Gifford knows after 12 years of trying a good staging at the 5th Avenue Theatre could be exactly what her project needs.

“The 5th Ave has a great great track record of bringing theatre to New York,” said Gifford.  “And that’s ultimately our hope.  But we know how difficult the journey is going to be.”

Saving Aimee is scheduled to open in previews in Seattle at the end of September with an official opening night in mid-October.

“As the mother of the project, you want to birth your baby in a good hospital,” said Gifford who acknowledges both the caliber of the theatre itself and the intelligence of the audience here in Seattle.

No matter where this show goes, Gifford is actively planning future theatre projects.

She is already working on adapting the beloved Christmas movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to a live musical.  And if she still needs another challenge she’d very much like to bring the life of British abolitionist William Wilberforce to the stage.

In between all of that she said she’ll keep laughing and ‘drinking a lot of wine.’

“Taking ourselves too seriously is the worst mistake we can make.”

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Editor’s note:  Saving Aimee opens at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in September 30th and is scheduled to run until October 30th.  Ticket information is available online.

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