Monday, July 23, 2007

The Passing of Tammy Faye, Patron Saint of Religious Kitsch

The death of Tammy Faye on Friday prompted me to pause and recall one of the most colorful personalities of American popular culture in the last 40 years. Most people only remember Tammy Faye for her connection to Jim Bakker, the PTL Network, and the scandal that destroyed their Heritage USA amusement park scheme. And even if one managed to miss her turn as a prima facie icon of 80s greed and religious cynicism, one could scarcely have avoided her role as mascara-challenged patron saint of vacuous kitsch in recent years.

Yet growing up in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area I more vividly remember Tammy and her simpering husband from their first television endeavor, "The Jim and Tammy Show," which aired on Pat Robertson's fledgling CBN network from 1968 until 1973. Broadcast on a weak UHF signal at the time, CBN featured little more than Robertson's signature "700 Club" program, bad reruns, cartoons, and "The Jim and Tammy Show." A children's program constructed around a Christian message, "The Jim and Tammy Show" resembled a televised Sunday School class and spotlighted Tammy's "talents" as a singer and puppeteer.

Nearly 40 years later I can still recall Tammy singing a song that began "One, two, three, the devil's after me," as she used her puppets Allie the Alligator and Susie Moppet (pictured, right). Filmed daily in front of a live audience, kids sat on small bleachers, arranged like an evangelical answer to Howdy Doody's "Peanut Gallery." I remember that the children would receive a gift of Marva-Maid milk at the end of each show. When I was in first grade (1971) one of my classmates attended a taping of the show. The next day he arrived at school displaying his little Marva-Maid carton to the collective "ooohhhs" and "aaahhhs" of our class. There was even a club one could join from which one received coloring pages, photos, and encoded Christian messages from Jim and Tammy.

A couple of years ago I saw a clip from one of these programs and was amazed that a show like that could have been so wildly popular. And it's hard to believe that at the height of its popularity, ca. 1970, Jim and Tammy were receiving up to 1,000 fan letters a week! It's no surprise that they left CBN in 1973 for "bigger and better" opportunities. Nevertheless, watching those clips one can see in Tammy the earnest, small-town Minnesota girl before the makeup, orgiastic excess, scandal, and downfall.

Having encountered that first incarnation of Tammy's onscreen persona, I'm just a little saddened by the news of her death, in part because one has to wonder how she would have fared away from the attention and spotlights, stationed in Minnesota for the duration. In that sense, one finds a resonant similarity between Tammy Faye and that other symbol of celebrity tragicomedy, fellow Minnesotan Judy Garland.

Still, Tammy Faye did embody much that is misguided and corrupt in the culture of Christian televangelism and will forever be linked to the scandalous PTL empire. To the masses who blindly pledged their meager dollars and "widow's mite" to the construction of Jim and Tammy's dream, the eulogizing that has accompanied Tammy's demise has probably served to reopen old wounds. To be fair, however, she seemed a bit more tolerant and forgiving than some of her peers. For example, I would never include her in the company of more malevolent figures like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, to whom she was linked at critical times in her public life. In the end, given our Dickensian fascination with the grotesque, I'm guessing that society's long-term memory of Tammy Faye will be shaped primarily by the final act in the drama of her sordid life. We'll likely forget the scandals and remember the mascara and the bravura.

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