It was in the early 80’s. For three years, Jimmie Swaggart had a week long Revival shindig at the Met Hockey Arena. Swaggart was one of the big names in TV preachers and he wasn’t tainted with public scandal…just yet.
The first Revival week came just before I was about to enter into new contract talks with the Met. Frank, the manager of the Met, had warned me that Swaggart had been hard to deal with in working out leasing arrangements. Frank suggested that I, being Business Agent for the Local, might carry more weight in keeping Swaggart in tow. Working a TV preacher certainly wasn’t something that interested me; but it was good money, and perhaps a way to grease the contract talks with the Met. Frank gave me the opinion that he would like to see me cool the Reverend Swaggart’s jets.
The rigging crew had been working a couple hours before the hands and myself were on call. When I got there most of the rigging motors were hung. When I went to talk to Cap’n Scowl, a well deserved nickname for our head rigger, I noticed a young man sitting in the hockey penalty box watching the work. Scowl told me the ‘punk’ was some relative of the act, and the ‘dehorn’ thought he knew how to rig.
‘I listened to his BS a little bit, then I took rigging paper and showed him where to sit and shut up,’ Scowl told me, as he continued to yell up at our high riggers. I said I hoped he made his suggestions to the kid in a nice way, and he grunted, ‘Of course.’ I knew better though. Scowl had a lot of good qualities, but tact was not one of them.
This rigging nepotism happened a lot over the years, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rodgers and others. The star wants to save money and give a young relative a show biz job, so he thinks appointing the lad head touring rigger is the answer. It’s a good way to have tons of light and sound equipment come raining down on the act.
My first encounter with Swaggart came a couple hours later. ‘Hey! You with the hat, come here, Union Big Man!’
Sure is a wonder how those good ole Southern boys can spew forth the word ‘union’ and make it sound like a ‘union’ is the 8th Deadly Sin.
Swaggart had just come from Frank’s office to complain and Frank told him to go see the union steward, the guy with the hat.
I just waved and went about my business.
‘You, Union Boss.’ he hollered, as he hustled over to me, ‘I want to talk to you.!’ He stuck his face close to mine and continued to speak loud enough for everyone to hear. His eyes looked to be on fire and his breath smelled like…
‘I demand that you fire that rigger of yours. And that he apologizes to my rigger for disrespecting him. And for calling him an asshole.’
Whew! What a way to start out a seven day run! Good thing Frank warned me about this guy.
‘Well, Reverend’, I said after a little pause, ‘Our rigger was the union steward at the time. Now in 1974, in the NLRA, the US Supreme Court sanctioned the use of rough language by union stewards in a work dispute. (I knew that clause by heart and used it many times over the years.)
‘Now,your young rigger admitted that he was pretty green and had never seen a situation where there was a large scoreboard in the center of the rig. Our head rigger worked around it numerous times. In fact he is the one that hung that scoreboard to begin with.
‘Our head rigger is OSHA certified and has rigged here and in mant major venues in the US. He would have been more than willing to show your young lad the way it had to be done, but the lad was intent on being the boss. He had to get off the floor and shut up. Your relative is unqualified and could cause a serious accident, and costly a costly lawsuit.
‘Of course, you certainly can write letters of complaint to our employer, the Met Management. If they agree that Cap’n Scowl should be fired, I would have to do so. And then follow up with a petition to the EEOC and a lawsuit against you.’
Jimmie Swaggart squinted at me and his jaw was so tight I thought he was going to bust his teeth. Each time I mentioned a government agency I could see him getting madder. Good ole boys hated government agencies as much as they hate liberal-Yankee anti-segregation laws.
He spun around and marched off. One of the hands started whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy.
If I had known then what Swaggart was capable of, as I know now, I would have done one thing different. I never would have taken the job.
Next day, as soon as I walked in… another mad rant! He was waiting by the door for me. Hw was livid. He said one of the stagehands had laughing during the previous day’s service. Swaggart found this out when he previewed the tape back in his hotel room, prior to give the okay for showing it on TV.
Swaggart brought me into a dressing room to show me. Craig, our hand paging Swaggart’s mic cable, was sitting in the VIP’s section, on stage, stage right. In full view of the audience and the camera. He was smiling, trying not to laugh, and actually did laugh out loud a couple of time. Since he was behind Swaggart’s back, Swaggart was one of the few that wasn’t aware of he was being made fun of.
He certainly became aware when he watched the tape of the service.
‘You can actually see him laughing out loud at the most crucial moment of the service. The laying of my healing hands on the cripple. And when the man threw down his crutches and walked, you can see your man laughing like a crazy clown.’Swaggart, said in his loud voice with his bad breath once again in my face.
‘ I want an apology! I want that man fired! And don’t give any of your liberal alphabet of government agencies. I want him fired!
And then Swaggart lowered his voice to almost a whisper and said.’You better punish him…or I will.’
I got chills when Swaggart said that and I felt it was as much a promise as a threat.
I also was at a loss for words. I was ashamed. Craig was a good hand, good worker, always cheerful. But what he did was unprofessional. Stagehands work the show, not become the show. Goofing around backstage out of sight with the masking preventing the audience from hearing the offstage fun is one thing. Doing something like this in full view is another.
‘I apologize, Reverend,’ I finally said. ‘It was highly unprofessional. I will replace him with a competent hand’, I said.
‘But as far as him apologizing directly to you… and firing him for laughing, that could open up a big can of worms. I don’t think our employer wants a 1st Amendment debate whether laughing counts as a right of free speech. And as Union BA, I am honor bound to defends a members rights, even though he acted unprofessional.
’ I know you are in the process of ironing out an agreement with the Met for next year.’ I didn’t tell him that we were also in contract negotiations with the Met. Suffice to say let me handle my man. Accept my apology, and let’s leave it at that.’
‘Okay,’ he said, after a thinking on it. ‘Maybe the tape can still be used if that jackass is cropped out. But that’s two strikes on your union, Mr. Boss Man,’he said in that low threatening tone as he motioned me to leave the room.
At that time, I had no idea of how far he would go to carry out a threat/promise. I knew he was a slick snake-oil salesman, but I never realized until years later, he was also a reincarnation of The Snake itself.
I went and talked to Craig. He had only been working as a stagehand for a couple years and I just gave him a talking to, and a warning never to do anything like this again. I assigned him the t spotlight in the farthest attic cove where nobody could hear his laughing and told him not to jiggle the spot if he had to laugh. Frankly, I had found the whole service very funny myself.
Next, I assigned a different hand to be the cable pager. One that never found anything funny, and I hoped would not become bored and fall asleep at the job.
That bit where Swaggart lays his hands on a halt, sick, or lame person from the audience was the hit of the show…every show. In that first one, in spite of Craig laughing, when man threw down his sticks and limped offstage, the audience erupted, drowning out Craig’s uncontrolled yukking. And the KFC buckets were passed among the followers a second time so they could show their approval,,, with more money donations.
The first time the buckets were passed was during the opening hymn. The third time buckets they were passed was during Jimmie’s singing of the final hymn.
To paraphrase an old WWII song ”Praise the Lord and pass those chicken buckets.”
I don’t know which preacher came up with the idea of using KFC buckets instead of collection plates, but he sure belongs in the Preacher’s Hall Of Fame.
Those cardboard buckets were perfect, big to hold a lot of money, deep enough so no one could reach in to make change, and were always in full sight as they were passed. After every collection they were nested in two stacks and carried off by two ushers, who then brought back two stacks of empties for the next money drop. Stacked so only one bucket was in danger of being lightened by the carrier. And two carriers of the bucket, each watching the other so there wasn’t any lightening the load.
The collection ushers were part of a cadre of about a dozen of Swaggart’s men. Their other duties revolved around selling Swaggart goodies like albums, books, even special Bibles autographed by Jimmie himself. The swag could be bought at tables placed by all the doors in or out of the arena. For each show one man was rotated out of the normal duty roster and became the stooge for the day.
He was the man who gets miraculously healed by Jimmie’s hands and prayers. While the throwing down the crutches and walking was the most popular, other bits, like a man stooped over being restored to a proper posture, or having a deaf man hear, a mute man to speak, were worked to break the monotony for the believers, who came to one or more shows.
Each of the shows over the three Revival weeks stuck to the healing hands bit, even if the stooges changed from year to year. There was never any sitting on their hands by the followers when the Reverend Jimmie did his healing hands schtick. I did notice though at times there was slight jiggle of Craig’s follow spot.
Those first two days were both Swaggart and I were marking our territories was the only times the two of us knocked heads for the rest of all three runs. We nodded to each other when we passed but didn’t talk. Anything that Swaggart wanted concerning the union hands were few and far between minimal requests that came to me via Frank the Met director. Cap’ Scowl put the show rigger in the penalty box without any complaints about his action or his rough language. Cable paging went complaint free.
There was one rant from Swaggart in the second Revival Week; but not directed at us. One of the hands pointed out to Jimmie that not too far away was a dinner theater that was featuring his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. Swaggart lost it and went into a fire and brimstone tirade against his cousin, calling him a spawn of Satan and singer of music of the devil.
(He mellowed in his later years as to his feelings toward his cousin. There are many videos of the both of them singing and playing old familiar hymns. No video showing them both rocking outto Great Balls Of Fire, though. Although with a little revision that rocker could have been Swaggartized to Great Balls of Fire and Brimstone. Or maybe another of Jerry Lee’s ‘Music of Satan, could be changed to A Whole Lot of Praying Going On.)
And, of course, during the three Revivals, Swaggart never stooped to give a mundane thank you such as ‘goodbye’ or’ good work’. A ‘thank you’ was as foreign to that Narcissist as was the Sign of the Cross.
But heck… the work wasn’t hard, the hours were fine, and listening to Swaggart sing hymns was a treat.
And the money was good. After we signed the new contract with the Met, the money was even better. Frank saw to it an event that would also be televised at a later date was worth a real good raise.
Those three Revival weeks was the extent of my contact with Reverend Jimmie Swaggart. Thank goodness. It didn’t change my belief in TV evangelists. It just verified them..
For more verifications, stayed tuned for TV Preachers Live (2) starring
Jim and Tammy Faye