Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Heritage USA

DQ reader JC Fedorczyk sent me a link to another run-down amusement park, and this one is just as interesting as Disgraceland. Maybe more, even.

I'm speaking, of course, of Heritage USA, the amusement park Ozymandias of televangelist Jim Bakker and his makeup-spackled wife, Tammy Faye. Long since abandoned, there's a book of photos here. Spooky. And as a side note, some of the park is now being restored, but the photos are still surreal.

And, as unlikely as it sounds, I have a Jim Bakker story.

As some very brief background, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were big business in the 1980's. Their show, The PTL Club, was viewed by over ten million people. "PTL" stands for "Praise the Lord," by the way. It was pretty run-of-the-mill televangelist fraud, complete with money skimming, alternate bank accounts, etc., except the amounts of money involved were HUGE. Stunning, really. Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry:
By the early 1980s the Bakkers had built Heritage USA (in Fort Mill, south of Charlotte), then the third most successful theme park in the US, and a satellite system to distribute their network twenty-four hours a day across the country. Annual contributions requested from viewers were estimated to exceed one million dollars a week, with proceeds to go to expanding the theme park and mission of PTL.

A million dollars a week! And that allowed them to do things like this (again, from the Wikipedia entry):
In their success, the Bakkers took conspicuous consumption to an unusual level for a non-profit. PTL once spent $100,000 for a private jet to fly the Bakkers' clothing across the country. It also once spent $100 for cinnamon rolls because the Bakkers wanted the smell of them in their hotel room.

Bakker was convicted of fraud and conspiracy and sent to prison in 1989.

So here's my Jim Bakker story.

It was around 1986. I was idly running through the cable channels one night and accidentally stumbled across the PTL Club. Any other time, I would have kept going, but that night I had the incredible luck to see one of the most epic rants in the history of television. Jim Bakker, in ten of the funniest minutes of my life, went thermonuclear.

About bees.

Apparently, people visiting Heritage USA were complaining about getting stung by bees (among other things), and this had driven Bakker into some Vincent Price state of madness. He was ranting and yelling at the people in the studio audience, and I was crying from laughing so hard. "THE BEES GATHER AROUND THE TRASH CANS BECAUSE YOU'RE NOT EMPTYING YOUR COKE CANS BEFORE YOU THROW THEM AWAY. IF YOU EMPTY THE CANS, THE BEES WON'T STING YOU! EMPTY THE CANS! EMPTY THE CANS!"

It was the classic Caine Mutiny kind of madness, and Bakker was so furious that he was almost incoherent. Screaming, berating, sweating--it was some of the greatest community theater comedy I've ever seen, and nearly twenty years later I still treasure the memory.

I can only hope that it eventually winds up on YouTube or something, because it's too incredible not to share. Believe me, I'll keep looking.

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