Pioneer L. A. Christian Station Stops Broadcasting After 79 Years
by Jim Hilliker
THE KIDNAPPING STORY HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
On May 18, 1926, Aimee went for a swim at Ocean Park, between Santa Monica and Venice, during a day of relaxing at the beach and writing some sermons. Her secretary stayed behind on the sand, while Aimee was swimming. She was not seen again all day. At first, it was feared that McPherson had drowned in the surf, but a search for her body turned up nothing. Her mother, son, daughter and Angelus Temple workers were heartbroken, believing Aimee was dead. Then, on June 23rd, Aimee reappeared in Douglas, Arizona, across from the Mexican border, with a story that she had been kidnapped from the beach and held captive, but managed to escape. This good news came a few days after her mother got a ransom note that said Aimee would be sold into “White Slavery”, if the $500,000 ransom wasn’t paid. The police and newspaper reporters however quickly noted that Aimee didn’t appear sunburn, if she had walked across the desert for many miles to freedom, and her shoes, clothes and overall physical condition looked too good to make her story believable. They also could find no sign of a shack where McPherson claimed she had been held captive.
With the earlier gossip about Kenneth Ormiston and Aimee having a secret romance, there were newspaper and police reports that a woman who looked like Aimee Semple McPherson had been seen with the former KFSG engineer, spending time inside a cottage in Carmel, CA and other towns up and down the coast during McPherson’s disappearance. In the 1959 book by Lately Thomas “The Vanishing Evangelist”, he wrote that McPherson and Ormiston had been seen checking into the same hotels at various times in California, prior to the alleged kidnapping. Thomas also stated that a grocery receipt signed by McPherson was found in the Carmel cottage where it appears Aimee had met Ormiston during the time she was allegedly kidnapped. Several eyewitnesses testified that they saw the two together during that time.
Suspicion led to a Grand Jury investigation in L.A., with charges of perjury and manufacturing evidence. The newspapers dug up witnesses and handed them over to the district attorney. On August 3rd, the Grand Jury reconvened to look at possible charges against Aimee, her mother, Kenneth Ormiston and a woman named Lorraine Wiseman.
During the several weeks of Grand Jury testimony, Aimee was tried in the press each day. But she took her case to her followers at Angelus Temple and to those listening to KFSG radio each night. She repeatedly told the radio listeners about the kidnapping incident, often saying, “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.” After each day’s court session, she also told the KFSG and Temple audience how ridiculous the stories were that came from the witnesses dug up by the prosecution. Aimee and Ormiston denied that they were together in Carmel, while Aimee was missing. Ormiston testified he was with another woman, not Mrs. McPherson. The newspapers ate it up and Aimee was front-page news from Los Angeles to New York, in all 48 states. The complete transcript of the hearing covered more than 3,500 pages! Finally, on November 3, 1926, Judge Samuel R. Blake bound over Aimee and her mother Minnie for trial on the charge of “criminal conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals and to prevent and obstruct justice,” which threatened “the peace and dignity of the People of the State of California.” Aimee and her mother faced three counts of conspiracy that could carry a prison term of up to 42 years if convicted.
Suddenly, after the months of investigation and the media circus during the court hearings, the case was dropped before it even came to trial! One of the witnesses changed her story again, saying that Aimee did not hire her to perpetrate a hoax on the public. On January 10, 1927, L.A. County District Attorney Asa Keys reluctantly asked the court to drop the charges against Aimee and her mother. The case was formally dismissed on July 8th of that year.
With the case closed, the controversy was not over. Many people at the time believed Aimee’s story and many others believed the story that she was in hiding with a lover, whether or not it was Ormiston. Other stories came out, saying she disappeared to have an abortion or was in hiding to have plastic surgery. Another group of people thought there was a conspiracy to discredit Aimee and that the newspapers were a small part of a larger game to remove her from the pulpit of Angelus Temple. A bit of thin evidence seems to point in that direction. When men and women accepted Jesus Christ as their savior at Angelus Temple, it was common for McPherson to reveal their testimonies to the public. One of her favorite methods of doing this was to broadcast the testimonies of new Christian converts over her radio station, KFSG. During those first three years of KFSG broadcasts, many people who were formerly on the lower rungs of society, including drug dealers, gamblers, bootleggers, etc., testified by radio over Aimee’s station. Many of them would frequently “name the names” of former associates. Some people have suggested a plot conceived by “The Mob.” Aimee’s family always believed that “The Mob” kidnapped her. To this day, what really happened to Sister Aimee from May 18 to June 23 of 1926 remains a mystery and the truth may never be known. (This chapter of her life was made into a 1976 TV movie, “The Disappearance of Aimee”, starring Faye Dunaway as Aimee Semple McPherson and Bette Davis as her domineering mother. Also, in the 1960 Academy Award winning movie “Elmer Gantry” with Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones, taken from the Sinclair Lewis novel, the character of evangelist Sharon Falconer was created by Lewis, based on McPherson).
The press later reported that Kenneth G. Ormiston acted like a gentleman and never spoke of the alleged incident with Aimee Semple McPherson ever again. He continued his work as the writer of radio columns for newspapers and magazines. He also worked steadily as a chief engineer/technician for several more Los Angeles radio stations, including KEJK-Beverly Hills and KMTR-Hollywood in 1929, and later for KNX-Hollywood, until his untimely death in January 1937, during surgery. Ormiston had been in charge of the projects that boosted KNX’s power to 50,000 watts and got their first vertical antenna tower erected in Sherman Oaks during the early 1930s.
Aimee’s popularity had soared nationwide, despite the controversy. Word had spread about her cheery, friendly style of preaching and the excitement during her church services, which sometimes included faith healings. The way she got the congregation at each service to give money when the collection plate was passed around was also famous. Frequently, she would say she didn’t like the noise made by the jingle of coins. To emphasize the point, she would tell the people, “No coins please. Only folding money!” Or, if Sister Aimee’s mother needed a new coat, she’d make it known to those in attendance by saying, “Mother needs a new coat! Who will help donate money today, so that mother can have a new winter coat?”
Angelus Temple was packed to capacity three times a day, every day, for several years, causing traffic jams in the area. Her church in Echo Park had become a “must see” for tourists visiting Los Angeles. Picture postcards of Angelus Temple were printed up showing the KFSG antenna atop the temple roof. Aimee entered floats in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses parade two years in a row. On January 1, 1925, “The Radio Float” depicting Angelus Temple and the KFSG antenna towers, won first prize and the Grand Sweepstakes Trophy in the parade. Her church continued to gain new members. As an example of her popularity throughout the 1920s, on warm Sunday mornings and many warm evenings, one could walk down a Los Angeles residential street and never miss a word of Aimee’s sermons on the radio. That’s because everyone had their windows open in those pre-air conditioning days, and many who had radios were often tuned to KFSG to listen to Aimee, in order to see what she would say next. By the late 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson was as famous as Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh.
KFSG THRIVES DESPITE NEW CHALLENGES
During 1927, KFSG celebrated its 3rd anniversary and Angelus Temple its 4th. It was the height of the Roaring ’20s and people close to Aimee Semple McPherson noticed she was changing and they didn’t like it. In one of the books on McPherson’s life, it says 1927 was the year Sister Aimee rejected social taboos preached against by Bible-believing churches of that time. She bobbed her hair and started drinking, dancing and wearing short skirts. There were also photos of her that showed she had changed her hair color from brunette to platinum blonde. The director of her choir and band, Gladwyn Nichols, who also had acted as KFSG’s radio announcer up to this point, along with the entire 300-member choir, resigned from Angelus Temple because of her lifestyle.
But KFSG survived the changes and went on as always, broadcasting various services and programs from Angelus Temple. In 1928, the station’s announcer was C.N. Tucker and the Technician in charge (same as a chief engineer) was P.S. Lucas. In 1929, KFSG listed Thomas Eade as the announcer heard on each broadcast and M.E. Kennedy was now the station’s technician/engineer. He was listed as KFSG’s chief engineer until at least 1939. The KFSG station manager in 1928 and ’29 was Roderick H. Morrison.
Besides the changes in station personnel, Sister Aimee had to deal with the changes the new Federal Radio Commission made regarding KFSG’s frequency assignment. KFSG had been broadcasting on 1090 on the AM dial since April of 1925. In February of 1928, the FRC forced KFSG into a time-share arrangement on 1190 kilocycles with station KEJK of Beverly Hills. This meant KFSG could not go on the air whenever Aimee decided, although the station did expand to a 7-day-a-week schedule. But sharing a frequency with another station resulted in program schedule changes for KFSG listeners. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, KFSG went off the air by 7 p.m. and KEJK got the evening hours. KFSG was able to broadcast services Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday nights, even staying on the air past midnight Saturday. KFSG also had the bulk of the morning and afternoon programs on 1190.
Then, on November 11, 1928, the FRC made the first major national reallocation of the AM Broadcast Band, assigning stations to operate on “clear, regional or local channels.” The FRC decided to move KFSG from 1190 to 1120 kilocycles, sharing time with KMIC-Inglewood. (That station became KRKD in 1932; today’s KXTA-1150. KFSG continued to share time on 1120 and later 1150 until the ICFG purchased KRKD and merged the two stations together in 1961.) The October 12, 1929 issue of Radio Doings shows that under this share-time agreement, KFSG had even fewer hours than before. It still had most of the hours on 1120 on Sunday between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Otherwise, KFSG was heard during the nighttime hours only on Thursdays and Saturdays. It was also evident that the founder and president of KFSG had cut back on her involvement in KFSG broadcasts. Sister Aimee was still on the air for all the Sunday services, but wasn’t heard on the station as much during the weekdays anymore, according to the radio program schedules.
Jim Hilliker is a radio historian and former broadcaster. He has written a number of articles on the history of broadcasting in Los Angeles. He currently lives in Monterey, California.
This article is © 2003 – Jim Hilliker
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