Sunday, July 22, 2007
The Life and Times of Tammy Faye
By now I'm sure you all have heard - Tammy Faye Bakker Messner has passed on... The news saddens me and makes me think back on this remarkable woman. I won't get into the whole PTL Scandal - We all could debate that for days. No, at this time I would like to introduce you to the Tammy Faye that I knew.
I grew up familiar with religious TV - I wouldn't call me a fan - but when I would visit my grandmother in Chicago in the summers - it was always on. My Grandmother was a very pious woman and she was also well rounded when it came to her religion. She watched them all - didn't agree with them all, but watched them... And sticking out in the mix was the one that caught my eye - The PTL Club (A.K.A The Jim & Tammy Show) - it was amazing to see - they held nothing back... If they were having a fight - it was right there on TV, if Tammy was depressed - you could see a shopping bag or two peeking out from her hiding places on the set - oh yeah the set - think Johnny Carson with a touch of a Mexican hacienda. Oh, but that over-made-up, full of life character that cried when she was touched (yep - not just when she was sad, or even happy - but just when the emotions were strong - the tears would flow) - I was transfixed...
Later in life I served as the call screener for the very popular Chicago radio program "Sex Talk" & "The Phyllis Levy Show" - I was working the night one listener called in to let us know Tammy Faye had had a break down in an airplane flying to get help from a medical clinic on the west coast... I was fascinated - what was going on... As we all now know - that was the beginning of the PTL Scandal... I followed the whole event - bought every grocery store tabloid that had anything about any of the characters in it - you could say obsessed... I had a viewing party at my apartment the night they aired "Fall From Grace: The Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker story" - I lined the hall way to my apartment door with the clippings from those tabloids.
Eventually - while doing my annual Christmas specials on my radio show "CROSSTALK" - I came up with the bright idea to have Tammy Faye read the story of Baby Jesus - she was not popular at this point - actually she was even keeping a low public profile... She had recently divorced Jim and had just married Roe Messner. I made contact through a lawyer of theirs and Tammy agreed to record the piece for us - under once condition - I send her the script! (the Chicago Sun Times wrote of this incident, "Hint to Tammy, it's in the bible!") Tammy did the message (and did it wonderfully) and faxed me a note afterwards telling me it was the best version she had ever read (I like to think of it as "The Gospel According to Ernie"...) Around that time - I even ran into Tammy on the Michigan Avenue in Chicago - I was walking down the street, and coming toward me was this well dressed couple, I noticed a woman and then looked to the man - he looked familiar, and after a split second I realized it was Roe Messner (who's face was familiar to me from his and Tammy's wedding picture that hung over my desk - clipped from "The Globe Magazine") - so I quickly looked back at the woman he was with - starting at the feet an panning up - high heeled black leather boots, black skirt hanging a touch below a plush black fur coat, and as my gaze continued upward I encountered that face! And even though Tammy had told me on numerous occasions, "My make up really doesn't look that heavy in real life" it was unmistakably the heavily made up face of Tammy Faye - the eyes sparkled, the lips parted in an easy relaxed smile - I had to stop them and say hello - pleasant as could be!
Over the years she would appear via phone on my radio programs - one time, from the hospital the day after her first cancer surgery, "Tammy, we could reschedule at another time"
"Don't be silly, I promised you I would do this today - and anyway, where else am I going to go?"
She was always a joy to talk with - and always so upfront an honest in answering any inquiry...
"Did you watch the TV movie 'Fall From Grace'?"
"Oh you had to be curious"
"I said I didn't watch it - I didn't say I didn't tell all my friends to watch it and report back to me on how it was!" she said with her signature laughter
Years later in Houston, I was asked to fill in on a morning radio show when the host Dayna Steele was going to be on vacation. I asked Tammy to co-host that morning with me (again via phone) - she was with us the whole two hours - of course, every time she would be interviewed PTL would come up - and every time she would answer to help those just hearing the story for the first time understand it as she did. She never got angry about having to answer about it again - she understood.
One time the conversation held this nugget...
"Ernie, we should do a new TV show together"
"I love the idea - the Tammy Faye and Ernie Show"
"No honey, the Ernie & Tammy Faye Show"
"But Tammy - you are the famous one..."
"Nope, you are the man - your name goes first!"
I guess you could say she was old fashion!
When her most recent book ("I Will Survive") came out, we were going to have her on my show InnerVIEWS, but two days before the taping we got a call from her agent telling us she was now going to have to be in LA that day and we would have to reschedule. That important appointment in LA turned out to be the start of the series "The Surreal Life" so I didn't mind.
Well, that rescheduled interview never came to pass - Tammy never made it back in to Houston for the interview. But, like in the past - I followed all her moves, watched her on TV, and visited her web site.
The one question you might still be asking yourself is why? What was it about this tiny, larger then life character that captivate me for so long? All I can say to that is this...
She lived her life for real! And she lived what she preached! Now you might not have always agreed with her beliefs, but she did and she stood by them - and when she was wrong, she said it and owned up to it - and when she thought she hadn't, she defended what she believed. She never turned her back on God or her beloved Jesus Christ no matter how hard it all got - and when she asked for something, it wasn't for her, but for her children, or others she knew. She suffered the insults and jokes thrown at her, and publicly laughed right along with us. She embraced those who were outcasts of society and truly practiced the teaching of her savior.
Yes, she might have been at the heart of one of the biggest religious money scandals of our time - but when she walked forth from that event, she didn't just walk the walk and talk the talk - she honestly lived it and shared it with all of those she met.
None of us are perfect - but few of us have worked as hard as Tammy Faye to spread love and forgiveness to everyone she encountered and to anyone who could hear her voice!
Tammy Faye - you will be missed!