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Gifford: 'All roads, for me, lead to Aimee'

After 10 years of drafts and rewrites, Kathie Lee Gifford brings the story of "the greatest person no one has ever heard of' to the stage in "Saving Aimee."
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Kathie Lee Gifford has staked out a spot at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theater, a spot that allows her to watch both the stage as well as the audience. She studies their reactions and makes notes. She has been doing this for six weeks now, flying back and forth between Seattle and New York, and the TODAY co-host is exhausted. But she wants to get it right. For Gifford, this night is just one of many on her 10-year journey to bring "Saving Aimee" to the stage.

And Aimee is Aimee Semple McPherson, a woman who became a megastar evangelist long before the days of television, and built a church that now has 10 1/2 million followers in 140 countries. At the the same time, she was married three times, became embroiled in scandal and died at age 53 of an overdose. Or as Gifford's describes her, "the greatest person no one has ever heard of."

"I’ve literally written 10 musicals in 10 years," said Gifford, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show. (David Friedman and David Pomeranz wrote the music.) "It's more like 15 musicals. I mean, which musical do you write? Aimee the feminist? Aimee the preacher? Aimee the mother? Aimee the whore? It's sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll without the rock 'n' roll. I think she is one of the most amazing women I know of.

“I’m not preaching to the choir here. I wrote this for a secular audience. She was a true feminist. We read about Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton, but not Aimee Semple McPherson. Why? Probably because she was a woman of faith,” Gifford said.

Born on a farm in Canada in 1890, McPherson became a Pentecostal missionary after meeting the first of her three husbands. She started touring the U.S. doing tent revivals in 1913, delivering her sermons in a fiery, charismatic style that earned her a large following. In 1923, she opened the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, and started broadcasting her sermons on the radio, becoming only the second woman to be granted a broadcast license. Bringing a showbiz air to her radio sermons, she quickly earned a large audience. She was among the first preachers to have a racially integrated congregation, and championed the fight against alcohol and the teaching of evolution in schools.

And while the first act of "Saving Aimee" focuses on her conversion from atheist to born-again Christian, the second act examines McPherson's fall from grace.

"She meets Charlie Chaplin. She baptizes Marilyn Monroe as a child," Gifford said. "She got sucked into the world she was trying to save. The title of the play has two meanings."

As proof of her fame, McPherson is mentioned among the stars in the song, "Hooray for Hollywood." She is also among Time magazine's top 100 people of the 20th century.

In May 1926, McPherson disappeared while going for a morning swim at a local beach. A little more than a month later, she re-emerged, claiming she had been kidnapped, drugged and held for ransom in the Mexican desert. However, there was rampant speculation that she had, in fact, run off with a married radio engineer and engaged in an extramarital affair. The police investigated her claim and a grand jury was convened. McPherson and her mother were charged with obstruction of justice, and the ensuring trial became a media circus, even drawing famed newspaperman H. L. Mencken to her trial. But on Jan. 10, 1927, the Los Angeles District Attorney dropped the charges.

After the trial, McPherson continued with her ministry, but fell out of favor with the press and suffered a nervous breakdown in 1930.

"She battled with manic depression throughout her life," Gifford said. "I'm not a doctor, but she would probably be considered bipolar today."

After recovering, she created a soup kitchen in 1936 at the Angelus Temple, which was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and was rarely lacking for visitors during the Great Depression.

On Sept. 27, 1944, McPherson was found dead in an Oakland, Calif., hotel room by her son. A bottle of pills was found near her. The death was ruled an accidental overdose.

Gifford has been drawn by McPherson's story for years. In fact, she even dated one of McPherson's grandsons briefly before meeting her husband, former NFL star Frank Gifford, who attended one of McPherson's churches as a child.

"All roads, for me, lead to Aimee," Gifford said.

She made a first attempt to bring the story to the stage at Washington, D.C.'s Signature Theatre in 2007, but quickly lost the lead actress to Broadway, and the production closed. "It just wasn't the right time," Gifford said.

The current production, which features Broadway star Carolee Carmello as Aimee, has been in preview since mid-September and opens officially on Oct. 20. The reviews, and the availability of a New York theater, will determine whether "Saving Aimee" makes the move to Broadway. The show has been getting standing ovations each night during its preview run, according to Gifford.

Gifford said that while the bi-coastal treks have been taxing, her colleagues at TODAY have been very supportive and accommodating of her schedule and commute. "They've made this as easy as possible for me," she said.

"I'm more exhausted and busy than excited at this point, but I'll be excited on opening night."