Jim Bakker flattered by positive response in Branson

Jim Bakker has good reason to be happy as his six-piece band appropriately plays Kool and the Gang's "Celebration"

The Charlotte Observer/April 14, 2003

Branson, Mo. -- Bakker, the disgraced televangelist who spent five years in prison for fraud related to bilking followers of his once-thriving PTL operation in South Carolina, is in the early stages of reviving that career in this southwest Missouri entertainment mecca, home to more than 40 theaters.

"The Jim Bakker Show," taped at the Studio City Cafe in Branson, is the 63-year-old Bakker's latest venture into Christian television.

Bakker's hour-long show debuted Jan. 2, exactly 16 years after the last show from his Heritage Village resort in Fort Mill, S.C. It now airs on more than 32 stations in 20 states, as well as more than 200 cable stations. And it is broadcast via satellite in 93 countries.

The program includes a talk show with celebrity guests, entertainment from the singing waiters and waitresses - and Bakker's emotional preaching.

Bakker, who taped a segment from his show in a free entertainment tent for last week's five-day Branson Fest celebration at the Welk Resort Theater, is still wary of backlash.

"I was so scared before I went out to those people because they weren't there to see me," Bakker said. "I thought, 'I hope nobody boos us.' But they were very warm."

Bakker said he was nervous to the point of sickness for two months before he went back on the air.

"I think it was my body saying, 'No! No! Don't put your head above the crowd. You'll get tomatoes thrown at you again,'" Bakker said. "But I spent 40 years of my life in front of the camera, and those first weeks back, I finally felt like I've come back home."

Bakker said he's scared by his success and amazed at people's forgiveness.

Bakker resigned from Praise The Lord ministries in 1987 after admitting he had an affair with a ministry secretary. In 1989, Bakker was convicted in Charlotte, N.C., of a wire and mail-fraud scheme over the sale of more than 150,000 lifetime partnerships to the ministry's Heritage USA theme park in Fort Mill.

Bakker's 45-year sentence was reduced to 18 years and he served five before his parole in 1995. While in prison, his former wife, Tammy Faye - now remarried as Tammy Faye Messner - divorced him.

Bill and Charlene Armstrong, of El Paso, Texas, were among the thousands who paid for vacation time at Heritage Village. The Armstrongs said they were surprised to see Bakker at Branson Fest.

The Armstrongs said they lost money in the Heritage Village ordeal.

"For us, it was quite a bit of money," Charlene Armstrong said.

But the Armstrongs said that they had forgiven Bakker.

Apparently, that's the common stance.

Bob D'Andrea, president of the Christian Television Network, said the network "didn't really get any flak at all" for airing the show on its nine stations in Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and California and its satellite.

"We've had a lot of favorable comments that people are glad to see Jim back," D'Andrea said.

Developer Jerry Crawford is greatly responsible for Bakker's new position. Crawford owns the Studio City Cafe and the home where Bakker lives with his wife - and co-host - Lori Graham Bakker, and the seven children of whom they have custody.

Crawford said that donations haven't been pouring in, but he has faith that the situation will improve.

"Our fall is looking real good," Crawford said. "We're booking a lot of business. We know that, down the road, there will be enough money coming in off tapes and books and products to support what we're doing."

It's a form of pay back for Crawford, who credits Bakker with helping save his marriage 17 years ago. Crawford and his wife, Dee, just celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary.

"We went over (to Heritage Village), and I told Jim my wife was about to go to divorce court, and he bought us airline tickets to come home," Crawford said. "I say first I had to get in line with Jesus, and then everything else came into place."

Walter Warren and Chris Busch of B/M/C Advertising Inc. in Tulsa, Okla., are responsible for finding new stations to carry Bakker's show.

Busch said there are about 285 full-power stations and hundreds of low-power station in the United States that carry Christian programming. The largest satellite network is Trinity Broadcasting Network.

However, Busch said Bakker's show can't afford time on a major network yet, but he has received "a warm welcome" from most station programmers.

"I think there are some people out there who do realize that, in spite of Jim's troubles, he really contributed a lot to the whole Christian TV movement," Busch said. "One thing about Jim is that, whatever he does, he wants to do it well, and that's one thing we like in a client."

Ross Summers, director of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said Bakker and his production company bring another element to an areas that "has always had a good Christian base."

"I think he has had a good deal of forgiveness for past actions and is obviously doing the work he was called to do," Summers said. "He's good for Branson and he's good for his ministry."

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