Two-time Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello plays Aimee
Semple McPherson in the West Coast Premiere of “Saving Aimee”
at the 5th Avenue Theatre. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University historian Matthew Avery Sutton will open Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre 2011-12 Spotlight Night series at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10. He will introduce theater patrons to the tempestuous life of Aimee Semple McPherson, the 1920s politically savvy evangelist, media pioneer and Hollywood celebrity who founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
McPherson’s life is the focus of “Saving Aimee,” a musical by Kathie Lee Gifford that will run Sept. 30-Oct. 30.
“Matthew Sutton’s book is not only scholarly and well executed, but it is particularly timely for me regarding the information he uncovered about William Randolph Hearst and Aimee,” Gifford told the 5th Avenue Theatre. “My show ‘Saving Aimee’ would’ve had a very different ending without Matthew Sutton and his research.”
In a recent interview with Seattle’s KOMO News, Gifford described McPherson as “literally the most famous woman we’ve never heard of.” When writing the play, Gifford contacted Sutton for historical context about McPherson’s life.
Award-winning book
Tickets start at $28
“Saving Aimee” will run Sept. 30-Oct. 30 (press opening Oct. 20) at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave., Seattle).
Tickets prices start at $28. Tickets may be purchased at, by phone at 206-625-1900, or at the theater in downtown Seattle.
The book won the Harvard University Press Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize, awarded annually to the outstanding manuscript of a first-time author in any discipline. It also served as the basis for the documentary “Sister Aimee,” part of the Public Broadcasting Service’s “American Experience” series.
The theater’s popular Spotlight Night series provides the public with a free, behind-the-scenes look at upcoming events. Sutton will be the first of four acts, speaking for 20 minutes and signing copies of his book “Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America” (Harvard University Press, 2007).
A mirror of her times
Sutton became interested in McPherson through his family connections to the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Studying American religion in college, he found McPherson was a perfect vehicle through which to explore gender, mass media, popular culture and politics in the interwar years.
As a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic, he decided McPherson represented a good channel for understanding changes in American culture in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
“She speaks to issues of women’s new roles, especially right after they got the right to vote, and is emblematic of how they are breaking territory after suffrage,” Sutton said.
Suspected Hearst coverup

During his research, Sutton uncovered material showing that McPherson – who was involved in a highly publicized trial regarding her alleged kidnapping, an event that may have been a publicity stunt or cover-up of an affair – coerced media mogul Hearst to influence the district attorney involved in her trial. McPherson, who had established her own radio station, KFSG (now KTLK AM 1150), to broadcast daily sermons to her followers, threatened Hearst that she would embarrass him on air if he didn’t help her.
“He probably did in fact pull strings with the district attorney,” Sutton said of Hearst, “to cover up his famous indiscretion with Hollywood actress Marion Davies and the rumor that he killed someone in a jealous rage.”
Far-flung influence of WSU work
During the height of her ministry, McPherson used film, pioneered the integration of theatrics into Christian ministry and conflated American patriotism with conservative Christianity.
“That is something that is certainly very important today as we see the rise of the religious right,” Sutton said. He believes bringing attention to McPherson will help to show how important religion has been to American history, especially in the Pacific Northwest – a famously areligious or anti-religious region.
For that reason, he is excited that the musical is coming to Seattle.
“I want to show the ‘Cougar Nation’ that the work we’re doing here at WSU is having an impact both around the nation and in places like the 5th Avenue Theatre.”
About the author
Sutton earned his doctoral degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has been featured on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” among many other news shows. He has received research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Woodrow Wilson Center and Louisville Institute.
He has published articles in Church History, the Journal of Policy History and the Public Historian. He is working on a short textbook and documentary reader titled “Jerry Falwell and the Origins of the Religious Right” (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013).