Aimee Semple McPherson: An Evangelist in Vaudeville


Today is the birthday of Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944).

The famous female evangelist Sister Aimee, one of the country’s premiere fundamentalists, received large sums for appearing in vaudeville in the early 30s talking about life and religion (based on her success as a national star preaching on radio). According to Milton Berle’s autobiography, McPherson wasn’t strictly an angel.  He reports bedding her for two nights of torrid lovemaking in her Los Angeles hotel room. He does not report whether he was dressed in drag at the time. Sister Aimee bombed in vaudeville, by the way. After all, she was a preacher. A vaudeville audience was there for a laugh and a tear. She might not have bombed if she told the story about Berle!

There are movies about Sister Aimee to enjoy. Faye Dunaway played her in the TV movie The Disappearance of Aimee (1976) with Bette Davis and James Woods. There’s the low-budget Sister Aimee: The Aimee Semple McPherson Story (2006) starring Great Neck’s own Mimi Michaels (whose own grandparents were in vaudeville), Kiera Chaplin (Charlie’s granddaughter) as well as Carl Ballantine and Rance Howard. Amy Hargreaves played her in Sister Aimee (2019). And then there are the fictional versions, clearly based on her, like Barbara Stanwyck in the excellent early, pre-code Frank Capra film The Miracle Woman (1931), Jean Simmons in the 1960 screen adaptation of Elmer Gantry, and Geraldine Page in Day of the Locust (1975). Ethel Merman played a character based on her in the original 1934 Broadway production of the musical Anything Goes. 

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous



  1. Agnes Moorehead also did an Aimee McPherson turn, as a radio evangelist (clearly based on Sister Aimee) in the rather campy 1970s musical-cum-gore-schlocker “What’s the Matter With Helen?”. The Helen of the title is Shelley Winters, who along with Debbie Reynolds runs a 1930s dancing school for wanna-be Temples, and is slowly going bats. She runs to Sister Agnes for salvation, but Sister is only interested in the size of the donation to her church. Things go downhill from there. Highly recommended, especially for Debbie’s tap-dancing and tango turns.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.