Like any period drama, it looks like HBO’s Perry Mason is going to need its own Wiki for all the Great Depression-era references stuffed into its story and dialogue. (Please, take me to the time where I can joke about two-dollar haircuts, call something a bucket of eels as an insult, and scream, “Take it down a peg, boy-o!”at coworkers.)
Episode Two of Perry Mason, which debuted Sunday night on HBO, introduced another hour’s worth of references to the Fedora Times—along with a major new character, Tatiana Malsany’s Sister Alice, who is inspired by a real life figure of the era. We haven’t learned too much about how Sister Alice will fit into the plot quite yet, but we do know that she’s the leader of the Radiant Assembly of God, where she’s a celebrity preacher of sorts. She delivers powerful, nearly theatrical sermons three times a day to a large congregation, and Episode Two sees her demanding justice for the death of the Dodsons’ child. According to those who worked on Perry Mason, Sister Alice has a real-life counterpart from Perry Mason’s era: Aimee Semple McPherson.
McPherson, who was born in 1890, was a Protestant Evangelist who was nationally famous around the same post-World War I time period shown in Perry Mason. She first gained notoriety while traveling across the United States in a car with “Jesus is Coming Soon—Get Ready.” During her trip, McPherson became known for the same kind of electric, passionate, prop-using sermons we see Sister Alice deliver in Perry Mason. Although, McPherson may have had one up on Sister Alice. For one sermon, she once dressed as a speed cop, rode a motorcycle down a ramp, and screamed, “Stop! You’re speeding to hell!” It was a rock and roll approach that William Deverell, a USC professor who worked as a historical consultant on Perry Mason, says had a specific message.
“People like Sister Aimee are preaching a line of gospel that, ‘We can steady your imbalance,'” Deverell told the Los Angeles Times. “‘The world is unsteady; here's the rock.'”
After McPherson made Los Angeles her home base, she founded a modern megachurch—the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which is still active today. Her popularity—which skyrocketed after her sermons started broadcasting on the radio—reached the point where as many as 30,000 people would come to see her speak in person. When Perry Mason's creators were looking for inspiration from the time period that hadn't been done in similar noirs, Deverell said, they gravitated to the backdrop of McPherson's rousing masses.
“It was like, ‘What have noirs done before?' And I don't think we had seen the sort of revival spirit you read so much about,” he said. “It felt like that was a little untapped. And the theatrics that were involved in the productions of the temple, we thought was an interesting substitute for Hollywood.”
But McPherson didn’t hit national fame until she made the news for something completely unrelated to the church. Just like Perry Mason’s Sister Alice finds herself reckoning with a kidnapping, so did McPherson—only she may have been the kidnapee. The preacher disappeared in 1926, prompting mass reports of her death. She reappeared after a month in Agua Prieta, knocking on a family’s home and talking about having been held captive by three strangers. Though biographer Matthew Sutton suspects that McPherson ran away with her sound engineer, Kenneth Ormiston, who disappeared at the same time. "I'm 99% confident that she had an affair," Sutton told BBC.
Even McPherson’s death in 1944 sounded, to an extent, right out of a detective mystery. After her son found her unconscious in bed, sleeping capsules were discovered nearby. McPherson’s attorney had reported that she took sedatives for bouts of insomnia, but the doctor, whose name was on the prescription bottle, denied ever making the prescription. “It’s a mystery to me how my name was on that bottle,” the doctor said. Still, McPherson is remembered today as a groundbreaking televangelist—inspiring countless religious celebrities during the rest of the century. Aside from Perry Mason’s Sister Alice, McPherson has been riffed on endlessly in pop culture, too, including when Faye Dunaway played her in a TV movie called, The Disappearance of Aimee.
Clearly, the writers of Perry Mason have a lot to pull from. If they even take another facet or two from McPherson’s life, we’re in for a hell of a ride the rest of the season.
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