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Interview with Marjoe Gortner

Marjoe Gortner is not listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having been the world's youngest preacher, but he should be. Marjoe performed his first marriage at the age of 4 and even Jesus didn't come out until he was 12.

It was back in 1948 that little Marjoe, dressed in a sailor suit and topped with a head of golden curls, married a California couple and made Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not. Readers with short memories may refresh them, however, by catching the newsreel that opens "Marjoe," the documentary at the Playboy Theater. Marjoe, who was once described somewhat grimly by his father as "a natural-born preachin' machine," comes across as so terrifyingly drilled and programmed that we can only imagine how unhappy his childhood must have been.

He seems to have survived it intact, however, and now at 28 he comes across as a clean-cut rock star: Black leather pants, a boutique shirt open at the neck, a brown suede jacket and a lot of turquoise jewelry that he picked up from some Indians in New Mexico five years ago.

You wonder if maybe this is a new image, now that Marjoe has abandoned the fundamentalist revival circuit and revealed all in the movie. But, no, Marjoe was also a flashy dresser on the circuit, tending toward all-white outfits or American flag shirts.

He preached mostly to lower middle-class people in the small cities of the central states, he says, and he dressed that way because they liked it:

"These people lead miserable lives, and suffer in silence because they know they're going to get their reward in heaven. A preacher is a man who has been blessed by God on Earth. If he doesn't drive a Cadillac, they don't think much of him; God must not favor him. He's got to look good, feel good and smell good."

Like a great many other revival preachers, Marjoe says, he toured the provinces selling entertainment packaged as salvation. "You have to go into the heavy religion in order to give people on excuse to loosen up and enjoy themselves. When I'd do a hip movement or a jump, or start walking over the backs of the seats, they'd say, 'Hallelujah! God's behind him!' But if they saw Mick Jagger doing the same thing at a rock concert, that was the work of the devil."

Marjoe's current drop out from the revival scene is actually his second. After he got too old to pass as a child evangelist, he dropped out in the mid-1960s and made the semi-hippie beach scene in Southern California. He returned to the circuit a couple of years ago, and "Marjoe" is the story of his final disillusionment.

"I just couldn't do it anymore," he said during a weekend visit to Chicago to promote the movie. "I felt I'd come to some sort of crossroads. Either I could go ahead and commit myself to a career as an evangelist, or I could stop now. I stopped.

"A lot of people have charged that I made the movie for money. For example, some of the hard-sell radio preachers are attacking me. That's ridiculous. At the time I quit, I honestly think I was the best preacher on the circuit, I could cut anybody. In five years I would have been on top and probably a millionaire. One thing a lot of people forget about is the tax advantage: I was tax-deductible."

All this was during an interview at Riccardo's, where Marjoe, who doesn't smoke or drink the hard stuff, sipped some red wine and said that he felt at home because in New York he lives above an Italian restaurant. I asked him if he honestly thought that many of the preachers on the revival circuit were as hypocritical as he was.

"I think most of them are," he said. "I've traveled in that crowd most of my life; I know them. People say that's an incredible scene in the movie, where the local preacher and I count out the cash take on the bedspread. You should see some of the things I've seen!

"Take A. A. Allen, for example. Everybody in the business knew he was a lush. When he died they took a pint of alcohol out of his bladder during the autopsy! I've got the newspaper clipping somewhere. A pint! His liver had deteriorated to such an extent that the alcohol just whizzed right through it without hitting anything. And yet when you tell the believers that, they say it isn't true. One woman told me she just knew that alcohol, was left over in Brother Allen from before he was saved."

Marjoe said he wants to "diversify" his career at this point. He's considering a couple of movie offers (although he's turned down two "weirdo" roles.) He's been studying acting for a year, and he recently recorded an album of "country-gospel-rock." "Oh, and there's a book about him coming out this Christmas.

"What I really miss," he said, "is the feedback from the audiences. I turn people on, and then the feedback turns me on, and that's how I get off. Like the whole business of people speaking in tongues. See, in fundamentalism, speaking in tongues is a status thing. Like getting into the country club. Being saved is only the first step. When you come forward and make your decision for Christ, that's step one. But when you speak in tongues, you've been touched by the Holy Ghost. You're in the club!

"People who haven't done it are always hoping tonight will be their night. They come forward, they're surrounded by other people, and you tell them to say 'Thank you, Jesus!' as fast as they can, over and over. And then everyone is touching them and the music is playing and they're saying 'Thank you, Jesus!' and you shout at them and everybody shouts, and after about 10 minutes of grinding, sometimes you call work them up to it. It's, a great sight, the joy on their faces."

But all of that is behind now, and Marjoe has moved into the world of New York's beautiful people. At least, Women's Wear Daily says he has, and that he's seen at all the top parties.

"That's an exaggeration," he said. "I've been on a lot of talk shows and to a lot of parties - I was at the Rolling Stones' party at the end of their tour - but I don't go out THAT much."

All the same, I asked him how do the beautiful people, the fashionable New Yorkers, compare to the simple folks he met during his life on the road?

"They're dancers," he said. "They're always looking for someone new. They dance around you for a while, and thou they move along to dance around someone else. They're all just dancers.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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