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Gene Scott, 75; Television Preacher Famous for His Unconventional Ministry

Times Staff Writer

Gene Scott, the flamboyant and plain-speaking pastor and television preacher who was as adept at staring down a live television audience to raise money as he was at holding forth with an erudite teaching on the Bible, has died. He was 75.

Scott, a philanthropist who helped raise money for the Los Angeles Public Library and the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena, died Monday afternoon at Glendale Adventist Medical Center after suffering a stroke, according to a spokesman. He had been fighting prostate cancer for more than five years and had suffered a heart attack eight years ago, a confidant said.

His death was mourned by thousands of worshipers in his two congregations at the Los Angeles University Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles and Kings House I in Glendale, as well as a worldwide radio and television audience in 180 countries.

Country singer Merle Haggard, a church member and close friend, on Tuesday called Scott an exceptional scholar.

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“He was the mind that all other brilliant minds looked to for guidance on problems that were insoluble,” Haggard said.

Scott’s unconventional preaching earned him a reputation as an eccentric. He was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” and deadpanned by the late Johnny Carson. Scott chomped on cigars, reveled in having beautiful young women dance on his broadcasts and wore a variety of hats, from sombreros to Stanford University caps. He would even broadcast tapes of his show horses. He could also occasionally be profane.

With his white mane and beard, half-frame reading glasses cocked on his forehead, Scott was a caricature of a modern-day prophet. He would alternately grin and berate his congregation.

“Am I boring you?” he would ask. “No, sir!” his congregation responded.

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At times Scott would stare into the television camera until a fundraising goal was met. “Get on the telephone!” he ordered his viewers. For those who didn’t send money, Scott suggested: “Vomit on yourself with your head up in the air.”

There was a purpose to the eccentricities, according to Mark Travis, Scott’s longtime chief of staff. “All the peculiarities, the horses, the girls, the hats, the cigars ... they were props. They were saying, ‘Watch me! I’ve got something to say.’ ”

Travis said the ministry takes in more than $1 million a month.

Scott would hold forth on stage in front of a plexiglass board, his back to the camera, and use markers to jot down biblical references, Greek words and diagrams as he gave detailed lectures on the verses and the historical contexts in which they were written -- without referring to a single note.

Scott was an unabashed Christian who believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, of which he said he had assured himself following much study. Scott, who earned a doctorate in philosophies of education from Stanford University in 1957, also was influenced by the late Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

In his doctoral dissertation, Scott quoted Niebuhr in describing his life’s goal: “to descend from the anthill of scholastic hair-splitting to help the world of men regulate its common life and discipline, its ambitions and ideals.”

Like Niebuhr, Scott believed that this was impossible without religion.

If Scott was different in his approach to teaching, he also determined to distinguish himself from some of the scandal-plagued televangelists over the last decades. His philanthropy to causes outside of his church earned him wide praise from civic leaders, including former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and legislative leaders.

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Scott didn’t like being called a televangelist. He also did not condemn homosexuality or abortion, leaving it up to worshipers to make their own choices. “I take you as you are, as God takes me as I am,” he said. He preached that if people listened to him and started to practice faith, “God is going to change you in spite of yourself.”

On issues of public policy, Scott could be a righteous provocateur. “Nuke ‘em in the name of Jesus!” Scott said during the 1991 Gulf War.

Though popular with his followers, his ways and theology were not to everyone’s liking. The Christian Research Institute, an international religious center based in Irvine that monitors religious movements, once urged Christians not to attend Scott’s church. The group decried what it called Scott’s crude, abusive and profane language.

The institute also took issue with what it called Scott’s belief that faith in God would bring physical healing.

“At the end of the day, as he’s discovered, we all get sick and we all die,” Hank Hanegraaff, president and chairman of the institute, said Tuesday.

Scott was born in Buhl, Idaho, the son of a fundamentalist preacher. As a young man he rebelled against the strict teachings of modest dress and abstinence from alcohol that he grew up with.

He taught for a short time at a Midwestern Bible college and helped Oral Roberts set up a university in Tulsa, Okla. He joined the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, and traveled worldwide, preaching salvation to rapt audiences.

In 1970, Scott returned to Oroville, Calif., to launch his own ministry with his father. In 1975, he left that ministry and took over the 45-year-old Faith Center Church in Glendale, along with its four broadcast stations, $3.5 million in debt and 500 members. Today, the church claims 18,000 members in Southern California, although there is no way to verify the figure.

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Others say membership in the L.A. area is closer to 3,000.

In 1983, Scott’s University Network launched 24-hour broadcasts of Scott’s sermons via satellite to North America and the Caribbean.

But soon after, the Federal Communications Commission stripped the church of three broadcast stations, worth about $15 million. Scott reportedly refused to turn over financial records to the commission.

But Scott rebuilt his broadcast operations.

Over the years, Scott became a collector of rare Bibles and often lived extravagantly, with a Pasadena mansion, chauffeured limousines, a private jet and horse ranches.

The church also purchased the historic United Artists Theater in downtown Los Angeles in 1986 and spent more than $2 million to restore the classic Spanish Gothic movie palace.

Atop the theater, Scott installed the historic red neon “Jesus Saves” sign that once topped the Church of the Open Door in L.A.

Scott was divorced twice. His third wife, Melissa, survives him. She is administrative pastor of the church and will be in charge, at least temporarily, Travis said.

Funeral services are pending.

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Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.


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