Kathie Lee Gifford, The Saintly and Scandalous Scribe, Talks About Her Passion for Musicals and More

By Brandon Voss
06 Oct 2012

Carolee Carmello in the Seattle production
Photo by Chris Bennion
What are some unbelievable things that people should know about Aimee?
KLG: She had thousands of healings documented in the press, who usually don't like to document such things. She was kidnapped many, many times — twice by the Ku Klux Klan. We know that for sure because one time she was kidnapped with a woman, Frances Wayne from The Denver Post, who happened to be interviewing her when they both got thrown into the back of a sedan. She also gave John Wayne his first acting job. She baptized Marilyn Monroe as a baby. Even though he was an atheist, Charlie Chaplin was her good friend and helped design sets for her pageants. She was amazing at promotion and spreading her message. She was a genius, and that's why I needed a genius like Carolee Carmello to play her.

Carmello has been with the musical since an early production in 2005 at New York's White Plains Performing Arts Center. How hands-on were you in her casting?
KLG: I wish I could say that I found Carolee, but Carolee was this gem I'd never heard of. I didn't have time to follow theatre a whole lot, and Carolee wasn't originating as many roles then; somehow I missed her in Parade. The wonderful producer Pierre Cosette was sitting on my sofa one day, listening to the songs we'd written for — I can't even remember what the show was called at the time — and he said, "There's only one actress who can play this role: Carolee Carmello." Pierre had known Carolee from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Before her involvement, two different actresses played Aimee at different stages in her life. It was Carolee, because she knew that she could play it, who had the idea to make the two parts into one.

Was there ever a point in the writing process that you considered playing Aimee yourself?
KLG: Oh, please. Half of finding out what you are in life is finding out what you're not, and I, sir, am no Carolee Carmello. Maybe her mother.

Carolee Carmello
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

But when you first started working on the show, you were younger than Carolee is now. Playing the part never crossed your mind?
KLG: Not for one moment. First of all, the score is so demanding; I have four notes and Carolee has four octaves. She's so good in this. I've been in this business forever, and I've been lucky to work with so many talented people, but I've never met anyone like her. Carolee's a thoroughbred. I know War Horse is already on Broadway, but it's going to be in two theatres this fall! [Laughs.] But maybe if we run a long time, I could start making cameos as Louella Parsons.

Evangelicals have gotten a bad reputation over the years as greedy, phony hucksters, and, as you mentioned, Aimee's intentions within the church have likewise been questioned. How do you view her motives?
KLG: Those phonies exist, but they exist in every world. I know some phony plumbers, but I also know some excellent ones. We single out people of faith because they're supposed to live up to a higher standard. The problem is that most people, if they know of Aimee at all, only know her from the tabloids. If you only knew "tabloid Kathie Lee," you wouldn't really know me either. People who have really studied her life and seen what she did all those years on the road know that Aimee wasn't in it for the money. She never took up an offering at her tent sermons. The one million dollars it took in 1923 to build her temple, Angelus Temple, came from the Ku Klux Klan — which is an interesting story in our show, because she hated everything they stood for — and from the Gypsies, because Aimee healed the Gypsy king's mother, and the Gypsies followed her in caravans from then on, throwing jewelry at her feet and calling her Madonna. You can't make this stuff up.


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