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More eccentrics of the Ozarks — Gerald L.K. Smith

Glen Jeansonne, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1978, begins a profile on Gerald L.K. Smith for the Wisconsin Magazine of History this way: “In August 1936, Gerald L.K. Smith addressed a packed Cleveland stadium at the convention of Father Charles E. Coughlin’s National Union of Social Justice. The afternoon was hot, and the audience sweltered. Smith, sweating profusely, stripped off his coat and tie and gulped directly from a pitcher of water without bothering to use a glass.

“The theme of his speech was the iniquity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith claimed that the policies of FDR’s administration represented ‘the most historic and contemptible betrayal ever put over on the American people. … Our people were starving and they burned the wheat, hungry and they killed the pigs, led by Mr. Henry Wallace, secretary of the Swine Assassination and by a slimy group of men culled from the pink campuses of America with friendly gaze fixed on Russia.’ The audience roared.”

Yes, Gerald L.K. Smith.

The same Gerald L.K. Smith who built the seven-story Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs back in the 1960s (why do I always think of George Fisher’s classic editorial cartoon of Frank Broyles — Frank of the Ozarks?).

Jeansonne goes on to write that during the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Smith “addressed more and bigger live audiences than any speaker of his generation. They rarely left disappointed. With his beak-shaped nose and piercing blue eyes, standing 6 feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, he was a dynamo, an extraordinary demagogue who swayed thousands and infuriated millions. His crisp voice, his spontaneous gestures, his transparent zealotry fixated audiences. Routinely, Smith was mesmerizing, though often vacuous. His oratory impressed crowds, raised emotions, thrilled the masses.”

William Bradford Huie wrote this about Smith: “The man has the passion of Billy Sunday. He has the fire of Adolf Hitler. … He is the stuff of which Fuehrers are made.”

Huey P. Long called him “the only man I ever saw who is a better rabble-rouser than I am.”

H.L. Mencken wrote: “Gerald L.K. Smith is the greatest orator of them all, not the greatest by an inch or a foot or a yard or a mile, but the greatest by at least two light years. He begins where the best leaves off.”

It was little wonder that Smith was asked to deliver Long’s funeral oration in Baton Rouge before a crowd of more than 150,000 people in September 1935 following Long’s assassination.

“This tragedy fires the souls of us who adored him,” Smith said that day. “He has been the wounded victim of the green goddess; to use the figure, he was the Stradivarius whose notes rose in competition with jealous drums, envious tomtoms. He was the unfinished symphony.”

Smith, who was just 37 at the time of Long’s death, first had come Louisiana as the pastor of the Kings Highway Disciples of Christ Church in Shreveport in 1929. Smith resigned from the church after seven months and hooked up with Long, eventually becoming a key national organizer for Long’s Share-Our-Wealth Society. That wealth redistribution group was to have been the launching pad for Long’s planned 1936 presidential campaign.

After Long’s assassination, Smith hooked up with retired physician Francis Townsend and Father Coughlin to create the Union Party. Smith later would run unsuccessfully several times for the U.S. Senate and the presidency. His final bid for the presidency was in 1956 as the Christian Nationalist Party candidate. By then, Smith was primarily supported by those on the far right extreme of the political spectrum — anti-Semitic and fascist activists.

Back in 1933, Smith had written the following to a man named Hugo Fack, who had journeyed to Germany and met with Nazi leaders: “I am anxious to get in touch with his Honor, Adolf Hitler, but knowing that you are recently removed from Germany, before doing so I desire your opinion on conditions in that country. They look good to me. Can you give me a code for getting in touch with Herr Hitler or one of his representatives in America?”

Soon after quitting his job as a pastor in Shreveport, Smith also had been attracted to American Nazi William Dudley Pelley and his paramilitary Silver Shirts. Many years later, Smith would settle in Detroit and become friends with Henry Ford, who financed a series of Smith’s radio broadcasts. Smith began a monthly publication called The Cross and the Flag in 1942 and continued to publish it until his death in 1976.

In the early 1960s, the Arkansas Ozarks remained mired in poverty. Eureka Springs was a mere shadow of the grand resort it had been in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Anyone looking to invest money was welcome. It was this world that Smith entered in 1964.

“Smith came to Arkansas and bought Penn Castle, a Victorian mansion in Eureka Springs, an Ozark Mountain spa town that had lapsed into economic stagnation,” Jeansonne wrote for the University of Arkansas Press. “He remodeled it lavishly, turning it into his retirement home. Two years later, he built the first of his Sacred Projects, a seven-story statue of Jesus, the Christ of the Ozarks, on Magnetic Mountain. Smith proclaimed that it was more beautiful than Michelangelo’s art. Disagreeing, an art critic likened it to a milk carton with a tennis ball stuffed on its top.

“Soon Smith added the Christ Only Art Gallery, a Bible museum and a passion play staged in an outdoor amphitheater. The play was performed on a 400-foot reproduction of a street in old Jerusalem and included live animals. By 1975, the theater was expanded from 3,000 seats to 6,000 seats, and more than 188,000 had watched the play, making it the largest outdoor pageant in the United States. Jews denounced the play as anti-Semitic, but Smith called it ‘the only presentation of its kind in the world which has not diluted its content to flatter the Christ-hating Jews.’ The Sacred Projects helped revitalize the Eureka Springs area.”

The first performance of what was known as The Great Passion Play was on July 15, 1968. That first season attracted 28,000 people.

Smith announced that he would build a $100 million replica of the Holy Land, including a model of the River Jordan in which people could be baptized. Before that project could be completed, he died of pneumonia in April 1976 at his winter home in California.

“The Sacred Projects gave Smith some respectability but could not obscure the anti-Semitism and hatred for which he was most known,” Jeansonne writes. “He maintained that Jesus was a Gentile whom Jews crucified; that Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were Jews; that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was a Bolshevik and a Jewish foil; that Jews invented communism; and that Jews prodded African-Americans to begin the civil rights movement to jolt a tranquil American society. Smith lamented that he was castigated only becuase he was emboldened to air such issues.”

The play he started in Eureka Springs continues, though it now markets itself as The New Great Passion Play. The nonprofit organization that produces the play, now governed by a board of directors, says the efforts to build a model of the Holy Land are ongoing.

At the website, it’s noted that the “New Holy Land Tour includes one of the world’s only complete life-size reproductions of Moses’ Tabernacle in the Wilderness, as well as 37 other authentic exhibits. In 1976, the Smith Memorial Chapel was built in honor of Gerald L.K. and Elna M Smith. Many other unique attractions, such as the Sacred Arts Center, a piece of the Berlin Wall, performances of the Parable of the Potter and more have been added throughout the years. Be sure and visit the Bible Museum and its remarkable collection of historical Bibles and documents.”

Following Smith’s death in 1976, the Arkansas Gazette editorialized: “To have the power to touch men’s hearts with glory or with bigotry, and to choose the latter, is a saddening thing.”

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