Clowns, cons, and an elaborate New Year’s Eve hoax: the bizarre legacy of Melodyland

Anyone who’s been to Disneyland is familiar with Adventureland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. But directly across the street from the Happiest Place on Earth there was once a peculiar place called Melodyland.

A 4,000-seat theater-in-the-round, Melodyland started out as a live entertainment venue, booking big-name artists, including James Brown, Simon & Garfunkel, and Liza Minelli, and hosting off-Broadway productions like Hello Dolly and Oklahoma!

But the fairytale success of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom did not rub off on Leo Freedman’s Melodyland, and the property was auctioned off in 1969. The winning bidder was a pastor named Ralph Wilkerson, who moved his church into the building, keeping the Melodyland name and the sign, which stood almost directly across Harbor Boulevard from the iconic Disneyland sign at the park’s entrance.

Fortuitously, Wilkerson purchased the building right at the time when a religious revival was gathering steam in the area. Just 10 miles south, at the now world-renowned Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, the hippie Jesus Movement had begun.

While Calvary catered to the long-haired, muslin-clad, sandal-shod Jesus People, Melodyland appealed to the traditional polyester-wearing faith healing crowd.

But regardless of how they were dressed, Californians at the end of the 1960s, particularly in Orange County, were in the midst of a new Great Awakening that would morph into the modern-day right-wing Evangelical movement. And so, in the shadow of the Disneyland’s Matterhorn, Melodyland Christian Center, one of the nation’s weirdest megachurches, was born.

Melodyland was hard to miss, because it was designed to look like a huge circus tent. The architecture was certainly fitting, considering the seeming three-ring circus that went on under the big top. In its heyday, the 10,000-member church was a highly desirable venue for faith healers, Christian recording artists, and even comedians. Yes, Christian comedians — the most notable being a guy named Mike Warnke.

Warnke had achieved fame with his sensational testimony of having been saved from a life as the high priest of a satanic cult. Somehow he managed to parlay his lurid life story into a comedy act that attracted sellout crowds, leading to a number of best-selling books and chart-topping contemporary Christian albums.

Warnke also gained a reputation as an expert on satanism and the occult after appearing in a 1985 episode of ABC News 20/20 called “The Devil Worshipers,” which aired during a decade-long nationwide panic about satanic kidnappings and ritual killings.

The mass hysteria Warnke helped to feed was proven to be baseless by careful reporting that established that most missing kids in the U.S. were runaways, and not victims of satanic rituals. It was also revealed that most of the accusations of ritual abuse were based on the dubious testimony of children who were simply agreeing with suggestion, prompting, and badgering by their overzealous interrogators.

Satanic ritual abuse wasn’t the only thing that was being fabricated. Warnke’s “ministry” began to unravel after his story about being a satanic high priest was exposed as a sham by Cornerstone Christian magazine in 1991.

Another colorful character who graced the stage of Melodyland was noted faith healer Benny Hinn. Hinn was among a number of televangelists who in more recent years came under senate investigation because of the extravagant lifestyles they led, funded with tax-free donations from their followers.

Hinn also came under fire in the 1990s from Hank Hanegraaf, a Southern California-based Bible teacher with a syndicated radio call-in show, “The Bible Answer Man.” Hanegraaf chided Hinn for what he considered to be heretical teachings, as well as his unusual stage theatrics, which included knocking people over “under the power of the Holy Spirit” by violently pushing them, hurling his coat at them, or blowing on them.

The faith healer apologized and promised to straighten up after Hanegraaf’s criticism, but his remorse was short-lived. As Hanegraaf records in his book Christianity in Crisis, Hinn pronounced the following judgement during the 1992 World Charismatic Conference, which was held at Melodyland:

“There are men and women here in Southern California attacking me. I will tell you under the anointing now; you’ll reap it in your children unless you stop…You attacking me on the radio every night — you’ll pay and your children will. Hear this from the lips of God’s servant. You are in danger. Repent! Or God Almighty will move his hand. Touch not my anointed.”

Threatening children with doom from the pulpit seems ludicrous enough. But if you want over-the-top farce, you have to go back a couple years earlier to New Year’s Eve 1989. This was one of most bizarre Melodyland spectacles ever recorded, and it caused a public outcry at the time.

During the New Year’s Eve service, just after the stroke of midnight, a newborn girl was brought to the altar, and Pastor Wilkerson dedicated her as the first baby born in 1990. It was meant to look like a spontaneous blessed event, but the whole thing was actually a ruse that had been planned three months earlier.

The L.A. Times reported that the doctor who participated in the stunt said that Wikerson had asked him “if he could have a baby delivered at midnight for the meeting.” The doctor (who also happened to lease space at the Melodyland complex) said, “Sure, I can give you a baby at 30 seconds after midnight.”

According to the Times, the doctor said he gave the mother a saddle block and used forceps to make sure the baby was delivered 15 seconds past midnight, and then “wrapped the newborn in a blanket, tucked her into a Christmas stocking and hustled her next door to the service.”

A year later the state medical board revoked the doctor’s license for negligence in his delivery of 12 babies, including the New Year’s Eve stunt baby and two others who died.

Despite its success in attracting members and performers, Melodyland Christian Center was always on a shaky financial footing, causing it to temporarily lose title to the property in the early 1980s, and then sell off a chunk of land in the early ’90s.

Finally, when Wilkerson retired in 1998, the property was sold and the church moved to another location. The building was demolished in 2003 to make way for the Anaheim GardenWalk, an outdoor entertainment and shopping center.

Paul Griffo’s California Curiosities

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Intriguing artifacts from California’s extraordinary history and culture.

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