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BELIEFS

Wearing their religion on their record sleeves

An L.A. exhibit of religious album covers from the 1950s, '60s and '70s reflects the post-World War II era of Hula Hoops and Cold War anxiety, when men still wore starched white shirts to church.

February 23, 2009|Louis Sahagun

In the 1960s, a stiff-jointed, knee-high doll with brown hair and rosy cheeks named Little Marcy was promoted as a model toddler who sang simple Christian songs on dozens of record albums that sold for $1.98 each.

The albums, which today can be found only in thrift store bins, featured on their covers photographs of Little Marcy and her world.

"Marcy Goes to Nashville" shows her staring at a horse. In "Marcy Sings to Children," she is standing stock-still in front of a microphone and watched by children (real ones) beaming with joy. "Little Marcy with Smokey the Bear" comes with a cartoonish image of her picnicking with forest creatures, including 10 happy skunks.

Depending on one's point of view, the images can be corny or kitschy, well-intentioned or sweet. But no matter the interpretation, they're sure to prompt a reaction, which is why they have earned a place in an exhibit of religious album covers. Titled "Within Heaven's Earshot," the exhibit opens March 13 at Synchronicity Space gallery in Los Angeles.

Exhibit curator Kieran Sala said the 200 album covers -- most produced in the 1950s, '60s and '70s -- were culled from private collections, thrift stores and estate sales.

They are strikingly graphic relics of the post-World War II era of hula hoops and Cold War anxiety, when men still wore starched white shirts and ties to church and religious records were produced on the cheap with the most rudimentary marketing and packaging strategies.

"They're also funny, without intending to be," said Sala, an actor who works as a substitute elementary school teacher in Los Angeles. "These people tried so hard to be hip and cool that they came off seeming incredibly square. We're not trying to embarrass Christians or anyone else, but judging from these album covers, their quest to save souls was often stronger than their proficiency in visual arts."

Examples include charismatic Pentecostal preacher A. A. Allen's "I Am Lucifer," which features a devil with catlike blood-red eyes under this caveat: "An actual recording of a demon spirit that possesses a woman and speaks from within her, using her voice, declaring, 'I am Lucifer.' "

Under the title "Aboard Heaven's Choo-Choo" -- and a drawing of a speeding train moving left to right over their heads -- the five members of the Crawford family, clad in their Sunday best, smile collectively at something off camera in an astonishingly mundane group portrait.

The album "Capt. Hook and his Christian Pirate Puppets" has its subjects in garish costumes (think eye patches and tri-corner hats) and seated on barrels. The liner notes include a "Take it from me!" endorsement by Col. Harland Sanders of KFC fame.

Many of the album covers were borrowed from the religious record collection of Don Bolles, drummer for the rock band the Germs.

For entertainment, Bolles and his guests sometimes gather on the white rug in his one-room Huntington Park apartment to spin selections from albums, such as the eerie "An Esoteric Qabalistic Service," performed by Dr. Ann Davies, and the cartoonish "Adventures of Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men."

Then there is "Diary of an Unborn Child," an anti-abortion tract performed by Mark Fox in the child's voice of his persona, Lil Markie. It opens one day in April with the newly conceived Lil Markie announcing, "I will be a boy with blond hair and blues eyes." It closes on "Dec. 28" with him declaring, "Today, my mother killed me."

Then Lil Markie sings, "Why did you kill me, Mommy, when God made me special for you?"

"That one's intense," Bolles said on a recent weekday.

Later he put on his turntable "Little Marcy Visits Smokey the Bear," which Bolles described as "one of the most twisted collaborations between fundamentalist Christians and a federal government fire prevention program I've ever seen."

All of the records in his collection -- be they Christian, Jewish, Bahai or metaphysical -- have one thing in common.

"It's hard to find a well-worn copy of any of this stuff," he said. "Unlike old James Brown records, which are always worn out, these albums seem to have been played once."

The exhibit's emphasis, however, is the cover art, not the music.

Some of the albums were vanity projects. Most were produced by a handful of companies based in Los Angeles, Waco, Texas, and Grand Rapids, Mich., home of Zondervan, a 75-year-old international Christian communications company that once cranked out as many as five Little Marcy records a year.

But Little Marcy's creator, Marcy Tigner, was only one of many Christian ventriloquists making records at the time.

Another was Gail Wenos, who still runs a Temecula ministry featuring the inspirational humor of her dummy, Ezra. Wenos, whose records will be on display at Synchronicity Space, acknowledged that the images look anything but modern.

"But you have to realize," she said in an interview, "we're talking about record albums made in the dark ages, when women wore aprons and the most popular show on television was 'Father Knows Best.' "

Even Wenos chuckles at the sight of her first album, "Gail and Ezra: Joy, Joy, Joy," released in 1972.

"There I am on the cover," she said, "against a Christmas green-and-red background and wearing a Swiss dress with hearts on it. I look like a teenage Disney character, except I was 25.

"It was a hoot and a half to make that record, which sold for $3.49," she said. "I just hope people understand that it wasn't just a different time. It was a different world."

In a wistful tone, she added: "Things were simple. Innocent. Wholesome."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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