Kid Smith was disgusted. For three rounds, the iron-jawed middleweight took the fight to Jimmy Meyers, but their bout ended in a draw. After a monster right almost cracked his ribs, Meyers steered clear, and his timidity put the packed house at Dreamland Boxing Arena in a foul mood. The week before, they’d paid top dollar to watch two heavyweights wallflower for ten rounds. The 3000 fans cursed as Meyers left the ring and promoter Jack Keran — who promised gladiatorial fury in every match — climbed in, followed by, of all things, a woman. She was maybe five-foot-three, a tad stocky, with auburn hair piled high. Her starched, white muslin outfit and high-button shoes made her look like a nurse.
Standing in the center of the sweat-and-blood-smeared canvas, the woman — late 20s, early 30s — looked nervous. So did Keran, who forgot to remove his hat in her presence. When the crowd quieted down, he announced her as an evangelist — Mrs. Aimee Semple McPherson — and shook as he spoke.
“San Diego needs a revival!” she shouted in a frayed, contralto voice.
The pent-up mob erupted. Waves of boos and hoots hit her like flurries of punches. Someone shouted, “Heaven peddler!”
The woman announced that starting the next day — Thursday, January 6, 1921 — she would hold revival meetings at the arena. Everyone should come and “bring the worst sinner in San Diego!”
At those words, the Union reported, “many of our prominent citizens ducked their heads.” People yelled familiar names. “Hard-faced women,” smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, pointed at their escorts. “And for a few seconds” Dreamland became “squirmish and uncomfortable.”
Then a man in the back row nominated Roseben, the great thoroughbred who’d lost — some said tanked — his last three stakes races. The crowd roared approval.
Alert to the moment, the woman changed her tune. She would battle Satan and, raising her fists, said, “I certainly shall thump him hard!” Many cheered, and the woman left the ring feeling, she wrote later, that she had met “the Devil on his own ground.” Back in the car, she confessed relief, not knowing “whether to laugh or cry.”
When she appeared at Dreamland, Aimee Semple McPherson had yet to become a household name. “The San Diego meetings,” writes Edith Blumhofer, set the tone for the year.” By the end of 1921, “a succession of such crusades made Sister a national phenomenon, headline news everywhere.”
McPherson scheduled a three-week run at the arena, but stayed for five, and held two days of revivals at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. While in San Diego, she discovered how to draw huge numbers. Her goal was saving souls, but the lure became “healing services,” laying hands on the sick.
When she arrived, McPherson saw “a dear little city…the ‘joy of the whole earth’ might well be written on its portals.’ ” San Diego, however, “needed a revival if ever a city did.” Satan lurked in “this harbor and port, wrecking the bodies and souls of hundreds of young men and women upon the rocks of immorality, gaiety, dancing, smoking, gambling, drinking; for Mexico is but 18 miles away, and Tia Juana [its] Monte Carlo…eats like a festering sore into the purity and morals of them whom the Devil tempts.”
McPherson found Dreamland, at the corner of First and A streets, north of the train depot, to be doubly iniquitous. The two-story structure had a boxing arena downstairs, and the Dreamland Marina Dance Hall, where they played the devil’s music, upstairs.
Overnight, McPherson’s crew converted the arena. Palm fronds and pepper-tree boughs hung from pillars and posts. They replaced the overhead shade with one advertising Jesus. They hoisted a grand piano into the ring, which they scoured as white as McPherson’s simple dress, and wove carnations, orange blossoms, and calla lilies into the ropes. McPherson fretted about having to speak in-the-round for the first time, since the audience sat on all four sides. “Will we ever be able to make them all hear?” she asked, in a time before microphones.
For the first meeting, it didn’t matter. The ringside seats were full, the bleachers behind them empty. Jesus came to San Diego, she proclaimed, “and was astounded at the many evils…card parties, theaters, and…” — her gaze rose upward — “dance halls, of girls and houses of sin…and beneath the velvet and paints of the wealthy, he saw their evil too.”
McPherson mentioned healings during her six years on the tent-and-sawdust circuit: a blind man recovering his sight in Philadelphia; a girl cured of spinal trouble; prostitutes mending their ways on the Barbary Coast. The service — which a biographer called “a fluid form of religious theater” — included rousing gospel songs, McPherson banging out the beat on a tambourine. That old-time religion, she sang, “is good for San Diego / And it’s good enough for me.”
She conducted meetings twice daily, an afternoon “teaching service,” and an evening revival. Audiences remained small.
Across America in 1921, female evangelists were a contradiction in terms. In San Diego, however, they were practically a tradition. Katherine Tingley, “the Purple Mother,” had set up her Theosophical Society at Point Loma. In 1905, Teresa Urrea, the “Saint of Cabora” and icon of the anti-Díaz Mexican revolt, came to San Diego and performed healing wonders. As did 72-year-old Maria Woodworth-Etter, her voice barely audible from decades of preaching, in 1916. In effect, San Diego was more than accustomed to female evangelists. From them, it expected miracles.
McPherson had a “something,” a gift she couldn’t explain any more than could Urrea, or Woodworth-Etter, or James Moore Hickson, the internationally renowned Episcopalian faith healer whose cures, unlike most, often lasted well beyond the service. McPherson never took credit. “If the eyes of the people are set on me, nothing will happen…. I am not a healer. Jesus is the healer. I am only the little office girl who opens the door and says, ‘Come in.’ ”