BRANSON, Mo. — The small band strikes up “Highway to Heaven” and the audience gathers around lunch tables for hot dogs and chili.
“Make sure you are smiling and clapping really loud,” an announcer says to the three dozen adults and children at the Studio City Cafe on a quiet Branson side road.
The group obliges as Jim Bakker — that Jim Bakker, the televangelist whose wealth and fame collapsed in scandal in the 1980s — steps onto the studio set for his daily television show.
Bakker, who settled in Branson three years ago, has quietly rebuilt a following and his life.
He and his second wife, Lori Graham Bakker, are hosts of the hourlong “Jim Bakker Show” on about 50 stations nationwide. It recently started showing on DirecTV. The show will move to a larger location south of Branson in about six months.
“It’s a miracle what’s happened here, it’s an absolute miracle,” Bakker told his audience. “I said I never planned on going back on television.”
Branson, in the heart of the Bible Belt and a major family-vacation destination, may seem an unlikely fit for someone whose decline followed disclosures of infidelity and fraud.
Bakker, 66, said he ended up in Branson because local developer Jerry Crawford invited him to town, bought a cafe that could be used as a studio and provided the Bakkers a house.
“No one said anything about the past; it was all, ‘We’re happy you are here,’ ” Bakker said. “I think a lot of people in Branson have had brokenness. There is really a spiritual undertone to Branson.”
Bakker cuts a relatively low profile in Branson, not advertising his show or trying to compete with entertainers. He considers the cafe to also be a church and the show to be a service with prayer, music and religious messages.
Cafe walls are covered with framed paintings of Jesus, which Bakker signs and sells. There also are reminders that Bakker once traveled in powerful circles. Pictures of him with Presidents Reagan and Carter decorate back hallways.
At the height of his success in the mid-1980s, Bakker’s empire included a South Carolina theme park and condominium resort called Heritage USA. He owned several luxury homes and a Rolls-Royce.
He founded the PTL Club with his then-wife, Tammy Faye Bakker. They created their own network, as their show reached 13 million households.
Then came revelations that he had a sexual affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn and that his staff had tried to buy her silence. Bakker later was convicted on federal charges that he sold, for $1,000 or more, Heritage resort weekend time shares that he could not provide, although a later class-action civil suit by buyers was tossed out.
Bakker said he has many regrets.
“So many people were hurt; there were 3,000 people who worked for me, and their lives were impacted by it all,” he said.
Four years after he left prison, Bakker met Lori Graham at an urban ministry in Los Angeles. They married in 1998 and took into their care five Hispanic children, now 9 to 16.
Lori Bakker, 48, says she is a former drug addict who had five abortions.
“We come here as examples of restoration,” her husband said before a recent show. “I don’t know about you, but I believe in second chances.”
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