The Altar Call / A Shaft of Sunlight
The Story of Ron Ormond and the Ormond Organisation
By Nick Pinkerton
Reading time 21 Minutes
Ron Ormond was preparing to fly himself
Ron Ormond was preparing to fly himself, his wife June, and their son, Tim, from their Nashville home to Louisville, Kentucky, where their movie The Girl from Tobacco Row (1966), starring singing cowboy Tex Ritter, was having its local premiere. The year was 1967. Ron was a seasoned flyer. He had logged hundreds of hours in the air; had at one time been a command pilot in the Air Force and, before leaving Hollywood, was the head of Southern California Civil Air Patrol, and the family kept their own private Beechcraft Bonanza for just such occasions. That morning they put a call in to the hangar and had their plane prepared for takeoff. In a 1987 interview with Jimmy McDonough for Film Comment, June described what happened next:
“When we took it out to the end of the runway and revved it up to take off, we smelled somethin’. So we’re halfway up in the air when we smell it again. See, all the oil had burned up. The guy had forgot to put the cap on the oil.
“Tim yelled, ‘Look how hot it’s getting! Look how hot it’s getting!’ I said, ‘Something smells like it’s on fire. Ron, let’s turn around and go back.’ And before we had time to make a turn, the engine stopped.
“We were into a turn over this cow pasture. I said to Ron, ‘Are we gonna put the wheels down?’ He says, ‘No. We’re gonna belly it in.’ Underneath us are cattle. I said to Ron, ‘We’re gonna land on top of them.’ He said, ‘They’ll separate when they see us comin’ down.’ We tipped the top of a tree. I could feel it scrape the bottom. If we had the wheels down we’d a got caught in the tree.
“It was a strange thing. As we were comin’ down, a shaft of sunlight came in on Tim’s coat. And I could hear this voice talk to me within myself. ‘Well, this is the end. What is it gonna be from here to eternity?’ What is eternity? What is eternity if you knew like we knew that within moments you’re gonna be dead? There was every reason we shoulda got killed. There’s nothing you can do about it, you can’t stop death comin’ on you. To me then, eternity just measured from here to there. But the voice inside me said, ‘You’re not gonna get killed.’ Then the plane hit.”
If the elder Ormonds happened to see their lives flash before their eyes at the moment they plowed into a field in Nashville’s Donelson neighborhood, this is what they might have seen. Ron might have seen his boyhood in an Italian-American household in Louisiana, back when he went by his birth name Vic Narro, and his early career as a stage magician. (The change of moniker was an homage to his friend and mentor, Ormond McGill.) June might have seen herself at age 14 being recruited into show-business – a show called 5- and 10-Cent Follies, launched under the auspices of producer Frank Capra – by an agent visiting Coffee Cliff’s on 47th St and Broadway, the nightclub that her mother ran from the basement of New York City’s Mayfair Theater. They might both have watched their 1935 marriage, and then their years together carving out a little niche in the Hollywood entertainment industry, beginning by booking vaudeville package shows in the south in the 1940’s, and going on to projects that included writing stage material for cowboy star and “King of the Bullwhip” Lash LaRue, which led to an acquaintance with Joy Houck, Sr. and Francis White, known as Howco, who ran four Southern film exchanges and owned the Consolidated Theater chain, and to Ron’s first opportunities to direct cheapie Westerns.
They might have remembered making those chintzy musicals that June had choreographed and taking the aging, pratfall-damaged Three Stooges on the road and also their turn to making exploitation pictures in the 1950s to keep up with changing public tastes, and their subsequent move to Nashville in 1965, where they formed the all-in-the-family Ormond Organization, with the intention of doing their own distribution, taking advantage of the editing facility of the United Methodist Church’s filmmaking branch, Trafco, and local talent from the country music scene. And they might have prepared to say goodbye to all of it. Prematurely, it turns out.
“As we came down we hit a mound,” June continued, “and that’s when I thought my rear end would go through my head. We went through a fence post. It was a wonder I wasn’t cut to pieces. Had we turned over or something we might’ve caught on fire – we were loaded with gas.
Ron crawled out about six feet away from the plane and said, ‘My back is broken.’ I just knew I was hurting. I was in the back seat. Ron’s back and ribs were hurt. I had three fractured ribs, and my vertebrae were all out of place. We were in the hospital six weeks. Tim wasn’t hurt at all.
When we were in the hospital we decided we would leave the stuff we had been doin’ and go into a different type of work. We decided the Lord had spared us and we were gonna do somethin’ else. Soon after, we started making religious pictures.”
This was the official version of events, at least – as the young firebrand Fyodor Dostoevsky was born again facing a Siberian firing squad, so the Ormonds saw the light when they fell out of the sky. In point of fact, the Ormonds actually had one more exploitation job still in them, 1968’s The Exotic Ones (aka Monster and the Stripper), starring their rockabilly star neighbor, the 6’8” ogre Sleepy LaBeef. And they had another close scrape with eternity, too – a forced landing while returning from the Bahamas in 1970 in a new twin-engine plane. And for that matter, both Ron and June already had long been predisposed towards the spiritual. After beating bladder cancer, Ron toured the holy sites of the east with McGill, his teacher and the future star of the Ormonds’ 1963 classic Please Don’t Touch Me. While Ron was away, June had fallen under the sway of a mystic called Mother Mary, who’d encouraged an interest in flying saucers that culminated in an incident of astral projection, though by the middle ’60s she’d come back to Christ, born again at a meeting of the Hollywood Christian Association. “The tears were coming out of me,” she remembers. “All these deacons got around me. It was in the middle of this shopping mall. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in my life. Like somebody had given me 10,000 baths.”
At any rate, the opportunity to finally turn that new leaf over, to match private faith and professional activity, would arise in short order. The Lord’s vessel was Estus Washington Pirkle, a Baptist minister based out of the Locust Grove Church of New Albany, Mississippi – incidentally, the birthplace of William Faulkner – who wanted the Ormonds to make a film out of his calling card sermon, which gave the resulting picture its rather unwieldy title. Made for a flat fee of $16,000 and finished in 1971, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? stands today as one of the strangest and most pungent pieces of religious art ever made, putting the Ormonds experience in the world of gore-and-grue exploitation to work for the cause of Christ. It begins with a tracking shot of six uniformed men on horseback under the opening credits, the riders proceeding along the fringe of some green piney woods at a leisurely canter before breaking into a gallop, their progress lent a sinister air by the anxious library music. “Reverend Pirkle,” asks a voice, “Are the pictures we’re about to see true facts, or are they figments of your imagination?” The response comes in a Southern burr: “I can document every statement I make in this film, and all of the dramatized re-enactments are taken from actual events that have happened in Russia, Korea, China, and Cuba, where the Communists have already taken over. The only difference is that we’re usin’ Americans to emphasize that the same thing can and will happen here if they take over.”
The speaker is shortly revealed: Rev. Pirkle, a silver-haired, pinch-lipped, bat-eared man who stares furiously at the viewer through horn-rimmed glasses asking “What do you think about the future of our country?” The reverse shot reveals that Pirkle is addressing his flock, the mouth-breathing congregation a riot of polyester in every shade not known to nature, to whom he guarantees a coming Commie apocalypse “unless revival breaks out in America.” His words are illustrated by images of pasty Mississippians with their Sunday best outfits spackled with red food coloring, and throughout the sermon he will invite his audience to “watch” or “see” the horrors that he describes, even as no screen is visible behind the pulpit, conflating congregant and filmgoer.
Pirkle goes on to liken complacent America to Israel “in the days of Jeremiah,” soon to be sacked by Babylonian soldiers despite the repeated warnings of the prophets. As he exhorts, we see meaty hausefrau herded like cattle across a muddy creek by those horsemen, enforcers of America’s new atheistic Red dynasty. His style is less podium-pounding fire-and-brimstone than stern, stoic, steady recrimination. One of his favorite rhetorical effects is playing at anticipating the protesting interjections of the listener and phrasing them into his own words, which invariably involves prefacing the statement with “Preacher,” as in: “Preacher, times have changed, I don’t see anything wrong with dancing today.” On a not-unrelated note: If available information is correct, Pirkle here is a prematurely-aged forty years old.
While Pirkle spins out visions of seven-day work weeks and butchered Christians stacked like firewood, another narrative strain is introduced as a young woman named Judy (Judy Creech) is dropped off at the church by her mustachioed, muttonchopped, somewhat Snopes-ish boyfriend, undoubtedly after a Sabbath morning full of fornication. Judy explains that she has to pop into the sermon to “Keep up my image; you know, be seen in the proper places.” He declines to join, explaining reasonably that “I’m a lover, not a Christian.” As first introduced, Judy, with her blue eyeshadow and her skirt above her knees, seems a happy heathen, but once seated in the pews, Pirkle’s oration begins almost immediately to work on her conscience, triggering troubling visions of guilty dissipation.
From this point If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?
From this point If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? proceeds to unfold in three different temporal spaces: That of the church, of the cinematic illustrations of Pirkle’s commentary, and in the theater of Judy’s memory. Pirkle’s incantations of a fallen present and the horrors in store for an unrepentant nation in the future have a place of pride. The simple days studying the McGuffey Reader in the country schoolroom are contrasted to the modern public school, where a degenerate instructor (almost certainly a pothead) holds court on “the seven erotic zones of passion in every woman.” Drive-in cinemas, television, dancing, and joyriding are treated to a rousing condemnation, followed by a vision of what awaits if they are not eschewed, in the aftermath of the Communist takeover.
These scenes focus on the various atrocities committed by the Communist enforcers, who seem not to be homegrown but rather an ambiguously Russo-Cuban occupying army led, at least in Northern Mississippi, by a ruthless commissar with a wandering accent that denies definition. The role is played by Cecil Ross Scaife, a native of Phillips County, Arkansas, who had previously worked as the National Sales and Promotion Manager for Sam Phillips’s Memphis-based Sun Records, and as manager of WLIZ in Palm Beach, Florida, per his 2009 obituary in the Nashville Tennessean, “the nation’s first all girl radio station.” The obit mentions Scaife’s role as a Gideon – a member of the Nashville-based organization who slip Bibles into hotel rooms – but fails to cite his turn in The Exotic Ones, in which LaBeef beats him to death with his own severed arm. His daughter, LaQuita, also appears in If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?, playing the housewife who the vodka-drunk commissar decides to rape.
The commissar and his cronies are seen up to all manner of similar trouble. In what is certainly the film’s most infamous scene, Scaife sits in front of a chalkboard bearing the motto “COMMUNISM IS GOOD” indoctrinating a classroom full of Christian boys and girls in the ways of Bolshevism through sly Pavlovian methodology. Instructed to pray to Jesus for candy, the children are left empty-handed, but when commanded to turn their entreaties to Fidel Castro, they suddenly find themselves swimming in Smarties. Later, he attempts to force an orphaned boy (a Pirkle spawn) to renounce Christ by trampling on His image, following the lead of the Tokugawa inquisitors with the fumi-e as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016); when the boy refuses, he is summarily decapitated by a saber swipe, his little noggin seen rolling into the brush in slo-motion. My personal favorite scene involves Christian children having their eardrums poked out with bamboo splints so that they can’t hear the word of God, during which we’re shown a close-up of a child with both ears punctured who, overcome by pain, proceeds to dribble out a mouthful of bilious vomit. It’s the little touches that count.
You say, “Preacher, how can anything be worse than that?” Well, as Pirkle makes a point of telling his flock, “The torments of Communism, are nothing compared to the torments of a burning hell.” And these very same torments were the subject of Pirkle’s next collaboration with the Ormonds, aptly titled The Burning Hell (1974) – “The most potent, soul-winning picture that has ever played a church,” in June’s estimation. The budget, which came to something around $60,000, apparently allowed for plane fare to the Holy Land – at any rate, Pirkle makes his first appearance in an arid landscape which he identifies as Mt. Sinai.
The purse for The Burning Hell is deeper than had been that of If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?, but the structure of the film is much the same. Again we have an illustrated Pirkle sermon, though here the visions cast backwards, all the way back to Bible times, giving us the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Cain’s murder of Abel, the death of King Herod in Acts 12 and, a year before Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet would take on the same subject, the story of Moses and Aaron. (These distant days are connected to the present by Pirkle’s speechifying, for we are informed that the sinners of centuries past are even at this moment still roasting in the lake of fire, their torment abated not one bit since the moment that they first arrived.) Again, as well, we encounter the figure of the stray sheep to be returned to the flock – in this case a biker, Tim (Tim Ormond), wearing fringe-trimmed buckskins and a bushy goatee, first encountered arriving with a blowhard denim-clad buddy, Ken (Chuck Howard), at the Pirkle home to preach a hippie-dippy gospel of Christianity without hellfire, received by a visibly pissed off Estus, who proceeds to dismantle his young visitors’ logic with his knowledge of the Greek New Testament before inviting them to attend his sermon.
What happens from here should be familiar to anyone familiar with the fundamentalist comic tract corpus of Jack Thomas Chick. The bikers hit the bricks, and Ken, in the middle of hot-dogging on a gravel road, has a fatal crash that results in his head somehow popping clean off. Tim, immediately after encountering this gristly site, is seen sauntering into the church in a teary-eyed daze, which brings Pirkle down from the pulpit. “He’s not going to hell is he?” Tim asks of the freshly-dead Ken, which brings from Pirkle the consoling response, “I’m afraid he is. Chances are he’s likely burning in the flames of hell right now.” Visualizing hades is the prime business of the rest of the movie, which is rife with images of oil-smeared men and women in a black pit, miserably panting and leering and gibbering and lolling about between flashing tongues of flames, interspersed with stock footage of dancing globules of magma. Particular attention is granted to the presence of worms, as prophesied in Isiah 14:11 and Mark 9 (“Think of the horrible odors! The continual itchiness!”)
While tradition holds that the United States is a Protestant nation, the story of the American cinema has, to a disproportionate degree, been written by native and immigrant Catholics and Jews – for every exemplary WASP filmmaker like Howard Hawks you can cite a dozen Papists, raised in a church culture that extols the sacred image, or Semites, connected to the picture business from its earliest days. If mainstream Protestantism, proportional to its share of the American population, has left a comparatively small mark on the nation’s film history – what, for example, does a cinema of Presbyterianism look like? – than evangelical Christianity has fared even worse. It’s not that there aren’t movies explicitly made from and catering to an evangelical perspective, but that most are of no interest as anything other than cornball curios or insights into the fervid fundamentalist mind.
The Ormonds’ religious films, however, have a potency which transcends anything in the library of Sherwood Pictures, the Georgia-based outfit responsible for Kirk Cameron crisis-of-faith drama Fireproof (2008) and other similar offal. This may be explained in part by the internal contradictions of the Ormond pictures – the unreconciled proximity of pious, high-minded intentions with lowdown fleapit instincts. While much of the pleasure of these movies comes from their function as Christian kitsch comedy – e.g. Estrus whispering “Will you come?” in a pillow-talk voice at the end of If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? – they are nevertheless the work of a resourceful, shameless showman who knows how to get his effects on the cheap, and contain untutored performances that are sometimes unexpectedly moving in a way which stops the sniggers cold, as in the conversion scenes which end both that film and The Burning Hell. (Creech, in her lone movie role, summons real pathos as she weeps at the side of her mother’s casket, suddenly manifest in Pirkle’s church.) “You have what you call your altar call,” June explained of these moments. “When you are so moved by a preachment, or a picture, that the Lord tells you to go forth and commit yourself to the Lord – that’s an altar call. The Baptists don’t even want a picture unless there’s an altar call.”
The Ormond Organization’s allegiance with Pirkle would break up after one more film, The Believer’s Heaven (1977), but the Ormonds dedication to the Lord’s work would not – they next would team with Murfreesboro, Tennessee minister Dr. John R. Rice, publisher of fundamentalist gazette The Sword of the Lord, on films The Land Where Jesus Walked (1975) and The Grim Reaper (1976). Ron continued to wheel and deal up to and past the point when his cancer returned in 1980, and when he died in his faith the following year, he would be laid to rest on the grounds of a religious retreat founded by and named for Rice’s father, the Bill Rice Ranch, an institution that prides itself on outreach to the deaf. (Shades of If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? and “We punctured your ears… so you cannot hear the word of God.”) Tim and June carried on with the family business, and she went to her reward in 2006, a year after Estrus Pirkle. They leave behind stern warnings to get your house in order before the day of judgement comes – scoff at the risk of your eternal soul.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, New York City-based critic whose writing covers all manner of moving image-based art. His work appears regularly in Artforum, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Frieze, and sundry other venues.
Art by Jason Ngai