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'We basically had a Christian Disneyland in our backyard' | Hollywood shines a light on PTL Ministries

A new movie releasing this weekend gives Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker the silver screen treatment.

FORT MILL, S.C. — The downfall of the PTL ministry, based in Fort Mill, was one of the most scandalous stories in the 1980s. For years, the ministry raised money in the name of faith, bringing millions of dollars to York County, South Carolina.

Then it all came crashing down. Now, the story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is getting a second look on the silver screen with the release of a new movie, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," this weekend.

The Bakkers made their names as renowned televangelists, spreading the gospel on television while soliciting donations for PTL. The ministry became a focus for Tim Funk, who was the religion editor at the Charlotte Observer and covered PTL for years.

“At the peak of PTL, we basically had a Christian Disneyland in our backyard,” he said, noting the location included the Heritage USA theme park.

Ken Garfield, who reported for the Observer, said he interviewed the couple during his time.

“At the root of this is a story about a scandal and fleecing people in the name of God,” he said.

PREVIOUSLY: PTL tower owners plan to sue York County if they can’t reach deal

Waking up from the dream

Funk said the dream ended with an abrupt awakening in 1987; an affair Jim Bakker had with 21-year-old church secretary Jessica Hahn came to light. But the scandal went even deeper, and a team of reporters at the Observer helped uncover the truth: the Bakkers were spending other people's money on their own lifestyles. 

“Jim and Tammy had used PTL as their personal piggy bank," Funk said. "Eventually, Jim went to prison for five years.”

Jim Bakker was convicted on fraud charges in 1989. Originally sentenced to 45 years in prison, his sentence was eventually whittled to eight years in 1992, the same year Tammy Faye divorced him. After serving just five years behind bars, the New York Times reported Bakker was released on parole in 1994.

The allure of the ministry waned, but not before bringing in those millions of dollars to York County, along with long-time residents; Funk noted a lot of people bought homes and rented apartments nearby.

Now, the saga is back in the spotlight, with Hollywood shining a light on it with "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," releasing in theaters Friday, Sept. 17. With the film set to re-introduce the story to a new generation, Garfield believes audiences will get a closer look at the Bakkers beyond what the television cameras captured during the ministry's run.

RELATED: Residents frustrated over PTL Tower 'eyesore'

"[Jim Bakker] was always pushing something, always running a scam," he said, "whereas with [Tammy Faye] if you got past the mascara and goofiness, there was a real human being under there, and I suspect this movie will show that."

Andrew Garfield, of no relation to the newspaper reporter, portrays Jim Bakker in the film, while Jessica Chastain plays Tammy Faye.

Bakker made a return to televangelism about nine years later with a new show, according to the Daily Press in Virginia. By this point, he had remarried. More recently, Bakker tried selling colloidal silver supplements he claimed could cure COVID-19, claims NPR reported he was sued for by the state of Missouri.

Tammy Faye would also remarry in 1993 and moved to Matthews, North Carolina, according to the Observer, taking the surname of her new husband, Roe Messner. The Messners would eventually move to a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri in 2007; the Observer reported this was done to be closer to Roe Messner's children and grandchildren from his first marriage. She would remain in the public eye as she battled cancer for 11 years, from 1996 until her death in July 2007 at age 65.

Will the Heritage Tower stand?

Before PTL fell, the ministry had started construction on the Heritage Tower, located on the grounds of the theme park. The project was abandoned before completion and has remained an eyesore ever since. Neighbors living near the old PTL campus - owned by MorningStar Ministries since 2004 - want the tower gone.

However, MorningStar said the tower would be renovated and transformed into a Christian retirement community. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in June 2021, but WCNC Charlotte learned from York County no building permits had been filed.

RELATED: Man personally buys billboard so old tower will come down

“I think York County wants it torn down- they’ve gone to court over it," said Funk. "I’m skeptical it will ever become that.”

"It was a real black eye to televangelism," Funk added, "but it started as a very pioneering kind of place.

WCNC Charlotte has reached out to MorningStar Ministries several times since June -- most recently on Monday, Sept. 13. As of publication, MorningStar has not answered questions about future plans for the property. On Thursday, the ministry told WCNC Charlotte they did not have enough time to craft an email response.

PREVIOUSLY: Groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for Heritage Tower repair project in Fort Mill

Contact Michelle at mboudin@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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