Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Man

“Rockin'” Rollen Stewart

During the 1970s and ’80s, “Rockin” Rollen Stewart was a familiar presence to sport’s fans. Even though you might not be familiar with his name, you’ll remember the banners he used to display at sporting events, reading ‘John 3:16’.

After garnering his first frenetic fifteen seconds of Warholian fame at a Portland Trailblazer Basketball game in 1977, Stewart sought to spread his message further afield. For years he was seen making a spectacle of himself at various sporting events in a huge rainbow colored wig, smiling from ear to ear with wide eyes, hoisting giant placards with biblical passages writ upon them, as he gleefully bounced around, clad in fake fur loincloths.

Rollen, through years of practice (and spending every last cent he had to attend these sporting events) developed an innate talent for strategically positioning himself–much to the constant chagrin of network cameramen–in such a way as to steal the limelight from the televised proceedings while spreading The Word of the Lord.

“He’s a pest, ” an NBC executive once snorted. “We try to take him out of a shot whenever we can.”

“He got to be a terrific distraction,” seconded ABC sports producer Chet Forte. “He would station himself behind home plate and our camera would view over the pitcher’s shoulder and it was very annoying seeing this guy waving the signs and all.”

Occasionally, those annoyed by Stewart’s actions would provoke security guards. “You know you’re not wanted when they send security guards to walk you out of your seat,” Stewart once said. Stewart claimed he was hounded by authorities at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo who took him for a spy, thinking his JOHN 3:16 placard was some sort of coded message.

Stewart became known as “The Rainbow Man” due to the aforementioned rainbow-hued wig of which he adorned his anointed, holy-madman-head, buzzing as it did with the divine resonance of The Lord. It was sometime during the late 70’s when I first spotted Stewart on my home TV screen at a sporting event (this was before he was born-again and rescued by Jesus from a dark abyss of sexual promiscuity and wanton drug abuse. Stewart later said of that period of his life: “I said I was going to sail around the world on my water bed.”)

At the height of his popularity, Stewart appeared in a commercial for Anheuser-Busch, and was paid to attend parties looking his outlandish self, rainbow hair, loin-cloth and all. His character was featured on Saturday Night Live, St. Elsewhere and The Tonight Show. Cartoonist Charles M. Shultz  drew The Rainbow Man into his cartoon Peanuts standing alongside good ol’ Charlie Brown.

But, unfortunately, toward the end of the 80’s, things started to unravel for The Rainbow Man. In a 1982 interview with Golf Digest magazine, Stewart was quoted as saying: “I was living on my ranch…and my life revolved around sex and drugs. I wasn’t happy, though, and one night I had a religious experience and was born again as a Christian.”

This historic conversion took place after the 1980 Super Bowl in Pasadena. As Stewart recalled, “I had gone in my fur loincloth and wig. The girls loved it. Everywhere I walked, they were patting my butt. I could have held a thousand women in my arms that day, and yet I walked out of there sad. It was the shallowness. I was being seen all over the world, but never as myself.” That night, after returning to his hotel room he found Jesus, while watching a television show called Today In Bible Prophecy. “I fell to my knees there in that room and allowed Jesus to take control of my life.”

Subsisting on one meal a day, and smoking massive quantities of pot, Stewart began a blitzkrieg for the Lord, working 12 sporting events a month as he fervently flashed his JOHN 3:16 message  on placards, signs and T-Shirts, spreading  The Lord’s Word in his own unique fashion.  (The message of the Gospel according to St. John, chapter 3, verse 16, is, “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”)

In 1984, he met Margaret Hockridge, a born-again grade school teacher, at a church in Virginia. Margaret found herself, “in awe of him.” Smitten, the two bought a Toyota van and hit the road for the Lord. Ten months later the couple were married in St. Louis. The bride dressed in mauve, and Stewart wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the message ‘Jesus is Coming.’

As the 80’s progressed, Stewart fell deeper and deeper into his strange vocation, driving more than 50,000 miles a year, and traveling to more than 100 sporting events. The strange thing is, Stewart didn’t even like sports. In fact, as he told People  magazine in 1988: “I despise sports. People who go to sporting events are like the Romans who went to watch the lions eat the Christians. I know I’m a strange and unusual vessel. But we’re sincere about this.”

He didn’t much like TV either. “I realize now television is a tool of Satan,” he said. “I never watch TV unless it’s to figure out my own strategy so that I can appear on it.” This he did to perfection, figuring out where cameras were located and calculating how tight the camera angles were. Then he could place himself in a position so when the camera came on him Stewart was ready to bounce about and spread his tutti-frutti word o’ the Lord.

Stewart was a stickler for details, especially when it came to his advertisements for God. According to Hockridge, his now ex-wife, he blew up at the 1986 World Series at Shea Stadium. Stewart figuratively flipped his wig and tried to choke Hockridge when she stood in the wrong spot with her JOHN 3:16 placard, incurring the righteous wrath of the rainbow-headed one. His mood, Margaret said later in a People magazine interview, was “constantly up and down.” By 1990, Margaret had had enough, and filed for divorce.

After the breakup Stewart apparently became more unstable. In May 1991 an arrest warrant was issued, accusing him of 4 stink bomb attacks in Orange County, California. The warrant charged Stewart with setting off foul-smelling bombs at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove; a Christian bookstore in Garden Grove; at the Trinity Broadcasting Studio in Tustin; and at the offices of the Orange County Register newspaper in Santa Ana. According to the authorities, Stewart assembled the stink bombs using a timing device, a knife and an acid filled balloon.

At the 1991 Masters golf tournament, the authorities detained Stewart after he allegedly set off a remote controlled air horn, a loud buzzer and several colorful smoke bombs just as Jack Nicklaus was preparing to putt on the 16th green. Stewart was released after tournament officials declined to press charges.

“The same type of device went off at the Foreman-Holyfield fight,” Santa Ana Police investigator Ferris Buckles said. “But investigators there kicked it down a sewer storm drain and we don’t have the evidence.”

A year before, Stewart had been arrested for disturbing the public at The American Music Awards in Los Angeles after he tried to toss skunk sacs into the audience. Stewart said he wanted to show the public that “God thinks this stinks.”

Matters came to a head in late September 1992, when Stewart was arrested after holding a maid hostage in the Hyatt Hotel next to Los Angeles International Airport. Stewart, reported the  Los Angeles Times, held the police at bay with threats that he had a bomb. When the stand-off continued well into the evening, police officers used what they called ‘flash-bang’ grenades to stun a wigless Rainbow Man and storm the seventh-floor room where he was under siege. A 38-year-old housekeeper was found uninjured after having locked herself in the bathroom. The police apparently decided to make their move after Stewart threatened to fire a pistol at planes landing at the airport. A few hours after the incident, as the police were driving Stewart away, reporters asked him why he had done it. “To get the word out ,” he shouted back, flashing a smile.

The incident began at 9:15 on the morning of September 22nd, when Stewart walked into a vacant room at the Hyatt, taking the cleaning lady, Paula Madera, by surprise. Madera immediately ran into the bathroom and locked herself in, figuring rightly that Stewart was some kind of crazy. It was at this point the Rainbow Man decided to light two small fires, which attracted attention to himself.

In short order, LA Police Department ordered up the SWAT Team, bomb squad and several fire engines to deal with the situation. While all this commotion was going on outside, Stewart was posting biblical placards in his hotel room window so they could be read from the ground below. One was an apocalyptic verse from the New Testament referring to the passage: “The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat.”

At 5:45 PM–when Stewart threatened to harm his hostage and start taking pot shots at jetliners as they passed near the hotel–the police decided to act. Shortly after, the SWAT team stormed the room, using flash-bang grenades to disorient Stewart. At the scene police found Stewart’s infamous blue, red, yellow, green, purple and pink Afro wig, along with a high caliber pistol, various incendiary devices, three day’s worth of food, as well as Bibles, religious tracts and poetry.

According to another LA Times article, Stewart’s motive for taking a hostage was  so he could alert the world that Armageddon was nigh at hand.

“He thinks the second coming of Christ is on the way, and he wants to spread the word,” said LA Police Detective Tom King. “I don’t consider him to be a nut. I consider him to be a religious zealot.”

Charles R. Taylor, the baptist minister whose TV show Today in Bible Prophecy    inspired Rollen’s religious conversion, echoed Officer King’s sentiments. “He’s not dangerous, he won’t hurt anyone.” Taylor, who went to the hotel during the hostage drama in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Rollen to surrender, described him as “a little on the fanatical side. He meant well, but he took the wrong approach.” 

Others, though, felt Stewart posed a genuine threat. “This is not Bozo the Clown,” said LA District Attorney David P. Conn. “He is a  sick and dangerous man.”

Talking to People magazine,  Stewart seemed unworried that some considered him  dangerous. “I was asked by the psychiatrists here if I hear voices,” said Rollen during an interview conducted in prison. “I answered, ‘No, I’m not hearing voices. But I’ve been hearing the voice of God for years.”

On July 13th, 1993, “Rockin’” Rollen Stewart was sentenced to three terms of life imprisonment for his role in the hostage drama. This might seem extreme when one takes into account that Rollen Stewart never hurt a flea, but many felt he had the capacity to go further. LA’s deputy district attorney Sally Lipscomb described him as “a David Koresh waiting to happen. He has the same beliefs and he stands by them so strongly he’s willing to die or kill for them.”

During sentencing in the LA Superior courtroom, pandemonium erupted, as Stewart began a rambling end o’ the world rant, conducted at top volume. Upon  being wrestled to the floor by deputies, he shouted: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they’re doing!”  While that was going on, the maid who had been trapped in the hotel room by Rockin’ Rollen, wept in the rear of the courtroom.

In February 1994 Stewart was sentenced to an additional five years for his Orange County stink bomb escapades.

“This man would not let any crime get in the way of getting his message out,” said deputy district Attorney M. Marc Kelly. “We felt he deserved to be punished and the public of Orange County deserved to have him put away for as long as possible.” Municipal Court Judge Elva Soper described Rollen as a “danger to the community.”

That this danger might have been real was brought to light by the Los Angeles Times, which reported in September 1992 that Stewart had contemplated killing President George Bush and took steps toward assassinating then Presidential candidate Bill Clinton. According to District Attorney David Conn, Stewart bought a .45 caliber handgun at the time of Clinton’s campaign visit to LA,  then went to the Boneventure, where Clinton was staying, to shoot him. He aborted his plan when he became aware of the heavy security surrounding Clinton. At around the same time he was also spotted at a speech given by the Arkansas governor.

Stewart’s word spread, despite his position on the fringes of society. Though many saw Stewart as a lone-nut evangelist, he was actually part of a small and close knit group of “televangelists” whose “television ministries” were funded by a vast network of Christians sympathetic to their message of the  imminent second coming of Christ. This network enabled Stewart to generate the money necessary to finance his activities, and to send his helpers to sporting events. One of Stewart’s evangelical allies, Doug Hill, told the Arizona Republic in January 1992, “To the best of my knowledge, there are only seven of us. With as many games as we’re on, most people think it’s a hundred people.”

Doug Hill first saw the master of the medium–the ubiquitous Rollen Stewart–at a football game in the mid-80’s, and thought to himself, “Wow, I could do that, too!” So Hill made himself up a John 3:16 placard, bought a rainbow-fro, and then followed faithfully the footsteps of his inspiration across the TV screens of America, waving his religious signs much to the dismay of TV sport producers.

Whether the number of copycat followers of Stewart was actually two, seven, or a hundred, it gives one cause to ponder the effect of charismatic characters such as “The Rainbow Man”, and their ability to attract followers together in a common cause, fueled by an intense belief that Armageddon is on the horizon, and that drastic action must be taken to spread word of The End Times.

In the final analysis, I believe Rollen Stewart became disillusioned with not only his fleeting fame in the late 80s, as more and more TV directors became wise to his ploys and were able to limit his on-screen antics; but also with the growing realization that his message was not being taken seriously. Perhaps this is why he decided to up the ante and secure his rightful place in martyrdom with the likes Jim Jones and Dave Koresh, albeit on a smaller, less bloodier scale, than his two charismatic counterparts.