Remembering The 80s “Rainbow Man” Before He Flipped His Freakin’ Wig

By on April 6, 2015

In the 70s and 80s, Rollen Stewart, aka “The Rainbow Man,” could be seen at televised sporting events, smiling like a giddy Jesus Freak fool and wearing a bright rainbow wig, all while carrying a sign that spelled out a popular bible verse: “John 3:16.”

Stewart — the subject of a 1997 documentary made by Sam Green — became so omnipresent on TV that his appearances entered the popular culture. He later claimed that he drove 60,000 miles a year to attend more than a thousand sporting events over about fifteen years.

Sportscasters didn’t quite know what to make of the Rainbow Man every time he appeared on camera — sometimes they were clearly annoyed, other times they were amused — but no matter how they felt about seeing him, they were clearly baffled how Stewart seemed to be everywhere, showing up in towns all across the country just about every weekend.

He ended up on dozens of golf telecasts, and in the stands at baseball games (sometimes visible on camera right behind the plate), football games, Indy 500 races, you name it. When he was interviewed, he usually came off as someone slightly unhinged, and producers quickly realized he presented a liability to their broadcasts and they tried their best to ignore him, even though he was little more than a pest. At first.

It wasn’t always big smiles and thumbs up and rainbows for the Rainbow Man. Stewart had lived through a rough childhood in Spokane, Washington, were both parents had been alcoholics. His father died when he was seven, and then his mother was killed in a house fire when he was fifteen. That same year his sister was strangled by her boyfriend.

Rollen Stewart became rebellious and eventually turned to the high speed thrills of drag racing in high school, and even opened up a shop where he worked on cars. He also married his first love, but when she left him, he sunk into despair, and sold the shop and moved to a mountain ranch, where he became a marijuana farmer. He also tried to grow the world’s longest mustache, and he watched a lot of TV.

The first time anyone can remember seeing him on TV was at 1977 NBA Finals in Portland, Oregon, when the cameras panned over to show a man in the aisles, dancing and wearing his rainbow-colored Afro wig. He’d jump into the frame, giving them the thumbs-up and grinning like crazy, and the publicity from his appearance was so addictive that Stewart thought he might be able to find a way to parlay it into a TV show of his own. He sold his pot farm and all of his possessions, and moved into his car. And then he just began showing up everywhere. He even ended up on a Budweiser TV commercial, and lived off the residual checks for awhile, but wider TV fame, especially the offer of his own show, proved elusive. By the time of the 1979 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, broadcasters were actively trying to avoid showing him on camera.

Then, after the 1980 Super Bowl, Stewart recalled later, in one interview, that he was depressed and watching a televangelist, Charles R. Taylor, on the TV in his hotel room, and it was soon thereafter he was born-again into a self-ordained minister with one mission in life, to use his Rainbow Man persona to convince sinners to accept Christ as their savior. Not too much after that he thought he’d spread the good news by showing up at TV events wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Jesus Saves” and various Bible citations, a carrying signs too, most frequently one with the John 3:16 message (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” etcetera).

In the mid-80s, he spent all his time traveling to sports events around the country, living out of his car, and subsisting on his savings and donations and hand-outs, including free game tickets from sympathetic church-going Christians who also believed in his “spread the message of Love” routine, and saw it for what it was.

He continued showing up at just about any televised sporting event he could find: at the 1984 Olympics (where the Russians threw him in a Moscow jail for a short time), the World Cup, NFL playoff games, the Indy 500, the Masters, horse races and even the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.  As always, he’d arrive at the venue and figure out the prime position for being seen on camera, even going so far as to bring a small battery-operated television with him to help figure out where the cameras were being pointed.

Rollen Stewart eventually met his future wife, Margaret Hockridge, in a church in Virginia, in 1984, and she began accompanying him as they traveled around the country together over the next year. He and Hockridge married in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1986.

Sports television producers thought his antics detracted from the action on the field, and they directed cameramen not to point towards the Rainbow Man if they saw him, but he changed positions frequently and got on TV anyway. Chet Forte, ABC’s former director of “Monday Night Football,” told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 that Stewart “got to be a terrific distraction … it was very annoying seeing this guy waving signs and all.” NBC’s golf producer in the 1980s, Larry Cirillo, told ESPN that he threatened the cameramen’s jobs if they gave him air time.

Being a national figure by now, the Rainbow Man ended up ripe for parody, of course, and ultimately showed up on the premiere episode of third season of “The Simpsons” (“Stark Raving Mad”), where Homer ends up incarcerated in a mental institution. He was also joked about on “Saturday Night Live” (Christopher Walken appearing in the same shirt and rainbow wig) and he was talked about on the news a lot, practically every game where he showed up.

Eventually, Stewart became the target of increasing harassment by TV and stadium officials, and things started to go very badly for him after his wife left him, saying that the Rainbow Man had choked her at a 1986 World Series game because she held up a sign in the wrong location (they divorced in 1990 and kept in touch for many years). Then, his car was totaled by a drunk driver, and his money ran out, and he wound up homeless on the streets of L.A.

Sometime in the early 90s, Stewart began to become increasingly paranoid and became convinced that Jesus was coming back soon, so the Rainbow Man decided to create a radically different media character for himself by acting like a terrorist, thinking that the media would begin paying attention to him again.

In 1991, at the Masters golf tournament, he blew an air horn just as Jack Nicklaus was lining up a putt, then he detonated a stinkbomb. Later that year he detonated four more stinkbombs in Orange County, California, at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral church, the offices of the Orange County Register newspaper, the Trinity Broadcasting Network offices, and the Joy Bells bible bookstore, but thankfully no one was hurt.

He also sent out apocalyptic letters that included a hit list of preachers, signing the letters “the Antichrist.” Somewhat confusingly, Stewart later said he wanted to call attention to the Christian message that, yes, God loves you.

On September 22, 1992, believing the Rapture was only six days away and after having prepared himself by watching TV for 18 hours a day, the Rainbow Man totally flipped his wig.

Posing as a contractor, he picked up two day laborers in downtown L.A., with the plan to kidnap them. He then drove them to the Hyatt high-rise hotel near LAX, Los Angeles’s main international airport, but taking the men up to room 718, he unexpectedly walked in on a chambermaid, and after drawing a gun on her, she locked herself in the bathroom, becoming his hostage, while the two men with Stewart escaped. As planned, the police came and ended up surrounding the hotel, but Stewart figured this was his last big grasp at fame and placed bible verse placards all over the windows of the room which he knew would be visible to the camera crews that would be arriving below.

Stewart demanded a live three-hour press conference, hoping to make his last national splash, but they refused to let him talk to the press. Then, after an eight-hour siege, a SWAT team threw in a concussion grenade, kicked down the door to room 718, and hauled the Rainbow Man away, finding he not only had a loaded .45 automatic handgun, but also two full ammunition clips and 47 live rounds.

In court, appearing on eight felony charges, including three for taking hostages, each carrying a life sentence, Stewart rejected a 12-year plea deal in order to have the forum of open court in order to spread his ‘God loves you’ message to the courtroom, believing the rapture was coming imminently. He ended up being restrained by bailiffs, telling the judge: “I feel I have a right to speak. All I’m trying to do is make a statement about the end of the world.” He was given three life sentences for kidnapping. Being carried out of the court, he threw another tantrum, blaming everything on a society that’s “bigoted toward Jesus Christ.”

The police officer who negotiated with him by phone during the hotel standoff had a better take on it, saying, “With all due respect, maybe you look at a little bit too much TV.”

Stewart was also found guilty of the stinkbomb attacks after his imprisonment, which probably helped lead California Prison inmate #HH7708 from being granted parole in 2002. He was denied parole again in 2010. Today he remains in prison at Mule Creek Prison in Ione, California. His next hearing is set for 2017.

He spends most of us his “free” time now writing letters to various Christian groups, in hopes of finding someone who will once again pick up his bible verse signs and colorful wigs and help him spread God’s good word, but so far, he hasn’t found any new followers at the end of his rainbow.

Watch an ESPN segment from years ago on Rollen Stewart below:

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Patrick Gregston

    A relevant Bible verse is John 3:19 “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Rollin Stewart can’t distinguish his evil acts. How he didn’t get classified as incompetent is a story that ought to be told.