- Associated Press - Sunday, May 11, 2014

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - From 1976 through 1980, a lot of us were arguably addicted to “The Gong Show,” a weird and wacky weekly TV extravaganza where a trio of judges was treated to acts that ranged from incredible to disgusting.

If any of the three didn’t like what was happening, they banged a gong, and the performer was kaput.

In 1979, Christa McKenna, then a resident of California, was among the contestants. She went the distance, impressing all three judges with her ability to contort her 6-foot-4-inch body into shapes resembling a spider, a crab, a pretzel.

For a minute or two, in front of a TV audience of millions, this Gumby-esque woman was on top of the world.

A lot - or too little, depending on your point of view - has happened since, according to The Grand Rapids Press ( https://bit.ly/1jocZ8Y ).

The last 15 years, Christa has been living on the streets of Grand Rapids.

In some instances, literally.

She points to an underpass on the west edge of Heartside, a neighborhood in transition that has seen its share of hearts both broken and soaring. “Used to sleep over there,” she says, and sighs.

Her big eyes are liquidy. “I just don’t know how I got to be this way.”

She was born Dorothy Christa McKenna, and grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a mother and what she describes as an undercover cop who “knew too much” and eventually moved the family of six to Michigan, settling outside Shelby, some 45 minutes north of Muskegon.

She shares a secret she says is linked to her father’s role: “You know those people who belong to the Polar Bear Club” and dive into the icy water? “They’re actually looking for bodies.”

Christa married Matthew and they had two children, one of whom she says succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She brings her purple-tinted fingernails to her lips and wonders still why her tiny Michael’s body was never returned to her, and it’s clear there is more than that question unanswered.

“I’m an alcoholic,” says Christa, as if to explain a lot of the fuzzy past, and in the next moment, she is rhapsodizing about her love of dance, and wishing she could be a mentor to children eager in the doing of it.

Despite the obvious challenges, she says she’s most comfortable when she’s moving - dancing ‘round a room, or even twisting herself into the rubber band that gave her 10 minutes’ fame.

“She’s a very beautiful dancer,” confirms Marge Palmerlee, executive director of Degage Ministries, and someone who’s lived 20 years among Heartside’s people.

“She won a talent show here once for her dancing. Poetry in motion. Her moves are absolutely beautiful.”

Palmerlee also knows of Christa’s sticking points: “She’s had her ups and downs. Still, she’s one of the sweetest people I have ever known. She has a heart of gold and wants to help people whenever she can.

“In the midst of her own troubles, she’s always looking for ways to help others.”

That was confirmed the instant I met Christa, just outside God’s Kitchen. As Christa drew away from another woman to greet me, the friend sought my gaze: “You treat her right,” she said. “This is a very special woman.”

As if to illustrate, Christa insists that the first thing we do is walk toward a parking lot where she says a squirrel may be waiting for her. “JUNIOR!” she cries. “JUNIOR!” But nothing scampers.

Christa is 60 now, and she’s lost a few inches in height, though she still towers over most the other women in the neighborhood, but with grace.

She has photos and medical documents to share. Pictures include those of her surviving mother, who lives in northern Michigan, and a daughter in Tennessee.

Records from last September show that Christa had an MRI, revealing scoliosis and stenosis. As if to defy the diagnoses, though, she drops to a lobby floor in the building where she lives with a boyfriend Jeff, and brings her legs up over her shoulders and then in front of her body.

It’s something she’s apt to do almost anywhere, anytime. People in Heartside know her as the “Spider Lady.”

She’s the Spider Lady now, and she actually walks while entirely coiled up, then assumes a new position that makes you wonder if her bones are of sponge or putty.

“Since I was 3,” she says. “It’s what comforts me.”

Christa has moved around a lot, and worked just as many jobs - as a massage therapist, hi-lo driver, dancer.

She came to Grand Rapids in 1999, and when she wasn’t living outdoors, camped out at Degage. Alcohol dogged her: “I did good, I did bad, I did good, I did bad.”

On good days, she’s up at 7, says her prayers, then walks and talks the Commerce and South Division Avenue corridors.

I ask her how she helps Jeff with bills. Another sigh. She draws a wrinkled swatch of cardboard from her bag. It reads “60 years old. Need a job. God + you please help me.”

“I’m lucky if I get six or seven dollars a day,” she says, working a corner on nearby Wealthy Street SE.

She talks longingly about altering her course, but that would take a change of habit, of friends and acquaintances, of setting: “It’s always like, ‘Christy, have a drink.’”

From her bag, she pulls a tattered copy of Playboy magazine. It’s 35 years old, and features Marilyn Monroe on the cover. She turns to Page 291. There’s a picture of Christa, rollerskating with two other women, all clothed, a perfectly harmless shot, set in sunny California.

That same year, she’d appeared on The Gong Show.

“Nineteen seventy-nine,” says a wistful Christa. “When I was 26.

“Everything happened when I was 26.”


Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, https://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide