WERNERSVILLE, Pa. - At the church of Jon & Kate one evening last week, a rock band was playing, hands were being raised, sweat was pouring forth from an evangelist, and children were asking to be healed.
But not the children who many around this Berks County tabloid-besotted town believe truly need saving: twins Cara and Mady and sextuplets Alexis, Hannah, Aaden, Collin, Leah, and Joel.
That gang was supposedly holed up inside a $1.3 million house on an isolated, winding, hilly road in this borough near Reading - on a compound with two roaming German shepherds and reports of various roaming paparazzi. Their big black van was parked inside the garage, but at least on this day, there was no sign of anyone in the family of eight nor any paparazzi - whose presence has spawned yellow tape and chains and "No trespassing" signs on the nearby driveways of irritated neighbors.
Still, their home and hometown have become ground zero for the excruciating televised and tabloidized meltdown of Jon and Kate Gosselin as they proceed with their dubious but lucrative venture documenting their cute but increasingly pitied Plus 8 on the cable network TLC's hit reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8.
As their marriage appears to be in distress, with allegations of infidelity on both sides, and as the show's goofy innocence dissolves into a cynical, tawdry, family-unfriendly thicket, interest has only intensified.
"We wish them the best, and we're praying for their marriage to be restored," said Cindy Seyfert, owner of the Lotus Salon on West Penn Avenue in Wernersville, where people are ringing up from as far as Los Angeles to see if Seyfert and fellow stylist Tracie Ramos are responsible for Kate Gosselin's controversial hairstyle. (They are not, and glad of it. Seyfert called the bob "disconnected.")
Many around this town say they couldn't care less, even as they take visiting relatives for a swing by the house on Heffner Road, or report sightings in the Wyomissing Target. ("Kate wasn't very nice to my friend's daughter. Told her don't make a scene," reports one Little League mom.) Or lay claim to inside information pre-tabloid. "The scuttlebutt around here was going on long before it hit the papers," assured another mom. Some locals did not want to be named publicly, sensitive to the contradiction of making yourself public as you weigh in on the consequences of the Gosselins' going public with their family.
"My wife has seen Kate coming out of the clothing store," reported Sgt. Mike Fizz, a Reading police officer who was on dad duty Wednesday, picking up his 9-year-old daughter from school. "I don't know what to think. I find it all hard to believe."
To listen to Wernersville-area residents, the Gosselins, despite being filmed doing ordinary family things like going for ice cream, shopping at Party City, and inviting classmates for a bouncy birthday party, seem isolated, as disconnected as Kate's hairstyle, from the real, real-life Little League and Twistee Treat family culture of the town.
They are rarely seen among the ordinary.
"I don't feel bad for them. I feel bad for the kids," said Dino Dimariano, a waiter at a pub where paparazzi have been known to park their cars and wait for the Gosselins to drive by.
"Don't care, not interested," said Betsy Kreitz, as she watched her 7-year-old grandson loft a single over the pitcher at a ball field. "Everybody else in the world has kids, too, and they're not making money off it."
(Indeed, on Friday the Pennsylvania Department of Labor said it was looking into a complaint that the show was not complying with child-labor laws.)
As their marriage sours, their ratings are up: Nearly 10 million people watched the season premiere Monday. But some say Berks County is mostly blase, if not vaguely disapproving, about it all.
"For an area well known for Pennsylvania Dutch and their busybody ways, I'm amazed at the lack of local interest," said Jason Szilli, a salesman from outside Reading. (Yet there are some who are ready to dish: A waitress at Austin's, across from the Gosselins' church, reported on a blog that Jon and Kate had left her an 8 percent tip.)
Others are sympathetic, especially the ones who know Jon. (Kate sympathizers are harder to find, despite the tabloid pictures suggesting Jon was cheating on her in area nightspots like Legends on Fifth Street Highway in Reading, where one guy drinking a beer observed without irony: "If it was me, I'd have stuck it out until the show was over.")
"For me, he's like my own family," said Felicia Spada, owner of Calabria's Restaurant, whose son went to school with Jon and whose granddaughter's birthday party guests included the 8-year-old twins and the 5-year-old sextuplets. The kids came with their dad; Mom was not there, and Spada reported that they had acted normally, seemed happy to be there, and enjoyed the clown. "I don't see him as a celebrity."
Her son, Joe, said he tried not to get involved with the public trials of his friend. "They have their private life, they have their show life," he said. "Like anything else, it gets exhausting."
This is not a town unfamiliar with the famous. Celebrities and rock stars (Aerosmith, for example) regularly pass through, almost always to partake of its renowned Caron drug- and alcohol-rehab center on the South Mountain and usually trying to avoid attention.
This is a new twist: a family that has willingly put itself on television and now is professing a desire for some level of privacy - a stance whose hypocrisy is not lost on anyone here, especially the moms and dads whose own complicated and exhausting lives are not being traded in for a reported $47,000 an episode and a slew of speculated-about perks (such as lifetime free groceries from the Giant supermarket preferred by organic-conscious Kate).
Meanwhile, at Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church off Van Reed Drive in Reading (where, as any close Jon & Kate follower can tell you, the Gosselins ended up after a falling-out with Calvary Church, where Kate's father is associate pastor, a church that initially helped them with clothes and baby things), there was no official comment.
"We respect their privacy. I'm sorry," said a church secretary.
But on Wednesday night, at a service especially for young people, some parishioners expressed concern for the family.
"It's unfortunate," said one father of three children, 9, 7, and 2, as he left the packed service, led by Glad Tidings' evangelist, Pastor Greg Hubbard. "Their life is out there. I've seen Jon drop his kids off here for Sunday school. I don't see them as celebrities. He seemed like he never really liked the fame thing."
A surprising number of people around town seem to have a strong opinion about Kate - regularly criticized for traveling too much, being snippy with Jon, and conducting her family like a business - and especially her hairstyle. Mostly, the arty bob with the buzz-cut back, described by one reporter as an "angry soccer mom" cut, gets a thumbs-down.
Outside Twistee Treat, Kymonie Davis, 17, offered that Kate's hairstyle "doesn't suit her" and predicted that "if they get divorced, then there goes the show."
Indeed, some people are keeping their fingers crossed that Jon & Kate Plus 8 does fade to black, or at least to obscurity, for the Gosselins and for themselves.
"This is a nice, quiet, small, little town, and it has become freaking nuts," said Peter Heim, a neighbor who has his own story - six kids, home-schooled, living in a renovated pub - but is not currently considering television offers. "I chase the cameras off all the time. We just want to be left alone."