The Peculiar Mormon Art of the Road Show

I walked across the street to grab some lunch at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building the other day (having received a 50 dollar gift card for Temple Square restaurants from my office building’s management company after spending an hour stuck in an elevator a few months ago).   The Joseph Smith building is an elegant showpiece for the LDS Church, planted deep in the heart of Salt Lake City.  It’s got an enormous and striking central lobby, anchored by a looming statue of the first LDS prophet.  This building is actually a perfect representation of the Mormon Style, in that it makes strong, semi-confident steps toward the refinement and good taste of fine public buildings in other cities, while at the same time bearing just the slightest scent of kitsch.  The kitsch is supplied mostly by the pianist at the back of the entrance hall, who (bless her volunteering soul) fills the grandiose lobby with the sounds of The Phantom of the Opera and Can You Feel the Love Tonight? Who knows, maybe the prophet would have liked Mem’ries,  but the music, and the aging hosts and hostesses that try to suffocate you with geriatric sweetness, and the other invading signs that this is actually not a place of great worldly sophistication, give the whole scene a peculiar mood that is both quaintly lovable and a bit bizarre.

JSB Lobby

Let’s see, should I wow ’em with the Tigers Come at Night, or blow ’em away with Part of Your World?

Sitting there eating my lunch in the caffeine-free cafe off to the side, I started pondering the elements of the Mormon Style in greater depth.  I’m sure someone has analyzed the aesthetic in much greater detail than I am capable of, but the best summation I can come up with is to say that the Mormon Style is an amalgam of whatever happened to be hip or attractive in the larger cultural milieu five to eight years ago, cleansed of all edges and rough spots, mixed with the the florid tastes of a slightly-more-up-to-date-than-average grandmother.  Temple Square is the bastion of this style, where the LDS Church tries, for good reason, to be both beautiful in the broad sense, and spiritual in its own parochial way.  Other outposts of the LDS Church apply and develop the style in various ways, but these elements remain consistent throughout– a nod to beauty as defined by extra-Mormon sources, and a subtle Mormon spin to both clean up and dilute the original material nearly beyond recognition.

These ponderings took me back to the formative days of my youth, and the form that at one time gave the Mormon Style its greatest mode of expression: The Road Show.  The influence of Road Shows on the modern Mormon Church is in steep decline.  I haven’t heard of one being done for years.  But a few decades ago, this was a pretty popular activity.  The Road Show was an exercise in which the artistically inclined or attention deprived within a congregation would come together to create from scratch some sort of musical production involving a large cast, original stories and scripts, hastily assembled sets and costumes, and risible attempts at comedy.  In my day, several groups would plan their own plays and then come together in one big night to put them all on in sequence for one audience.  It was awful.

Road Show pic
I think you get the general idea

I was involved in several road shows, all very much against my will.  One was a fanciful retelling of the story of how the development of Utah was aided by the introduction of silkworms.  The silkworms in the cast were the lucky ones.  They were extremely condescending to us mulberry bushes.  But everyone learned a valuable lesson about worms, and their important part in helping the pioneers develop the silk industry which has remained a huge staple of Utah’s economy (that’s not remotely true).  For another road show we enacted the ancient parable of the Star-bellied Sneeches, which actually had some dignity about it.  For the road show the following year, the entire youth corp was forced to memorize the words and harmonic parts to Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time.  I was around 15.  My religious leaders thought it would be a good idea for me to stand in a chorus among my peers, in front of an audience of a few hundred, and sing Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time as an emotional finale to our inspiring revue. This is why anyone who grew up Mormon will tell you without hesitation that Mormons do not believe in infallibility when it comes to their leaders.  Now, with the distance of many years and through the prism of adult maturity, there is still no song in the world I detest as much as Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time.

sneetches11

The artistic high water mark of Farmington Road Show accomplishment

I just asked Macy if she has any memories of involvement in road shows.  Her instant response was “Yeah.  One year I was a tap-dancing chipmunk.”  Exactly.

My worst experience was at age 18.  I was forced to go down and take part in the road show.  New format: “we’re casting, writing, staging, rehearsing, and then performing the road show all in one crrrrazy Saturday!!!  Think how old you feel when you’re a senior in high school.  I had a girlfriend, and the beginnings of a little chest hair.  The next oldest cast member was 15.  I’m pretty sure Davis even weaseled out of it somehow.  It was horrible.  Despite an audition where I mostly tried to just be invisible, I was cast as the lead– an acerbic, comically modern Noah, who received revelations about the coming flood via fax.  Most of the script consisted of puns between ‘fax’ and ‘facts,’ and my (Noah’s) wife berating me while Paul Harvey (whom no person in the cast had ever heard of) narrated.  After we resolved a contrived conflict with the cardboard-costumed livestock, I had to do a solo dance to I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Is Gone, apropos of jack squat. I tremble with shame and self-loathing as I type this.  It was honestly one of the most painful experiences of my life.

Anyway, for all its kitschy feel to outsiders, the Mormon Style is worth something if only for the sacrifices its pawns have suffered to bring it to pass.  Which brings me to one final point of interest.  You may have noticed on the sidebar of this blog that there’s a plug for a book called The Road Show. This is the debut novel of our brother, Braden Bell, and is just hitting bookstores now.  Braden has written an extremely readable and engaging book also focusing on a road show, populated by people drawn into the production every bit as unwillingly as I ever was.  His characters have real problems like depression and alienation, and manage to find some peace through a moving process involving, yes, a road show.  I do not believe any of the characters’ difficulties were nearly as challenging as what I’ve described above, but still, it’s a very human book with intense focus on experiences that are universal, and universally interesting.  Let me be the first to say (because my brothers clearly don’t care) that this book is very worth reading.  You can find it on Amazon, or in other places where LDS books are sold.  Note: This is a religious book.  This blog will never be about religion, but if you subscribe to any brand of Christianity, you will find definite uplift in this book.  Hope you enjoy it.

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20 Responses to The Peculiar Mormon Art of the Road Show

  1. Eliza says:

    oh my. I am beyond grateful I was too young to be involved in those, that is just beyond painfully funny. I remember that noah one, classic. silk worms, sneeches, lol. “artistically inclined, and attention deprived”, lol, best sentence yet, that perfectly sums up the road show phenomenon.

    and fabulous plug for the book, here’s mine: Incredibly relate-able, beautifully written, can’t put down compelling, and life changing inspiring.

  2. Braden says:

    LOL. Ry. I was laughing untll you had the pictures of the sneetches. That is still a painful memory. LIke gives me a hot sweat awful. Interesting thoughts on Mormon aesthetics, too.

    Thanks for the plug, Ry. And Lize, you can’t weasel out by just plugging it at the end of Ry’s plug. It doesnt’ count. 🙂

  3. I read the book before anyone else in the family, and plugged it in the dddt sidebar first. And I’m considering selling copies on the street out of a used hot dog stand on my lunch breaks.

    I love your thoughts on Mormon style. So true and funny. The world can persecute us almost any way they want, but the second they come after the “Washington praying by his horse” painting in the den and the the big Captain Moroni statue above the fireplace, it’s going to be war.

  4. Rachel says:

    Some of my worst church memories come from forced participation in stake dances and roadshows. Oh my, I could do an entire post on growing up in the Jonesboro, GA stake.

    But, alas, I will only share one story. We were rehearsing for the roadshows- it was late in the (Satur)day. One part of the play required having a partner of the opposite sex to dance around with in a circle. The boys in my ward were so revolting that when our ward director realized that we were short two young men, I hastily offered my services to dress as a boy and act the part only because I would much prefer to dance with the girls (half of which were probably my sisters). You see, hand sanitizer wasn’t available to the lay person back in those days. You would not have understood the hoopla that followed over me dressing as a boy at a stake function….but, thats another story.

  5. Davis says:

    I. Did. Not. Weasel. Out.

    The Noah road show was one of the worst days of my life. It was a beautiful spring day, and all of my friends were in the church parking lot playing basketball while we were inside rehearing I Can See Clearly Now.

  6. Momza says:

    I was a brand new convert the first time I ever experienced a “Road Show”–
    I was just barely 17 and I wasn’t a cool kid, a popular kid, or had any kind of reputation to speak of that would’ve been damaged by participating in the program. I was in Drama in HS though, so perhaps because of that,
    I loved it. All of it. The cheesy script, the awful music, the cardboard backdrops and haphazard costumes. It was about the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe–I was the Old Woman. Which is very ironic, because that’s a fair description of what I have amounted to with age and seven yahoos.
    But I loved the feelings I had by just being around alof of really good-hearted, dedicated people who put up with alot of complaining and received barely an ounce of gratitude for giving up time with their families to come to the Church and try to inspire awhole lotta kids into having fun.
    When I was a new mother, I had the opportunity to be a Road Show Director. We lived in Independence, MO. in a ward that was at least half polynesian–it was a divided Ward in many ways–we wondered if we would get much participation at all. In the end, we had a hugely successful show–we had our missionaries sing “Spencer” a song about President Spencer W. Kimball by Joseph Grayson, a missionary that had taught me and my family the Gospel. The song was the Olio act, and it was awesome! The Saturday night performances over, we were so glad to be finished! Then Sunday morning, I got a call to bring the sheet music for “spencer” to church with me, requested by our sweet Bishop Ahmu.
    I wondered why he would have me bring it; and quickly found out as the meeting began with the announcement that President Kimball had died overnight. Then the Bishop asked our two missionaries to sing the song.
    It was beautiful and perfect.
    I loved reading Braden’s book–for all the memories it brought back and more.
    I, for one, think Roadshows are great and would love it if they made a comeback for the wards!
    Thanks for letting me yammer.

  7. Serene says:

    They had never heard of Paul Harvey!? That. Is. Sad.

    What has this nation come to?? He was part of my homeschool curriculum.
    No wait… that was Rush Limbough, nevermind.

    I was a singing penguin in my last road show. That’s all I’m gonna say.

    I love Braden’s book. Such a good read.

    And it looks swell on my bookshelf too.

  8. Patty Ann says:

    Oh yeah, I was a short queen with a mile high king, and the septer got stuck in the throne. That is ALL I will ever say about that one! However, I also loved all the cheesy, singing, fun that went along with the show. Later in my life, I actually had the horror of directing one and ended up with an assistant who thought she was the only one who knew how to do a play. On the night of performance, she told all the kids that they were horrible and would never amount to anything! (Well, I thought horrible was the whole point! But then, I did not write it, I just had to fix it). Some people never did understand that having fun and learning from each other was really what it was all about. The kids came through famously and we were all happy to put that behind us! Sometimes I miss seeing them, but today, the kids do the trek and EFY, so I am not sure when they would squish in a roadshow. I am just glad that I never was called upon to DANCE!

  9. Wade says:

    I can still remember my Road Show line. I played a former POW confined to a wheelchair who’s memory of a joyful day in September kept him going during the darkest days of imprisonment.

    “Do you remember the day, the day we flew the kites?”

    Not a dry eye in the audience.

    http://www.xmission.com/~westra/DayWeFle.html

    (Mom still owes me big time for that one.)

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Ryan,

    I didn’t realize your past was so rich with theatrical experience. No wonder you volunteered for the lead in the Arlington Ward’s production of “You Can’t Take It With You.”

    I was slightly uncomfortable reading your description of Mormon style at the JSB. Maybe it was a little too true – but also, I appreciate those volunteers who play the piano and serve as hosts. They are so sincere in what they are doing. By the way, I am 95% sure I drank a caffeinated DC at the cafe in the Joseph Smith Building.

  11. Ryan says:

    Lize, I’m surprised you remember the Noah production. I’ve done a pretty good job of blocking it from my mind, and I was in it.

    Brade, were you involved in the Sneetch one? My original draft actually stated that that one at least had some real production values, which is true from what I recall. That was the one road show that involved at least a modicum of fun, which is saying a LOT.

    Kook, there’s a whole culture surrounding “The Prayer in Valley Forge.” A lot of the no-mo’s at my firm joke about that painting, and its placement in one’s office, serving as a secret code of Mormon-ness among lawyers in Salt Lake firms. And it’s kind of true.

  12. Ryan says:

    Rachel, I would have been mad at you. Being forced to dance with the opposite sex at church functions was about the only chance for contact with a girl from ages 12-15 growing up. You stole that from a deserving young man. Shame on you.

    Davis, that’s funny, I remember your buddies hanging around that day, which was really weird. Now I can hazily remember you sulking through it alongside me. But at least you got to blend in with the anonymous cast. I’d love it if you were forced to do that dance.

    Momza, you are that rare individual who actually got the point of all those hoops they used to make us jump through. I’m sure I could have gained a lot if I’d had your attitude. I hope at least a couple of your seven yahoos have that same gift.

    Serene: Singing penguin > tap-dancing chipmunk. Nice.

    Patty Ann- what an inspiring road show that must have been for those kids. I hope they did amount to something, despite the wishes of their assistant director. Crazy how everyone who’s done a road show always has a few memorable experiences.

  13. Ryan says:

    Wade, that’s such a great line. I love picturing you saying it. And I also love picturing you flying a kite, actually.

    Elizabeth, I have been appropriately chastised. I didn’t want to be harsh, but honestly, but I did want to try to describe the imbalancing effect of walking into such a nice place and hearing middle-grade Broadway and Disney showtunes floating around. If it helps, I wouldn’t ever have it any other way.

    I am going to go check and see if there’s caffeine there now. I’m willing to be proven wrong on that one. But on the Phantom of the Opera as high civic art? No.

  14. Reed says:

    Ryan, does not Pres Obama give you an article to write every day?

  15. Ben Pratt says:

    Perhaps even more so than Momza, I was the kid on which every activity just worked. My leaders could have driven us out to a jailyard to break rocks all day so prisoners could have a day off and I probably would have had a good time and learned something about myself and about the importance of service.

    We did a road show one time. I didn’t understand at the time why we didn’t just do a regular play instead of putting on some sister’s work of dubious art. It was fine, though. We also had a series of them in one day, and it was kind of fun to watch and perform, mostly to laugh goodnaturedly at friends, mistakes, and (best of all) friends’ mistakes.

  16. Christian says:

    Ry, I don’t know how to say this without making things awkward, but I have seen Elizabeth volunteering as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building piano player on 2 occasions, so you may want to do an apology here.

  17. Elisa says:

    Seeing how I grew up in the same ward as Macy, I can attest to the weirdness of our wards Road Shows. I once was a dancing Red M&M (complete with a costume made out of a hula-hoop) that sang “We Go Together” from Grease, but re-written to incorporate some sort of religious doctrine.

    (I think Julie may have had something to do with that one. Or maybe it was Reed…I can’t remember now. I’m too old.)

    I was also a talking tree.

    We are ruining the youth of today by not making them experience their leaders desires to live out their Broadway fantasies by producing really bad Road Shows. We are not doing our job as grown ups!

  18. Braden says:

    Ry, I was the asst director for the Sneetches and it became a very difficult position. Bob Aamodt was the director. I think he had a really cool idea–a fun story simply staged with no music. The YW leaders rebelled. It had to have music! They came to me. I had considerable experience as a director at that point along with the ego of an 18 year old ready to go off to college. I was flattered and agreed. I was the go-between. Bob sadly agreed to put music in. I was tasked with being in charge of it. I worked with the ladies who werew worried. So, we came up with “How do you solve a problem like star-bellies” to the tune of How do solve a probem like Maria. It was awful. The final product was not Bob’s vision, nor was it a real traditional road show. It was just awful on every level. And I feel bad for having been flattered in to not being supportive.

  19. Davis says:

    “Perhaps even more so than Momza, I was the kid on which every activity just worked. My leaders could have driven us out to a jailyard to break rocks all day so prisoners could have a day off and I probably would have had a good time and learned something about myself and about the importance of service.”

    Same here.

  20. Elizabeth says:

    Ry, I don’t know how to say this without making things awkward, but I have seen Elizabeth volunteering as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building piano player on 2 occasions, so you may want to do an apology here.

    Christian, I can’t believe you didn’t stop and say hi on at least one of those occasions. But you’re right, Ryan does owe me an apology. I played an amazing and heartfelt “Chopsticks.”

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