This month backstage is all over the place. Today it’s the Wheeler Farm in the Salt Lake Valley, where we’re presenting a mock radio show to a bunch of folks (do folks come in “bunches”? Carrots do. Folks can come in “klatches,” “committees,” “deputations.” Could there be a klatch of carrots? “Dear, run out to the garden and bring me in a little committee of beans.”) who have to do with tourism in Utah, which is where I live. The show is called “Story Road Utah,” invented by Clive Romney who loves pioneers, and it’s about the amazing adventures of pioneers, mostly along the Highway 89 corridor down through the center and south of the state.
Tonight’s show features a story about an eight-year-old teamster named Orson Adair who was sent from camp each night by his older companions to one farmhouse or another to buy milk for their evening meal. They gave him a twenty-dollar gold piece to buy it with, and since making change for such a coin was impossible for any farm wife, and since Orson had such a sweet face, he always came back with a bucket of milk and the gold piece, too. I didn’t say it was all righteous stories.
Fanny Brooks was a Jewish milliner (this is not someone who has a lot of money, but a person who makes hats) who came to Salt Lake (Utah) to millinate and run a boarding house and discovered that she’d settled in the only corner of the planet where people would call her “a Gentile.” Brigham Young was the one who publicly applied the misnomer when he adjured the saints not to do business with gentiles, on account of they (gentiles) were probably up to no good. I mean, hadn’t the gentiles kicked them out of Nauvoo and filled the Oregon Trail (which ran on the immediate other side of the Platte River from the Mormon Trail) with cholera and false doctrine?
Sister Brooks took exception to the adjuration and complained to President Young, who caved and told the saints they could buy Fanny’s hats and rent her rooms. The two became great friends, and though President Young remained ensconced in the Lion House and other presidential residences, most people took note of an uptick in the quality of his hats.
A couple of afternoons ago, backstage was at the First United Methodist Church on the corner of Second South and Second East in Salt Lake (still in Utah). This church was erected in 1905 and houses the oldest pipe organ in the intermountain area. Being that old, it needs fixing. (The Tabernacle organ might have been the oldest, but in 1948 it was fixed.) So they’ve been throwing a series of recitals on Sunday afternoons (I guess to demonstrate how badly the organ needs fixing, but it sounded great to me) called “The Wesley Sermon.” This is because right about where the Spoken Word would go if it was us, there’s a sermon written by John Wesley, who was quite good at it.
A couple of months ago, the lady who had been asked to be guest organist for this event, Florence Hawkinson (nobody is named “Florence”—what’s the deal? It’s a nice name!), asked me if I’d be interested in reading the sermon (not for my edification entirely—the idea is that I would read it aloud to the audience), as other guests who could read had done, like Robert Cundick and Frank Leyden. You know, people who could read. I said I thought it would be fun, and the church contacted me and we were on the calendar.
(I learned that most of the readers had been Latter-day Saints, as was, indeed, Florence Hawkinson, and though I was totally honored to be asked to serve in this way, I wondered if maybe the Methodists ought to brush up on their musical and oratorical chops. ((I learned that they can orate and musicate with the best of them—it’s just a friendly thing to have us in.))
This ecumenism, however, was something of an illusion, it turned out. I glanced across the beautiful circular sanctuary at an attractive little family, the dad of which was wearing a sport coat over a maroon shirt with no collar that buttoned all the way up. I roundly concluded that he was an associate pastor. After the event, his wife came up and told me that she had raised her seven children on Scripture Scouts and wanted her little girl to meet Boo Dog. I talked like Boo a little ((it hurts, but it’s fun)) and the child giggled maniacally. Then I asked about the dad and found out that the maroon was just a fashion choice.
On the drive home, I told my wife about a rewarding exchange I’d had with a true Methodist, though, and described the woman. Laurie said, “Oh, that was Florence’s sister.” My kingdom for a Methodist!)
After the organing and sermoning, Mike the Host (who doggoned better be a Methodist, and I think is) took us on a tour of the organ. Now, I’m used to an instrument that you can show somebody, but you can’t exactly “tour.” This would be the Martin guitar. But a true pipe organ, I guess, is something to be conceived in terms of real estate. We went through this little attic door into a room with big square wooden pipes that had plungers fixed in the tops of them, for tuning. Then we climbed this little wooden ladder into a tiny hallway that branched off in one direction into a raised enclosed level that had a walkway with hundreds of pipes poking into the air from either side of it. This is the little room in which my wife was standing when Sister Hawkinson, apparently intending to delight us, sank into a ten-fingered and two-footed “G” chord down in the sanctuary and rearranged our teeth.
There was another little room that might not have been built for human occupation that bristled with hundreds of tiny metal pipes. The organ has about eleven hundred working pipes, down from a couple thousand when it was built. When it’s “fixed,” it’ll have about four thousand.
It was dusty and haunted and wonderful.
Another backstage since last we gathered in the shade of this column was in a rehearsal room at BYU and on the indoor stage of the SCERA, which is a cultural and recreational facility in Orem (Utah), which stands for “Sharon Community Something-Something probably Association.” By the locals who use the theatrical facet of the operation, it’s called “Sirrah,” probably because this is a Shakespeare word. By those who use the recreational facet of the operation, it’s usually called “Sarah” in a friendly way. By visitors from out-of-state, which is what we consider people who even live at BYU for four years in a row, it’s invariably called “Sierra,” owing probably to the fact that they don’t really give a fig.
But that’s about to change! Because the theatre department of BYU is partnering with SCERA to produce a musical stage adaptation of the beloved book “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” which may have been written by a Methodist, except we all think it was written by a Mormon because it’s so nice.
Like Lorne Green (“Papa” on “Bonanza,” KBYU’s tip of the hat to frontier violence), Walt Disney, and George Lucas (who I learned yesterday really is one, except that he’s lost the true light, as evidenced by his tolerating Princess Amidala ((who was elected Queen of Naboo on the “Amazing Teeth” platform)) falling “madly, deeply” in love with that post-pubescent twit Anikin Skywalker).
This theatrical adaptation of the Toomey story is being done by two talented guys, the Shakespearean Actor Ward Wright and his finger-pickin’ wizard brother who writes books with Carmen Deedy and jams with John McCutcheon, Randall Wright—and yours truly, who was brought in after the heavy lifting had already been done.
In the two aforementioned acronymic locations, we held public readings of the play to see if what we had done made any sense. It mostly didn’t, so we’re writing in a whole sexual-tension level involving a rival for the Widow McDowell’s affections and maybe also a spy sub-plot.
Another backstage was backstage at General Conference. I feel this “backstage” privilege because of two things. Julie Beck, the General Relief Society President for the Planet Earth, lives up the street and always makes me feel like I’m sort of a “friend of the band” with a special pass. I’m sure she doesn’t know this. Also Elder Dallin Oaks liked my acting in the stage depiction of the history in his book “Carthage Conspiracy” which was performed under the title of “Hancock County.” Once at the Pearl Awards, which I no longer attend because I almost never win one, he passed by me on the way out and squeezed my elbow three times. This just shouts “backstage privileges.” Also I hear Elder Holland speak and I’m not on the other end of an Internet transmission—I’m in the wings with him stage left. It’s that loving and personal. And he’s never squeezed my elbow even once. And if he ever found my elbow between his fingers, he wouldn’t recognize it from Adam’s. Elbow.
Also, is President Monson the Prophet of the Lord or my dad? It’s hard to tell. I like him either way.
Ryan Murphy, the new Tabernacle Choir Conducting Associate, was the music director for the Sundance production of “Funny Girl” a few years back. He knocked out notes and wedged them into my head. That’s totally backstage. I see him smile more when he’s conducting the choir and the Conference Center congregation. I think Sundance was an “interim gig.”
Well, backstage, schmackstage, it’s been an interesting month. Thanks for spending a minute. I really like you guys.