Mormons on a Mission

08.20.10
New York Times

By Kirk Johnson

AT 3:30 in the morning on July 23, 1962, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir gathered at the airport here for a flight to a military base in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Preparations for a now nearly forgotten salvo of the cold war, called Operation Telstar, were under way.

It was time to sing.

The 360-member choir, the lyrical voice of Mormonism since pioneer days, was on a mission with multiple levels, historians and surviving singers say. They were to be the featured musical anchor later that day for the first international satellite television program — a blast of American culture and technological prowess aimed at Europe, using a wobbly, 170-pound satellite that had been launched into orbit that month.

Small stories and large ones were interwoven — in the off-camera dreams and fears of the singers and organizers and in the on-camera references to the Kremlin and the arms race. A brash, ambitious television station manager from Rapid City, S.D., named William F. Turner, who happened to know some Mormons — and some Kennedys in the White House — played a part. Darleen Merrihew, then a 32-year-old alto, was three months pregnant with her fourth child.

And Owen and Helen Clark were preparing for the first-ever performance, scheduled that night back in Salt Lake City, of the Clark Family Singers. The family group, featuring their son Elliott — then 10 years old, now a soloist for the choir — was on the program at the tabernacle itself, the building from which the choir, generations earlier, had drawn its name.

Meanwhile, tensions between the United States and the old Soviet Union were about to boil over. In Cuba, the Russians were deploying missiles that summer aimed at the United States, a turn of events that, when discovered in October, would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But for the choir members, the responsibilities and significance felt even more immense. Through the conservative years of the 1950s, the church had become closer to mainstream American life than probably any period in history, before or since. Now they were riding that wave to a new high, with the choir singing not just for the faith but for the nation itself.

The story of their journey — included in the DVD portion of a new release commemorating the 100th anniversary of the choir’s first recordings — offers a bracingly different take on early 1960s culture than the one millions of Americans watch each week on the television advertising drama “Mad Men.” Glamorous debauchery and cynicism may have underpinned the marketing of floor wax and cigarettes, but earnest yearning and anxiety were twitchingly, poignantly alive then, too.

“We knew we were singing the message of America to the world,” said Vernie Swenson, 90, who was in the choir and on the platform that day with his wife, Shirley, 87. “It was an honor beyond anything we’d ever imagined.”

At the foot of Mount Rushmore, with the sculptured heads of presidents in the backdrop, on Telstar’s 123rd orbit since its launch, just after noon Mountain Time, the conjunction of technology, geopolitics and religious striving reached its apogee. The entire broadcast lasted about 20 minutes. Of that, the choir filled only about three.

But within the church at least, a chord was struck, deep and resonant and lasting.

“The choir seemed to call up strange echoes among the cliffs — rich songs of progress, of vast migrations to better lands, of explorers, overtones from the marching pioneers,” said an article in the church newsletter three months later. But in that spotlight moment, “there were undertones of evil too,” the article continued. “To all the free world and beyond, this feeling that the past was looking down upon us was intensified.”

In telling his part of the story, Mr. Turner, 81, now retired and living in Naples, Fla., still sounded like the fast-talking 33-year-old television executive he was that summer. He worked for a tiny-market, middle-of-nowhere station — 12,000 working television sets in signal range in the still-wild and empty Dakotas — but he had an idea and was determined to chase it. The broadcast and its planning had become a major news event.

“I got in touch with the people who had responsibility for the broadcast in New York City and said, ‘How about including something from up here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where history is in the making?’ ” Mr. Turner said in a telephone interview. “They said, ‘What did you have in mind?’ I said, ‘A good friend of mine, his uncle is from Salt Lake City, and he can get the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.’ They said, ‘How you going to get them there?’ I said, ‘We’ve got airplanes.’ ”

Mr. Turner, who is not Mormon — he grew up Roman Catholic in Connecticut — also had some political juice: he knew President John F. Kennedy through connections he’d made with the Kennedys years earlier while working in New England. Mr. Turner said he used that leverage in arguing for a spot on the Telstar ticket.

The string-pulling worked. Organizers at the three collaborating television networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, approved Mr. Turner’s plan, and what choir members recalled as a whirlwind — less than two weeks from first word about the broadcast to being on the Air Force buses heading for the Rushmore monument — began.

“We didn’t know what was going on at all,” said Mr. Clark, now 89. He also remembered hearing doubts that morning about whether the technical problems never addressed before in television, like making a Dakotas buffalo herd stampede, live and on cue, before the choir’s performance, could be solved. (Dynamite and shotguns did the trick, Mr. Turner said.) “When they said, ‘Now,’ we knew it was ready to go,” Mr. Clark recalled.

Ms. Merrihew, 79, whose son, Paul, was born in January 1963, said the real meaning of the day only emerged for her later.

“At the time, I was just there to sing; only later did I understand it and its importance,” she said.

Once on the ground in South Dakota, weather was a factor. The two-hour bus ride put the choir in place under a dark and threatening sky. And then, as the singers waited on the platform in their white blouses and dark suits, the rain came down in torrents, drenching them all — not to mention their sheet music, making it completely unreadable, Ms. Swenson recalled.

But they stood rooted, gripped with the excitement and responsibility of the moment, and when the cue came, they opened with a song that was meant to appeal to the sensibilities of Europe — “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” composed in the 1520s by Martin Luther — followed by the stirring American anthem “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The signal from Mount Rushmore, interspersed with other grainy, politically loaded images of America — a snippet of a baseball game, a shot of the open border with Canada at Niagara Falls (free of barbed wire and machine guns) and a similar scene of the border with Mexico — rounded out the broadcast. Voice-over announcers in New York — their words translated into seven languages — spoke as hundreds of millions of people in 18 countries saw the images, according to reports at the time. The choir’s concert was the only musical performance.

“They got a fuzzy picture in Europe, but to us, of all the adventures in the choir, this was one of the greatest,” said Mr. Clark, who met his wife, now 83, when they were both music majors in the 1940s at Brigham Young University, the church-owned school an hour south of Salt Lake.

A framed photograph taken just before the performance, with Ms. Clark, an alto, near the front and Mr. Clark, a bass, near the back, dominates the living room of their home here. The singers look expectant but poised, drenched in body — Mr. Clark remembered getting back on the plane and wringing out the sleeves of his suit — but not in spirit.

Several historians said the brief, shimmering moment of the Tabernacle Choir in cold-warrior mode also captured something about the nation itself.

Much of American music and society in 1962 was in sync — in a way perhaps never before or since — with the buttoned-down world of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Suburbs and large, baby-boom families were in vogue, and that made the Mormons, who’d fled to Utah to escape persecution in the 1840s, look more like everybody else than they ever had.

“Mormonism seemed to fit with what America perceived itself to be at that moment,” said Walter P. Reeve, an associate professor of history at the University of Utah who teaches a course on Utah in the cold war.

Music technology played a role in the choir’s — and thus the church’s — march toward the mainstream. The first recordings, using giant sound-collecting horns suspended from the ceiling of the tabernacle, were released in 1910. A Sunday radio broadcast began in 1929, mixing choral swell with what church authorities call “the spoken word” of scriptural message.

A recording contract with the Columbia label in the late 1950s expanded the choir’s repertory toward secular standards; its “Battle Hymn of the Republic” won a Grammy Award in 1959.

World War II, meanwhile, ended the state’s economic isolation, with thousands of jobs in munitions and manufacturing that were later extended into the apparatus of the cold war in missile and space-race technology. In 1955, in a kind of precursor to Operation Telstar, the choir performed in West Berlin even as the United States and its allies were straining to hold it as an outpost in the Soviet camp.

But if the early ’60s were a high point of assimilation for the choir and the church, they also marked a turning point. Much of American culture in 1962 was about to depart from the ordered, paternalistic terrain that Mormons defended and embodied.

As the sexual revolution, the drug culture and the social upheaval of civil rights and the Vietnam War advanced, the LDS Church retreated, re-emphasizing modesty in dress and behavior, sharpening the cultural conservatism that remains a church hallmark today.

“What happened in the immediate aftermath of the choir’s broadcast created a tension between these Mormon values, which had been mainstream American values, and the increasing divergence of American culture,” said Richard E. Turley Jr., a church historian.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Turley said, much of America looked alien through Mormon eyes. That wall of separation and isolation got higher still in the 1970s, when evidence about the effects of nuclear testing on Southern Utah’s population, downwind from the Nevada testing sites, began to emerge, said Professor Reeve at the University of Utah, who is a Mormon. Suspicion and cynicism toward Washington — common now in Utah and across the West, but rare in 1962 — began to harden and deepen as well, he said.

But through those hours of July 23, 1962, at least, and then resonating in the memories of participants long afterward, something had happened — intense and strange and drenched with meaning — that left a lasting mark.

A satellite, wondrously symbolic for better and worse of the world and all its new fears and hopes, had reached down and plucked up those hundreds of fervent voices and carried them out to a broader world, as though through an open window. And then, like the moving on of tiny Telstar itself, the window slammed closed.