Lest we forget the many sacrifices of certain of our Mormon artistic forebear(er?)s during the 1970s who pushed the envelope of gospel creativity, I now take a moment to honor them and their efforts. Yes, I’m talking about Mormon clowns, mimes and puppeteers, those unsung gospel arts pioneers who fascinated and inspired thousands of Latter-day Saints during this decade.
Some of us who are old enough may remember Tim Holst visiting our local congregations as he traveled and peformed with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey during the 70s. Tim became so well known that the April 1973 New Era showcased him as “Missonary Clown.”
“Tim introduced … [Tork, a fellow clown] to the Church, and soon Tork was taking the missionary lessons. After about six weeks Tim baptized Tork in Florida, just a few days before they left on their circus tour of some forty-five cities throughout the United States and Canada. Tim now knew why he had needed to return to Florida. He was to be a ‘missionary clown.’”
Not only was Tim an inspiration to his fellow clowns, but also to the readership of The New Era, as evidenced by the following letters in a later June 1973 New Era volume.
One reader, a “closet clown,” wrote: “I always thought I would like to be a rodeo clown but never knew how to tell anybody. Now I do. Thanks for the good article on the clown.”
Another grateful reader responded: “For many years I’ve wanted to be a ‘home and community’ clown. My family and friends have thought me off upstairs. But after reading that article I am going to follow through and become a clown. Maybe I too can become a missionary clown.”
Now, if you were like me, growing up you probably always fantasized what it would be like to produce the Hill Cumorah Pageant as a puppet show. I always thought Nephi’s slaying of Laban would be best told in a Punch and Judy style. Nephi would wield his sword like Punch’s stick, with Laban, like Judy, being his target. Nephi’s sword would detach Laban’s lightly attached head upon impact. If available, the puppeteer could have one of those old-fashioned, red, squeezable ketchup bottles inside the puppet and kind of squirt it out of Laban’s neck a few times, for a more realistic effect. At least, that was my idea of an effective puppet performance.
Unlike me, however, some missionaries in Japan in 1975 didn’t just idly dream about this, they actually wrote their dream down, thereby transforming it into an actual goal which they then made into a reality by producing a puppet show centered on the Book of Mormon, as reported in the July 1975 New Era:
“The missionaries suggested the subject, and the members put together the script. Everyone wanted to get into the show, so the Relief Society sisters made the hand puppets and the brethren built the stage and props for the presentation. Lighting and other technical areas were handled by members also. The missionaries provided the willing hands for the puppets. Members and nonmembers were invited, and after the show, questions were answered and basic gospel principles were explained.”
Of course, the epitome of Mormon artistic expression during this decade was the LDS mime, a performer who might even be viewed as a combination of both clown and puppet. I recall seeing one of our local missionaries perform a mime act on stage at a ward talent show around 1975. Never had I seen a more impregnable imaginary box, a more taut invisible rope, nor a more appetizing non-existent meal than I did that evening conjured up by Elder Gerge on stage. Although Elder Gerge did not perform any gospel related skits, the March 1976 New Era featured a story about professional mimist Jamie Allen’s routine called “The First Vision.” Allen, founder and instructor of BYU’s mime club and a professional mime troup, worked up several routines to communicate gospel messages. Speaking of his sketch “The First Vision,” the New Era reported:
“A young boy is torn between two groups as they beckon for him to join their brand of beliefs. In anguish, he kneels on a dark stage, to be highlighted by a single, dull, white spotlight. As his prayerful state becomes intensified, a green light overshadows him, portraying the evil influence. Frightened and again in a feverish prayer, the boy does not realize at first the subsiding of the evil light and the gradual brilliance of an intense white light enveloping him. A peaceful expression comes over his face as the light dims over the kneeling figure.”
Reading this vignette, I admit part of me was tempted to visualize Allen’s First Vision mime sketch as a “Red Skelton meets Joseph Smith” moment, but while researching this blog post I was charmed to come across a response to this very article by none other than our Elder Gerge in the October 1976 volume of The New Era:
“As a mimist I have been anxiously awaiting an article on pantomime—the first form of communication and possibly the oldest art form. From caricatures, to white mime, to serious mime, and my own personal poetic mime, I have been able to communicate the deepest-felt ideas and emotions on all topics to an audience. As a missionary tool, mime arouses interest, portrays an idea, and allows for an action that the nonmembers can interact with. It brings a more personal explanation by deeply embedding the illusion in their minds through both word and deed.”
While my tone in this blog post betrays a general skepticism toward mime, clown and puppeteer routines bearing the weight necessary to explore deep spiritual themes, back in the day, I thought they were great entertainment, something different, something fresh. I admired the audacity, the reckless disregard for personal dignity and the obvious love these performers showed in their productions. And I still do, regardless of their and my indifference to any potential disparity between the message and the medium. And who is to say how wide this disparity really is? Perhaps there’s a sermon to be found in 30 clowns piling out of a Mini Cooper. A mime routine might keep a few students awake in an early morning seminary class. And surely using a hand puppet, rather than a glove, would better illustrate a spirit inside a body, even if that body is Punch or Judy.