The bus pulled into the parking lot of the hotel at 10:00 P.M. and deposited 36 nervously excited singers, a load of stage equipment, and a couple of dazed advisers who were showing the effects of a 16-hour bus ride. Inside the hotel’s ballroom Bob Hope was finishing up a few jokes while 750 Hollywood celebrities and top military officials finished their dinner. In the parking lot a few last-minute instructions were given, a prayer was offered, and on the cue of “Footprints, let’s go!” the Footprints of Freedom entered the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to entertain at the annual Air Force Ball.
The group had left Provo the night before and had not really slept since. After the show they would have six hours of sleep before the bus picked them up for the return trip to Provo. But cramped buses, lack of sleep, and a steady diet of roadside hamburgers are minor inconveniences when the Footprints have the chance to sing about America’s proud 200 years.
“As a group we’ve always felt we have a mission,” said Lowell Steele, an Air Force ROTC cadet at BYU and member of the group. “We advocate a positive attitude about the country. We promote the good while reminding people of the trials America has made it through. After all, the more trials, the better the product.”
Sponsored since 1969 by the Air Force ROTC at BYU, the Footprints of Freedom have spread a message of patriotism and faith in the American spirit everywhere they have performed. The group’s name was taken from a poem by Longfellow titled “A Psalm of Life” where the lives of great men are compared to “footprints on the sands of time.” In each performance the group sets out to help the audience remember those footprints while at the same time giving the audience incentive to make footprints of their own. The group itself has made tire tracks over a good part of the United States. And everywhere they go audiences are reminded through song and dance of the words of the Lord to Nephi that America is a land “choice above all other lands.”
“It’s easy to forget the good in America these days, what with memories of Watergate, the economy, and all the related problems,” said Lowell. “But especially during the Bicentennial, Americans need to get back some pride. Sure we’ve got problems, but in the past we’ve always solved them, haven’t we? That’s something to be proud of.”
So the Footprints set out to give America a big dose of musical pride.
And it takes some doing. The group practices at least twice a week, and when a performance is coming up, that schedule is generally stretched to daily practices, often beginning at five or six in the morning, with nighttime practices sometimes lasting until after midnight.
The director of the group, Dr. Jarold Harris, assistant professor of music at BYU, arranges many of the songs the group performs. Their program consists of contemporary songs like “Everything Is Beautiful” and “Spinning Wheel” interspersed with medleys of patriotic songs like “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.”
Choreography for each number is worked out by group members, and basic stage props consist of red, white, and blue boxes that are stacked to form platforms of varying levels. Slides of American life are projected onto screens behind the singers, adding another dimension to the performance. During each 20-minute program the singing, dancing, and projected backgrounds fuse to portray the people, places, events, and institutions that have made America a great and choice land.
Shows are presented at local high schools and civic organizations, and the group has made several tours to California and the southwestern United States. Putting on all those shows requires many hours on cramped buses.
“You can really get to know people when you’re on a bus with them for 18 hours or so,” said one group member.
Sharing suitcases is one concession group members make during tours to cut down on luggage, as the group also carries all its own stage props, lighting, and sound equipment.
“But sharing a suitcase isn’t really too bad,” said one group member, “unless your partner forgets his toothbrush and asks if he can borrow yours.”
Long hours on the bus are lightened by daily “Good,” “Bad,” and “Ugly” awards. A “Good” might be a standing ovation the group received at its last performance; a “Bad” would be a chord sung a half-step flat; and girls in curlers on the bus consistently win the “Ugly” prize.
Sleep could be a problem during tours, but the group has a solution for that difficulty too. They use a luggage rack rotation system.
“It works really well,” said Mark Phipps. “You take turns sleeping in the luggage racks above the seats of the bus. It’s not as comfortable as a bed, but at least you can stretch out.”
The few hours spent in hotel rooms or private homes during tours are used to spit shine shoes to military polish and curl hair in private to avoid winning an “Ugly” award for the third straight day.
Occasionally the group does have some free time during tours to use as it pleases. Oftentimes group members will sink into peaceful oblivion on the lawn of a chapel where they are to perform, but other times their free moments are spent in ways that attract at least as much attention as their performances.
Sandy Ord, a member of the group for the past two years, remembers a softball game where the boys challenged the girls on the lawn outside their motel. There’s nothing so unusual about that except for the fact the entire game was played without any equipment.
“We had the whole thing,” said Sandy, “umpire, cheerleaders, even a human scoreboard. And since there was no ball, you just pretended where to hit it. The girls were always hitting home runs, and, of course, we won.”
During a San Francisco tour the group piled on a cable car and rode it from one end of the line to the other and back again, singing at the top of their lungs.
“It was one of our best performances,” said Sandy. “People would stop on the street and listen to us and applaud as we went by. It was great.”
But the bus rides, the spit-shined shoes, and the practices have one major purpose—influencing people’s lives. Once the group was greeted with booing from a high school audience, but before the program was finished, the students were applauding loudly. At the end of the program the students gave the Footprints a standing ovation.
“So many people have heard so few good things about America that they have negative feelings about patriotism and loyalty,” said Gary Strasburg. “But when they hear and see that patriotism is a positive, constructive force, they change their attitudes. Patriotism isn’t blind loyalty, overlooking a country’s faults; it’s loving the country enough to help it overcome those faults.”
Besides being known for their patriotism, the group is also known for its religious ideals.
“Everywhere we go people comment about the Church,” said one group member. “We’re known not only for our patriotism, but because we’re Mormons.” Group members report missionary referrals after almost every performance.
“I feel the Footprints have had a real missionary impact on the people around them,” said Jane Gardner. “After one show a boy who’d only been away from home a few months came up to me and told me our program had made him so proud it had brought tears to his eyes. He then said he’d met a Mormon once but had lost contact with him, and he asked me if I could please tell him a little about the Church.”
Jane bore her testimony and set up an appointment for the boy to receive the missionary lessons. “Any effort we put into that tour was worth it,” she added, “because we touched one person.”
The performance at the Air Force Ball was a rousing success. General David C. Jones, Air Force Chief of Staff, personally came backstage after the performance to congratulate the Footprints. The group was invited to film a short segment in a movie for the Air Force, and it was nearly midnight before everyone got back to their hotel rooms. At 6:00 A.M. the bus would arrive for the return trip. There’d be another round of “Good,” “Bad,” and “Ugly” awards, another luggage rack rotation, and another 16-hour bus ride.
But it had been worth it—they had sung about America for 20 minutes. And during those 20 minutes perhaps one person had decided not to let the good land pass him by.