Spring came to Los Angeles like a bowl of lukewarm soup in the lap. Curtains of rain swept in off the sea day after day. Palm trees became gray silhouettes. Little leaguers gathered eagerly for twice-postponed games, watched the infield turn into mush, and postponed the game again. White-clad fanatics glowered at soggy tennis balls and went home. Surf-loving shock troops hit the beaches in a reverse Normandy and were driven back by the downpour. “Sunny” southern California huddled in embarrassment under the heretical rain clouds and felt betrayed. True, the Hollywood Hills, which usually became brown fire hazards somewhere in the course of the spring, were still green and lush, but it was too wet for anyone to feel grateful.
Enough is enough, and the mailman was feeling a little bit sorry for himself as he wiped away the water that had cascaded onto his face from his plastic-covered hat and delivered one of the last letters of the day. The return address on the envelope was 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150.
The leaders of the Van Nuys California Stake who received the letter read it a second time and looked quizzically at one another.
“What’s a Heritage Arts Festival?” one of them asked.
“I don’t know,” another answered, looking out a rain-streaked window and sighing. “Let’s read the letter again.”
The letter wasn’t much help. It made it quite clear that the young people of the stake were to hold a Heritage Arts Festival, but it simply didn’t explain what one was. And so, with only a title to go on, they forgot all about the rain and started exercising their ingenuity.
They decided that whatever else the festival turned out to be, it should be something that “shows our neighbors and friends what young Latter-day Saints can be.” They met with the youth and adult leaders of the various wards in the stake and came up with a full calendar for an April afternoon and evening. The festival was to include craft and food booths emphasizing Mormon pioneer heritage, facilities for family picnics, and a creative arts contest. The theme would be “From Then Till Now—1830–1975,” and the evening would end with a program in which each ward in the stake would represent one time period from then till now. And in a rather bold move, considering the weather, they decided to locate the booths out-of-doors.
A few months later, on the morning of the festival, the wards of the stake were busy practicing their skits and working on their booths. Inside the stake center a young man in blue jeans and a Civil War coat wandered by toward the stage where Abraham Lincoln was being fitted for his tall black cardboard hat. The great emancipator was wearing a cast, having recently broken his leg, and would have to lead his people through the Civil War in that condition.
It was a bright, sunny day in the San Fernando Valley, without a hint of smog. The weatherman had predicted rain; the young people and their leaders had prayed for good weather. The weatherman was a good meteorologist, but he was simply out of his league.
At about 4:00 in the afternoon the crowds started arriving. They wandered from booth to booth, enjoying the displays and the free samples at the food booths. Some of them ate picnics on the lawn, where tables and chairs had been provided for them.
As the crowds milled around the booths, a distinguished looking group of men in dark hats and coats appeared carrying a bucket, an easel, and some pictures. One of the men upended the bucket and mounted it while another set up the easel. Soon the crowd was being treated to an authentic 19th century street meeting—authentic, that is, except for the bullhorn that the preacher used. The meeting started with four of the missionaries singing “Sweet Is the Work” in beautiful harmony, followed by a gospel sermon and another hymn. Wags from the local wards provided some unsolicited heckling, but the elders handled it in fine form, turning the barbs back on their assailants. Then a man from the Spanish Branch wandered by and shouted, “Puras mentiras!” (It’s all a lie!) in a voice of pious conviction.
“What this good brother says is true—whatever it was he said!” the missionary exclaimed, pointing his cane for emphasis. Another street meeting was held every quarter hour or so, with a different stake or full-time missionary preaching each time.
At the booth of the Spanish Branch a lady demonstrated how to make delicate bread-dough roses. An onlooker asked a question, and the lady spread her hands and replied, “I’m no expert”; then she smiled as a teenager arrived. “Here’s the expert,” she said, and the girl took over the demonstration. In front of the candle-dipping display a young fellow watched the laborious process and shook his head.
“They didn’t really have to go through all that just to make a candle, did they?” he said.
A knot of people gathered in front of the Candy Kitchen, inhaling the aroma and happily licking chocolate-smeared fingers. A young lady took her first look at a real chunk of homemade lye soap and asked, “Is that cheese?” A father barely put his son down at the arm-wrestling area and then smiled a little doubtfully, rubbing his hand. “Wait till next year,” his son smiled.
As 7:00 P.M. approached, more and more of the youths turned the booths over to their adult leaders and went inside to get costumed for the evening’s performance.
In the Junior Sunday School room a ward warmed up for its presentation. Some girls with beauty spots on their cheeks and fiery red lipstick on their lips, wearing fringed flapper dresses, frilly garters, voluminous strings of beads, and head-hugging hats, chewed gum furiously and kicked their way through a deadpan Charleston. Young men in striped vests, black bow ties, and cardboard skimmers practiced a little soft-shoe. One of them pistoned his hat on and off, keeping pace with his eyebrows and looking like a one-man chorus line. A long-lashed brunette gave several experimental flounces with her feathered boa, rolling her eyes in the top half of a glamourous pout. A blonde in black net stockings stood knock-kneed, squinting into a tiny mirror as she applied her makeup. The pianist bounced up and down on the stool in time to the music, and a young man knocked out the rhythm with the back of his knuckles on the top of the upright piano.
In the men’s room, costumes were going on. A young man in a white T-shirt with the arms rolled up scowled into the mirror, seeking just the right air of bored insolence. Then he combed his hair carefully back into a classic ducktail. When he was ready, he looked exactly like a refugee from the 50s trapped somehow in the wrong decade.
All 350 cast members eventually gathered in the chapel to await the beginning of the program. The flappers and bobby soxers mingled with Civil War belles, barbershop quartets and fine ladies from the 90s, Confederate and Union soldiers with lipstick wounds, rock fans, victims of the Depression, soldiers from both world wars, carefully gowned and hatted ladies carrying placards demanding the vote for women, rough-clad pioneers, and a sea of others. The chapel looked like a passenger lounge in a time machine terminal.
Near the door a woman with a bag full of fruit pointed a half-peeled banana at her gowned and rouged daughter. “Eat it! You’ve got to eat something or you’ll get sick.” The girl looked heavenward in a voiceless sermon on the woes of raising Mom, but she ate it while her mother smiled proudly at her.
There were some last-minute instructions and a prayer. An electric wave of preshow jitters filled the room as the crowd sounds drifted in and the hour drew near.
To start the show, the flags of each ward, which had been designed by the young people, were brought in to the flourishes of a trumpet fanfare and set up in their places.
Johnny Whitaker, popular young Mormon entertainer, emceed the show. After the invocation and a few words of introduction, he swang into a rousing rendition of “I Believe in Music,” and on the second verse the 350 young people came streaming down the aisles, singing along with him. “I believe in music. I believe in love!” They sang to a packed house, easily more than 1,000 spectators, many of them standing around the edges of the hall and at the back. There was standing room only and then only behind somebody else. After their grand entry the cast filed into a room where they awaited their turn to perform.
“Reach back, America, into the dim, far-off pages of beginnings—to the beginnings of our Mormon heritage where all the things that touched others touched us,” Johnny began; and “From Then Till Now” became a reality.
The stake Young Adults presented the first period, the early days of the Church when the Prophet Joseph was alive, depicting a trial scene in which he was found innocent of the charges but warned not to preach his doctrine any more.
The Sherman Oaks Second Ward handled the pioneer era, showing a camp scene from the trek across the plains and throwing in a rousing old-time square dance, complete with a professional caller who donated his services.
The Civil War era was interpreted by the Panorama City Ward, complete with Abraham Lincoln, Civil War songs, and both armies.
The San Fernando Ward recreated the gay 90s, featuring the beautiful songs of the period, bicycles built for two, barbershop quartets, and boundless optimism.
The Van Nuys Ward brought to life the first two decades of the 20th century, including a war, boogie woogie, automobiles, and suffragettes.
The Sylmar Ward recreated a rousing, roaring 20s with authentic song and dance numbers, raccoon coats, flappers, the Charleston, jazz, and no tomorrow.
The Spanish Branch recalled the dismal 30s in their skit, featuring songs and dances of the period that showed optimism in times of adversity.
The Van Nuys Third Ward interpreted the 40s with a war, a Statue of Liberty wheeled in on a dolly, and songs, dances, and people of the period.
The Sherman Oaks Ward zeroed in on the 50s with an American Bandstand presentation, singing songs such as “Mr. Sandman” and “Rockin’ Robin.” There was also a personal visit from “Elvis.”
The Sepulveda Ward presented the 60s, complete with rock concerts, the Beatles, and protests.
Everything went smoothly from the audience’s point of view. Scenery changes seemed to happen by magic, and the show flowed as if it had been rehearsed a hundred times, although there had been only one full-stake rehearsal. But back stage between skits was a different story as the exiting cast, scenery, and props from one ward met the next ward coming on stage. Then covered wagons warred with Confederate soldiers, and the Statute of Liberty was buffeted by hordes of pretty girls with parasols. It was a mammoth stampede in which each decade seemed bent on trampling another, but somehow everything always untangled itself in time for the curtain.
When it came time for the 1970s, the cast members in their various costumes all took their places at the front of the hall to form a 350-voice choir. They had practiced their songs on Sunday evenings for several weeks, and there was a fine, gentle spirit as they sang songs of love and peace.
Just before the closing prayer, two children walked into the spotlight and sang “I Am a Child of God,” the choir joining in on the last verse. It was an appropriate ending to a performance full of love and understanding and hope.
In retrospect, the festival provided not only entertainment and fun, but some wonderful memories and a lot of learning. For example, preparation of the displays and the program required the youth to do some serious research. The young people who prepared the genealogy booth studied the principles of genealogy and made a trip to the local Genealogical Society branch library.
Others learned how to make soap, candles, and other essentials the same way pioneers did, not to mention many contemporary craft skills. Some high school history teachers may also be surprised at the knowledge of U.S. history their LDS students have picked up by researching a time period for their skits.
The festival was also a wonderful missionary for the many nonmember and inactive young people who took part. For example, a band that was composed of both member and nonmember youths not only got everyone in the group excited about the Church, but made them decide to keep the group together after the festival.
A number of nonmember adults took part also, doing everything from teaching dance steps to sewing costumes. One non-Mormon hair dresser volunteered to style the hair of all the girls in her ward in the style of the period they represented.
The adult leaders in each ward rolled up their sleeves and worked hard right alongside the youth. Typical was one good sister who attended the dress rehearsal the night before the performance, did some energetic dance steps to illustrate a bit of last-minute choreography, sang her heart out, and then went to the hospital that night and had her baby.
The separate parts of the production were not actually brought together until the last few days before the festival, and there was a lot of pressure and hurry for those in charge. One sister was so caught up that she drove her daughter to school one morning and was parked in front of the school before realizing that she had forgotten the daughter.
But in spite of this one bit of absentmindedness, the young people of the Van Nuys Stake know very well that they are not forgotten, nor will they forget this experience. No one told them in advance what a Heritage Arts Festival was, but no one had any doubts afterwards. It was not only a good way to bring in some sunshine in place of rain, but it was also a great way to serve and grow and learn to love one another. Above all it was a way to “show our neighbors and friends what young Latter-day Saints can be.”