The waves and foam reflected the faint blue-white of the sky as yellow lights began to shine through the windows of the ocean liner cruising majestically through the water. It had been a peaceful afternoon in the Caribbean, but now day was giving way to dusk. On board, a mother and father and five daughters were arguing unsuccessfully with the waiters in the dining cabin.
“I’m sorry. That’s very nice, but we don’t drink,” dark-haired Shelley insisted for the third time, joined in agreement by Sheila, Stacy, Cynthia, and Melissa.
“It’s special tonight; you must have some, compliments of the ship,” stressed the smiling steward as he uncorked the champagne bottle.
“This is my gift to you for all the fine entertainment you have given us on this cruise,” continued the ship’s agent seated at a table behind the Phelps family, pounding his fist for emphasis.
The steward smiled broadly as he began pouring the liquid into each glass. Frothy white bubbles floated to the top; the girls and their parents watched in amazement as it became apparent that the champagne bottle contained milk!
“As soon as we realized what it was, we all started laughing,” Sheila later related. “The agents and others around us raised their glasses and declared ‘a toast to the all-American family!’ We were surprised, and impressed with how important it is to live the standards of the Church wherever you are and in whatever you’re doing.”
The Phelps Family Musicians, members of the Hollywood Ward in the Los Angeles California Stake, have been performing classical music together since the girls were quite young. They recorded their first double album last December, have entertained on several distinguished concert series and cruises, and seldom turn down an invitation to play for Church meetings, programs, youth conferences, or benefit concerts.
“While I was growing up, my father firmly implanted in our minds that our talents came from the Lord; parents provided the lessons, and encouragement; and all we had to do was work and share. He believed that if you were asked to perform somewhere, you did it. We’ve tried to raise our children with that same philosophy,” explained Sister Phelps.
Born Dawn Adams in Pleasant Grove, Utah, she was a devoted violinist from the age of 11. She played with the Brigham Young University Symphony while still in high school and studied privately with her cousin, composer LeRoy Robertson. At 16 she was invited to study with the internationally known Feri Roth and later moved to Hollywood to continue her education. There she met Harold Phelps. Interestingly, Harold had grown up in Salt Lake City, less than an hour’s drive from Pleasant Grove. He is the great-great-grandson of W. W. Phelps, the LDS pioneer who wrote the lyrics to such hymns as “The Spirit of God” and “O God, the Eternal Father.” When he met Dawn, Harold, too, was an accomplished musician, having recently organized the Southern California Mormon Choir.
The two native Utahns were married in the St. George Temple and made their home amidst the palm-lined walks of the legendary Hollywood Hills. There, they and their daughters, Sheila, 24, Shelley, 23, Stacy, 21, Cindy, 18, and Melissa, 15, have lived for years in a French provincial home with white wooden shutters. Today most of the girls are working or studying away from home, and Shelley is married to returned missionary Alan Johnson. Still, the whole family gathers as frequently as possible for rehearsals, reunions, and concerts.
“Even though they’re scattered, it’s not hard to get a concert ready because they’ve played together for so long. After a performance is scheduled, it’s just a matter of a couple of plane flights and a few hours rehearsal time and we’re ready,” explained Sister Phelps.
When they are all at home, the house seems to come alive with excitement. Walking up to the doorway, visitors are likely to hear the strains of a violin or the tones of a piano concerto. Inside, the whole group might be practicing: Sheila at the piano; Mother, Stacy, and Melissa playing violin; Shelley on her cello; and Cindy on viola. Father sits approvingly by, enjoying the sounds. Does he, a real estate agent, ever feel left out, being the only nonperforming member of the family?
“My goodness, no!” He looks astonished. “I get great satisfaction in seeing my whole family playing—it’s all I need! I’m gratified to know that I have had part in it as the provider of lessons and instruments and in supporting all related endeavors. I’m grateful our family is able to contribute in this special way.”
One senses something magnanimous about Brother Phelps. He is a firm but reasonable and unselfish gentleman surrounded by ladies whom he adores.
“There is a lot of love in this family,” he declares. “Our varied temperaments cause us all to hit the ceiling once in a while, but nevertheless we are a very happy family.”
Part of this closeness can be attributed to the time they spend together practicing and performing, but a bigger part is perhaps because they just all like each other. The girls have the usual kinds of childhood memories—afternoons of jumping on the beds when Mom and Dad weren’t looking, five-year-old Sheila playing barber on her sisters’ hair, vacations spent swimming and surfing at their beach house. And they have some extra special memories of the crippled children from Mexico who spend some time in their home every spring.
The children, who speak no English, are flown up to the UCLA Medical Center for special treatment not available in their own country. While in Los Angeles they are cared for in the homes of local residents. Sister Phelps explained: “When Sheila was 4 1/2 months old, she contracted polio but was able to make an almost total recovery. We feel that helping these Mexican children is the least we can do in gratitude for the normal life Sheila has had. We wouldn’t turn down this opportunity if we were living in a tent.”
The family has spent a lot of time traveling to other parts of the world. They have performed on many cruises, toured Europe, and have performed in this country from the West Coast to the East Coast.
The European trip was one of the first professional ventures the family undertook. It consisted of 28 concerts in 10 countries, many of them given for local Church groups in areas they visited.
“In England the missions used the concerts for fellowshipping,” Brother Phelps said. “They told us, ‘We’ve had people attend who haven’t been to church in 15 years!’ One of the mission presidents invited the entire town to hear the concert, had the mayor speak, and then had our family present the mayor with a Book of Mormon. During the intermission of a concert in France, a missionary came dancing back to tell us, ‘I’ve got my first contact, my first investigator!’”
The Phelps presented an evening concert in a new chapel in Holland, where it was requested that there be no applause. Melissa remembered: “After the concert, everyone just rose, almost as a body. We could feel the whole room vibrating, and then the presiding officer told us, ‘This is a silent standing ovation.’ Afterwards every person in the audience came through the receiving line and spoke one or two words in English to us, even if it was just good or enjoy. I’ll never forget that.”
No matter what they are performing, standards of classical musical excellence are never compromised by the girls, and there has been enthusiastic response to this type of entertainment everywhere they perform.
“All people have a spiritual side that can be appealed to,” said Sister Phelps. “We have found that people reach out to musical entertainment that is wholesome and uplifting.”
“You can really give the joy of music to other people through your playing if you feel it yourself,” interjected Stacy. “Many musicians play with great technical flare, but the added spiritual dimension is what is so important to project.”
With classical music such a big part of their lives, it might be assumed that the Phelps sisters were born with an innate love and understanding of it. But Sheila explained it differently:
“I don’t think when we were growing up that any of us liked listening to classical music any more than other kids. We liked playing classical music but had not made the association between listening and playing. As we got older and had more exposure to it, our feelings changed. Classical music is like anything else on a really high level—to appreciate it you’ve got to put forth effort. Studying the different styles, the composers, the instruments being played, etc., contributes to your understanding and enjoyment.”
Hours of practice have always been an accepted part of the day at the Phelps household. When the girls began reaching seminary age, those who weren’t old enough to attend went to the church anyway and practiced their instruments. Those in seminary practiced after class until it was time for school to start. After school, and sometimes during school, also meant additional hours of practice each day.
As the girls got older, several had opportunities to study abroad—Shelley and Stacy in Switzerland, and Sheila in Spain. After high school Stacy attended the Julliard Conservatory in New York and has studied privately with the world-renowned Jascha Heifetz and Zino Francesatti. Both Shelley and Sheila are music performance graduates of the University of Southern California, where Cindy currently is enrolled, and Sheila recently received her master’s degree in piano performance from Wichita State University. Melissa attends Crossroads School, a college preparatory high school for students in the performing arts. All the girls have received numerous scholarships and awards, and play in various symphonies and chamber ensembles. They are frequent guest soloists with orchestras, particularly Stacy, whose emphasis is on a solo career. The family, who recently received an invitation to audition for Columbia Records, plan to release their second album this December. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, everyone finds time to develop skills and interests in other areas as well.
“What most people don’t realize,” said Shelley, “is that you don’t have to spend 24 hours a day practicing. We’re just a little bit busier than other people, but we’ve been able to do almost everything we’ve wanted to.”
Their interests are varied and wide. Sheila is learning gourmet cooking, has a large aquarium of tropical fish, and enjoys journalism and needlepoint. Shelley has won awards in sewing and is proficient in decorating, artwork, and homemaking arts. Stacy has a keen interest in puppetry and loves ballet and writing short stories. Cindy, a 1978 graduate of Hollywood High, was a cheerleader during high school, is a skilled dancer and an avid reader. Melissa loves surfing, most sports, and is adept at creative writing. Mother and Father are active in school and community affairs, and the entire family are dedicated Church members.
“No matter how busy we were, we were always taught that the Church comes first,” said Shelley. “We have two very fine examples in our mother and father. They are very strong, loving people who are constantly going the extra mile. One of Mother’s sayings is, ‘If you want to be in harmony, you’ve got to stay in tune.’”
As Stacy helped Cindy with her ideas for her talk in Sunday School the next morning, and the entire family loaded into the car to attend Melissa’s summer recital, it became obvious that being in tune to the Phelps means more than just getting the right-sounding chords out of a piano or viola. It means gaining and nurturing a positive relationship with their Heavenly Father and with each other. It means accepting callings and feeling the happiness that comes from fulfilling them. It means reliance on prayer and faith.
“We were raised with a sense of the importance of daily prayer,” said Stacy. “It’s the most important element in everything we do. Also, we refer to our patriarchal blessings often for a continuous source of guidance. We know that faith, prayer, and service will help us accomplish the things we should.”
Growing up in Hollywood has offered tremendous challenges. Solid family life and Church activities are the stabilizing influences in a society that is especially full of worldly influences. Yet, unusual experiences do occur in the Phelps’ own neighborhood. Their home is located on a steep hill that winds alongside a canyon made for hiking and exploring. A well-known singer lives just up the road, near the home of a popular comedian.
“The first time the Beatles came to America, they stayed on our street, and we had people sitting all over our lawn hoping to catch a glimpse of them. There was so much security and so many guards that for a few days we had to show I.D. to get into our own home,” remembered Cindy.
Such events are rare; still it’s not uncommon to see film crews in their neighborhood. Five minutes away on Hollywood Boulevard, imprints of five-pointed stars are cemented into the sidewalks, reminding the casual visitor that although he sees the usual drugstores and shoe shops lining the street, he is indeed in the middle of movieland.
“There are many temptations here,” said Shelley, “and you are exposed to every type of religion and philosophy there is. Because you are constantly having to defend your beliefs, you have to become very committed to studying and learning just what those beliefs really are.”
“Sometimes it seems you have no one with whom to share your feelings about the gospel,” added Cindy. “Most of us didn’t have very many Mormon friends when we were growing up because we were often the only ones in our classes at Church and at school. Although our closest friends have high standards, most of them aren’t interested in the gospel. But, in a way, that makes you stronger because you realize you still have to stick so firmly to what you know is right.”
The girls have seen a number of friends come into the Church, and many others have come to appreciate and respect their standards. On one occasion Sheila was surprised when a young man she knew from school approached her about the gospel.
“I’m going to tell you some things I’ve heard about your church,” he said, “and I want you to tell me if they’re true.”
“He asked me a lot of questions,” Sheila recalled, “many of them based on misinformation. I explained the best I could and then asked him if he was interested in learning more. He said, ‘Yes, but not from the missionaries. I want to hear it from you.’ That really motivated me to study and find out more for myself.”
Still, they have been exposed to much opposition. Each family member has had soul-searching experiences that have forged individual testimony.
As Stacy said, “Once you know what the truth is, it doesn’t matter anymore how many people tell you you’re wrong.”
Hollywood is a challenging place to grow up in—the cultural standards are very high; the life-styles and philosophies are incredibly varied. But to the Phelps Family Musicians, the gospel is the harmonizing element. It is what helps them to keep a balanced perspective in meeting the everyday challenges of life in Hollywood.
Editor’s note: Since the time this story was written, Brother Phelps has passed away.