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Stories: The Singing Group

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The Singing Group 12 Jul 2003
THE SINGING GROUP By T. Robert Torkildson Wish I had a bottle of nam plaa for every person who asked me how The Latter Day Saints singing group got started in Thailand. You’d think I’d write such earth-shattering events down in my missionary journal, but as I peruse its’ contents all I see are entries like: “Went tracting all morning. Nobody home. The maid burnt the rice for lunch. Tried studying in the afternoon but got a letter from Jody so just daydreamed away the time. All our appointments for the evening fell through, so we held a street meeting at Lumpini Park.” I’m inclined to think that President Morris was the brains behind the singing group. But I’ve heard persistent rumors that he got his inspiration from Marion D. Hanks in Salt Lake City. However it came about, a few days after I and my sticky compatriots arrived at Don Muang Airport I and my companion, the legendary Barton J. Seliger, were called into President Morris’ office and told that I was to audition for the singing group. As a singer, I asked. Nope, he said, as a clown. Well, excuse me President, but just how many clowns have you got auditioning for this part? Nobody but you, he replied cheerfully, but everyone has to audition for the group so you’ll have to do something in front of myself, Sister Morris and the Assistants. So I did, blowing up balloons and wiggling my ears to a deadpan audience. Only Sister Morris, bless her crinkly little eyes, smiled encouragingly at me. Otherwise, it was the perfect set-up for Don Rickles’ old line: what time is the wake? But since I was the only clown auditioning – surprise! – I got the part. Next I had to come up with some funny business with the singing group itself. We rehearsed in a dank warehouse down by the Chao Phaya River. I tried recruiting Elder Wright, the leader of the group, into doing some old clown gags with me; but while with music he was a genius, with comedy he bombed worse than Kissinger was doing next door in Laos. Elder Seliger was forever suggesting I hit members of the singing group with a golf club. I don’t know if he was just bored and hostile or actually thought beating people over the head with a mashie-niblick was classic humor. We always played golf on P-days as long as he was my Senior companion. The members of the singing group, while dedicated missionaries and talented musicians, just didn’t have what it takes to be my second banana so I decided I’d stick to some of my solo stuff. My decision worked well because I became the intermission act for the group – letting them rest their weary vocal chords while I fooled around on stage. Most of what I did was the same pantomime I had done down in Mexico. I played my musical saw, juggled apples while eating them, and took numerous pratfalls off a folding chair. My whiteface makeup proved a bit of a problem to the Thais; when I first came out the old ladies would scream and turn their backs on me, convinced I was a pi--a ghost—bent on giving them the evil eye. Elder Kidd smoothed that bump by introducing me as an actor similar to Hanuman, the Puck-like monkey character in the Ramayana sagas the Thais loved so much. That tipped them off to my weird appearance and tricks. The Latter Day Saints singing group traveled to every town where the LDS missionaries had a presence. We traveled by bus, at night, which left me with a lingering horror of greasy armrests, greasier bus station food, and sitting upright during the wee hours of the night. We performed at colleges, prisons, hospitals and, incongruously, Buddhist temples when they were having their annual fund-raising fairs. The monks didn’t care that we were crisajag; we were a good draw, polite, and didn’t get falling-down drunk like every other musician they had ever brought in. Our stages were makeshift, at best. I recall trembling on tables that threatened to collapse the moment I stamped one of my clown shoes and trying to maintain my balance on splintered two-by-fours lined up on sawhorses. Evening performances were especially trying because of the tropical bugs. Intoxicated with the stage lights, the creatures would strafe us unmercifully and more than once I had to improvise a new routine to explain why I was dodging a flying cockroach or digging a junebug out of my ear. The group sang a mélange of Thai love songs, patriotic songs, American pop songs (mostly John Denver, and President Morris kept going over the lyrics of Rocky Mountain High because he couldn’t decide if it was a druggie song or not) and traditional LDS hymns in Thai translation. The group was a rough transition for most of the Elders in it (and especially for Sister Mumford, the only girl singer we had – she was kept in strict purdah before and after every performance). But as the months sped by the group rubbed together and sang together more smoothly, gaining in dignity and assurance. As their fame grew steadily there seemed less and less reason to have me as half-time entertainment. People wanted to hear them sing and began wondering what the wild man in the middle of the show was for. A few weeks before my time was up the group finally got a spot on national TV. This had been both President Morris’ and President Brown’s dream. This would validate the group everywhere and gain them admittance anywhere in Thailand. I was not asked to appear with them. The image the Church wanted to present was of well-dressed young men and women singing sincerely, not of some lumpish oaf shuffling around with a painted grin. Like John the Baptist, my time had come and gone. But I can’t complain. The Thai Red Cross gave all the members of the group, including me, a little silver elephant pin in recognition of our fund-raising activities for them. A few years later I had to sell the pin to a pawnshop when I needed money to finish Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis.
Rob Reed Send Email

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