Before there were yuppies, there were uppies—the term Up With People members use to refer to themselves. Most Americans over the age of 35 are vaguely familiar with Up With People, as its cast members have sung to more than 20 million people worldwide, and at the height of the ensemble’s fame it provided the halftime entertainment at four Super Bowls (1976, 1980, ’82, ’86). But many are unaware of the group’s cultish utopian ideology, its political connectedness, and how it was funded by corporate America, part of a deliberate propaganda effort to discredit liberal counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s. In the documentary Smile ’Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story (Storey Vision), writer-director-producer Lee Storey provides a thorough, balanced look at the organization’s history, demonstrating “what can happen when ideology, money and groupthink converge to co-opt youthful idealism.”
According to Storey, who practices water law in Phoenix and made the film in her spare time, she got the idea to begin documenting the history of Up With People after discovering that her husband, William Storey, had been a spokesperson. “We were married for 15 years before he told anyone [he had been a member]. It was a part of his life he never wanted to talk about,” she begins, hinting at William’s sense of unease about the group’s hidden agenda, which was cloaked under its shiny, fresh-faced exterior. “My husband—who had no involvement with the making of Smile ’Til It Hurts, and was the last person interviewed for the film—says Up With People was a valuable experience and wouldn’t trade it for the world. He just feels bad that he wasn’t expressing the truth about its ideological stance,” she concludes.
Up With People emerged from the controversial religious movement Moral Re-Armament (MRA)—a cult-like organization that preached honesty, purity, unselfishness and love—so it’s no surprise that the groups bore more than a passing similarity. In fact, Up With People founder J. Blanton Belk was heir apparent to Peter D. Howard, a British journalist who succeeded Frank Buchman as MRA’s leader in 1961. But Belk broke away to incorporate Up With People as a non-profit after President Dwight Eisenhower urged him to distance himself from the dreary image of MRA.
It’s no surprise that President Eisenhower encouraged and supported Belk. As Mark Crispin Miller—professor of media ecology at New York University—notes during Smile, “The sixties were a time when a lot of longstanding pieties were being seriously questioned…. Students marched and there were race riots and we saw the first upsurge of feminism. This was …extremely worrying to the powers that be,” he says. It also explains why Eisenhower (and later President Richard M. Nixon) was thrilled to see Belk sending throngs of clean-cut, short-haired kids out into the world to sing upbeat, positive-minded songs, thereby countering the protest movement. “What we did was give young people a chance to express their views through music,” says Belk in a sequence from the film. It was a clever appropriation of the same vehicle—music—that had been embraced by demonstrators who opposed the Vietnam War and the establishment.
Of course, Up With People’s songs (“You Can’t Live Crooked and Think Straight” and “To Tell the Truth,” for example) bore virtually no resemblance to the popular music of the time. With simple chord progressions and childish lyrics, the group’s ditties can best be described as insipid. But good songs weren’t necessary to get Up With People’s message across, just as musical talent wasn’t a prerequisite to joining. The visceral power of a huge throng of smiling, exuberant and seemingly joyful young men and women rushing on stage and performing as one was enough to entice a reliable stream of new recruits. And thanks to the political connectedness of Up With People’s board members, Belk had no problem lining up gigs all over the planet, in front of audiences that often included presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders. (Up With People has performed for Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, and at the inaugurations of Nixon and George H.W. Bush, to name just a few high-profile engagements.)
But the financial lifeblood of Up With People was corporate America, which recognized that it could use uppies to promote a business-friendly image. Patrick Frawley Jr., a right-wing evangelical who owned Schick, was one of the group’s biggest supporters; he purchased television time and underwrote the first Up With People album, which had John Wayne, Pat Boone and Walt Disney on the cover. But Schick was hardly alone among multinationals. Companies like Exxon, Halliburton, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, General Electric, Coors, Toyota, Enron and Searle donated tens of millions of dollars to the organization, keeping it afloat until 2000, when George W. Bush became president and evangelicals could declare that their ideological war had been won.
The propaganda effort aside, individual members of Up With People certainly fomented their share of positive change, or at least spread good cheer wherever they went. In fact, most were just having a good time performing and traveling the world, oblivious to the agenda of the organization’s leadership and financial backers. “The members of the cast were like puppets. They never stopped to think about where the funding came from, or that someone had to open doors for them,” reminds Storey. Anyway, in some respects the group was surprisingly progressive. Up With People not only accepted members of all races and cultures, but deliberately placed minority cast members with Caucasian host families whenever the ensemble rolled into a new town.
In one particularly emotional scene during Smile ’Til It Hurts, African-American Maggie Inge, a cast member from 1967-71, recounts a trip to Mississippi, arriving at her host family’s home late at night, only to find a man sitting by the front door with a shotgun across his lap. “He said, ‘Ain’t no nigger going to sleep in my house,’ then proceeded to pick up the gun and move it so he could shoot me,” begins Inge, choking up as she tells the story. “I had no idea what to do. The only thing I could think of to do was [to] sing [an Up With People song called “What color is God’s skin?”], because I was so scared I couldn’t speak. From that point forward it was a changed situation and we sat up almost the whole night talking,” she concludes, still amazed at the openly racist man’s sudden change of heart.
For better or worse, however, the group wasn’t nearly as progressive about issues of sexuality. It almost goes without saying that sex before marriage was forbidden, and the group’s leadership did its best to exert control over the relationships of Up With People couples. In fact, one of the reasons Storey's husband abandoned Up With People is that “they were arranging a marriage for him, and he didn’t like that at all,” says Storey, before noting that they have been happily married for 32 years.
As for homosexuality, Up With People took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. “There was no such thing as ‘gay’ in Up With People, even though it attracted every closet case” asserts Eric Roos (a cast member from 1980-82) in a scene from Smile ’Til It Hurts. “It was like the whole country got upended and all the boys who liked to put on tights and prance around in front of the mirror ended up in Up With People. But in the Up With People world, homosexuality did not exist…. You were surrounded by other gay people who you could never talk to about it.”
However, Up With People didn’t lose its way because it lost the ability to control its cast members’ behavior, or because the public suddenly came to recognize that its sickly sweet songs were insufferable. Up With People declined because it became irrelevant, especially after the Cold War ended and American corporations no longer felt compelled to send groups of singing young people overseas, hoping to sweep in behind them to do business.
In the face of diminishing corporate support, Up With People began relying more heavily on tuition fees to pay for its increasingly expensive stage shows. While the organization began charging tuition in the early 1970s ($2,400 in 1972), fees rose dramatically in subsequent years, up to $5,300 in 1982. By the 1990s, the organization found itself struggling to recruit youth capable of paying tuition rates that exceeded the cost of most private universities, a problem compounded by the mostly indifferent response to the group’s public performances.
It became clear the end was near when Up With People became the butt of jokes, lampooned on both The Simpsons and South Park, the latter airing a song with the satirical refrain: Getting gay with kids is here/Tell you things you might not want to hear/You only fight these causes cause caring sells/All you activists can go f*** yourselves.
Board members kept Up With People going until 2000, when it finally closed its doors. Yet thanks to support from the organization’s 20,000 alumni, it re-opened in 2005, and has since resumed performing around the world, with a newfound emphasis on community service. “Most of the re-constituted version consists of children of alumni, and tuition is now $14,250 for six months. Otherwise it’s pretty much the same, except they have a greater focus on community service, and that’s a great change for the organization,” opines Storey, referring to the less prominent role of religion and politics.
This summer the Up With People International Alumni Association will hold a 45th anniversary reunion in Tucson (July 29 – August 1, 2010), bringing together those alumni who haven’t distanced themselves from their past. It’s safe to say, though, that Up With People’s most famous alumna, Glenn Close, won’t be on hand. “She was in the organization for nine years,” reports Storey, noting that Close’s parents and grandparents were very involved with MRA and Up With People and donated money to both groups. “Up With People is where Close’s acting career began,” continues Storey. “But she has essentially denied any involvement. She doesn’t want to go back.”
Unlike Close, most alumni seem to have come to grips with their involvement, even if they regard it as “totally embarrassing,” which is the way John Sayre (former MRA member and an Olympic Gold medalist in 1960) put it after watching video of himself speaking at a long-ago Up With People event. According to Storey, most alumni have been gracious and complimentary about Smile, with comments along the lines of “I’m so thankful the truth is out” or “You captured the way we were.” But she admits she’s also received some “scary” emails from people who believe she’s done Up With People a disservice.
Meanwhile, the organization’s current leadership also seems to take a dim view of the documentary. “Last year I did a screening [at the annual reunion] in Tucson for those who were in the film. The board told other alumni that they could not attend, and if they did, they wouldn’t be able to participate in any of the activities. Even today they don’t want to accept their history,” says Storey.
As for former cast member Roos, he seems happy to be done with Up With People, though he no doubt takes pride in having served as the inspiration for the title of the documentary. “Normal people don’t smile all the time,” he reminds viewers. “I remember how much the musculature of my face ached. But after four or five months [I] didn’t even think about it.”