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FDL Movie Night: “Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up with People Story”

What if peace could happen?

Some people felt that Up with People played a part in averting a third World War.

Clean cut kids singing happy songs, traveling the globe and spreading a simple message of positivity, “Up with People!” Founded officially in 1968, Up with People was originally known as Sing Out, which famously performed at all-black Jordan High immediately after the Watts Riots, managing to win over the students with their perky, positive energy.

Up with People was a non-profit corporation, a counter to the counterculture, the voice of Nixon’s Silent Majority with its well-publicized busload of kids traveling the world and staying with host families delivered an experiment in a new life style, a freshly scrubbed version of hippies. Whether singing “Freedom Isn’t Free” at a barbed wire Berlin Wall checkpoint, showcasing their talents at Richard Nixon’s Inaugural, or performing in later years before groups of auto workers–who unknowingly would soon be laid off by the tour sponsor General Motors–Up with People was on message for the Establishment, spreading the word that being nice was nice, and the nicer you were to people, the more niceness would spread. And the world would live happily ever after.

Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up with People Story, Lee Storey’s exploration of the Up with People movement (which lasted 35 years) grew from revelations that her husband, the late William Storey, had been a member of the group. In the film, archival footage shows William, the group’s inspirational speaker, explaining:

We want to right what is wrong in the world through a moral revelation.

That desire was at the core of the Up with People movement, both in the hearts and minds of the performers and fans  – and in a far creepier way, in designs of its founders and eventual corporate sponsors, whose moral agenda was synonymous with their bottom line. (Halliburton CEO Thomas Cruikshank was on the board of Up with People and Halliburton sponsored Up with People’s performance in Jordan, while the fundamentalist Christian head of the Schick, the razor manufacturer, sponsored the group’s first television specials and record albums.)

Up with People grew out of Moral Re-Armament, a religious organization created by Protestant evangelist Reverend Frank Buchman, who wanted to change the world through moral living. MRA stressed absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love, and the MRA and thus Up with People had a cult-like atmosphere. One MRA/Up with people member recounts

You had to get permission to get married, permission to have a family. There were discussions: Should you have sex with your husband?

Up with People was an integrated group, with Native American, Black, White, and Asian American performers. Cast members would stay with host families, In Smile ‘Til It Hurts, African-American cast member Maggie Inge recounts her experience coming into a host family home after a performance. Confronted by shotgun wielding homeowner who told her that his wife had been wrong in allowing her to stay because he didn’t:

want no n*ggers in his house

she began to sing “What Color is God’s Skin” and the man put down his gun. They stayed up all night talking. That was the power of music being used for its highest good, music being used for positive change. But the message of the individual was twisted for the message that issued from the group’s founder and president, J. Blanton Belk who enjoyed the access to world leaders (and their hunting lodges) that Up with People gave him.

As Up with People grew, it also began to crumble. In the early years the group’s tours where paid for by sponsors, allowing for a greater diversity; but as the group’s staging became more elaborate and expensive, tuition was instituted, which prevented economically disadvantaged performers from joining. The group became whiter, middle class, more driven for commercial success, and it faced internal issues–including suppression of free expression, firing couples who got married without permission, and the demotion of prominent member John Sayers for booking the group into Harvard where they faced demonstrations and harsh reviews. And, as cast member Eric Roos points out, you had to erase the parts of you that stuck out. William Storey–who felt he he was an apologist, that being in Up with People

challenged my own blackness, what was going on in my community. Maybe they had gained the world but I had lost something integral.

For many that loss meant hiding that they were gay. Eric Roos came out one month after leaving Up with People, right after the group performed at the Super Bowl.

Once Reagan was elected and the Berlin Wall fell, the group really lost its luster and its political agenda. Corporate sponsors and wealth board members slowed or stopped their donations to the 501(c)3. In 2000, Up with People’s board members voted to suspend operations, but donors, including former cast members, helped to restructure and finance a new version of Up with People which stresses global community service as well as performance.

Smile ‘Til It Hurts: the Up with People Story gives a fascinating look at a cultural phenomenon that, while it may not have stopped World War Three, certainly changed the lives of the thousands of cast members over the years, while opening the gates of countries to a vision of America. And its corporations.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.