Summer Nights

Originally published in May 2017 Issue of Salt Lake magazine

THOUSANDS OF KIDS have come of age on the midway at Lagoon, Utah’s biggest and best amusement park. Writer Jeremy Pugh looks back at his own history with the park and the history of the park itself. Along the way we’ll examine the rides, how best to tackle a day at Lagoon and the cultural significance of this Utah icon.

Personal History: I Was a Teenage Goonie

I first went to Lagoon in 1977. I was 5 years old. We were on a family trip from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake City, the Big City back then. The trip was unwittingly timed with an important  milestone for Lagoon. Bob Freed, who had been the closest thing to Lagoon’s Walt Disney, died in 1975 and his surviving brothers, led by Peter Freed, set about continuing his work. In 1976, America’s Bicentennial, three important Lagoon icons opened to the public: Pioneer Village, the Log Flume and the Jet Star 2, Lagoon’s first steel coaster. A year later, kindergarten-bound me, who neither cared nor knew any of this, arrived on the scene. I liked cowboys and boy howdy did Lagoon’s new Pioneer Village have them. 

Back then there were historical re-enactors in all the shops lining the western town’s faux Main Street, and the big attraction (in addition to the Log Flume) was a thrilling high-noon shoot-out gun battle that stuntmen performed until the ’90s. Please note that 1977 was the year Star Wars premiered, and Lagoon’s cowboys and roller coasters combined with Jedi and lightsabers caused my growing boy brain to very nearly explode. My father, still in his 20s, was as much of a kid as I was, and because my mother didn’t really care for amusement park rides, and my younger brother was back home with grandma, it was just me and my dad. We rode everything I was tall enough to ride and that trip was basically the best thing that had ever happened to me, ever.

Later, after we’d moved to Utah in 1983, Lagoon would become an escape from the humiliations of adolescence, a place where a nerd could just be a nerd. Season passes in hand, my best bud from junior high, Clarence Habovstak, and I would ride the bus south on Orchard Drive to Farmington. We’d take laps on Colossus, perfect our techniques for getting soaking wet on the Log Flume and puzzle over these girls walking around everywhere. 

I loved Lagoon so much I got a job there at 15, and the summer before I started high school, I spent nearly every night roaming the midway, trying on different personalities and learning that the world wasn’t limited to the pious jerks I went to school with. I puffed my first cigarette at Lagoon and sipped my first  beer. I kissed the first of many girls at Lagoon, plus one guy  who really liked me. But I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with that. 

After high school, I returned with a job in Lagoon’s Entertainment Division—we mounted the various shows around the park. I was the stage manager of a walrus, a seal and a bunch of Peter Pan professional stunt divers who used to get stoned with the shootout show stuntmen before their performances. I was sort of the backstage kid mascot, listening wide-eyed to their stories of life on the professional diving circuit and JC college-level philosophy; they introduced me to Siddhartha. One of those guys taught me how to shave. The next summer, I worked a song-and-dance review called Music USA and learned the lyrics to every song in the show, which that year was “Music from the Silver Screen.” I passed dead time making out with one of the women in the show under the wooden rollercoaster. That was to be my last summer at Lagoon, college was on the horizon, but for an important stage in my life Lagoon was everything to me.

Lagoon taught me how to have fun, to change worlds and move among them fluidly, and how to be myself, even if I wasn’t quite sure who that was. It challenged strictures and norms and I learned the essential lesson that kids who weren’t Mormon weren’t monsters and that my dad’s record collection had cool stuff in it. The freaks, geeks and misguided weirdos at Lagoon weren’t just better than the squares at my high school; they were, I’d come to find out, residents of the the real world. A place filled with imperfect and brilliantly stupid people just trying to figure out their places in the universe.

I’ve been back to the park over the years. Lagoon, like me, is a little shopworn, despite regular updates. And it doesn’t belong to me anymore, not like it did, anyway. New thrill seekers are giggling in gaggles on line at the now octogenarian Roller Coaster. Still, Lagoon’s twinkly lights and screaming, clattering soundscape will always remind me of my first tastes of responsibility, danger and freedom. Plus, Colossus still rules. 

Lagoon: An Official History (more or less)

A Park on the Great Salt Lake
Lagoon’s story begins in 1886, 10 years before Utah became a state, with a resort on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, west of Farmington. The Lake Park Bathing Resort, the progenitor of Lagoon, however, soon enough fell victim to a receding lake waterline which revealed unappealing and funky smelling blue mud. It shuttered in 1895.

Bamberger’s project: The Lagoon 
That didn’t stop railroad tycoon Simon Bamberger from buying 7 acres of marsh west of Farmington in 1896, where he excavated a boating lake and relocated Lake Park Resort’s abandoned buildings. He called it The Lagoon. Meanwhile Bamberger’s railroad (It ultimately connected Salt Lake and Ogden) delivered Salt Lake crowds to The Lagoon’s picnic grounds. Trees and a dancing hall were added (no dancing allowed on Sundays!) and the first amusement ride was built, Shoot the Chutes—it resembled today’s Log Flume ride. Bamberger tried to start a horse-racing track in 1910 but soon learned gambling would never be allowed. When Bamberger was elected the first and only Jewish governor in 1917, he gave up his stake in the park, to meet the ethical standards of the time.

The Lagoon Dipper
In 1920, the new owner A.C. Christiansen brought the “Thomas Edison of Roller Coasters,” John A. Miller, to Farmington. Christensen had seen on one Miller’s coasters at Kennywood Amusement Park in Pittsburgh and had convinced Miller to build one of his contraptions in Utah. Miller’s $75,000 coaster debuted in 1921 as The Lagoon Dipper. It operates today, still one of the most popular rides in the park, known simply as the Roller Coaster or the White Roller Coaster (although recently, park managers opted to start replacing the coaster’s wood with unpainted brown pressure-treated lumber.).

A Lull
Simon Bamberger’s son Julian took control of the park in 1928 and Lagoon limped through the Great Depression, but managed to stay open by focusing on its Dancing Pavilion and the touring big bands of the era. Lagoon also had famously built the state’s first filtered-water swimming pool and encouraged Utahns to shun the GSL with its slogan, “Swim in Water Fit to Drink.” Lagoon was forced to close its gates in 1942—there was, after all, a war on.

Meet the Freeds
Bob Freed was in Germany at the end of World War II, when he got a letter from his brother Dave pitching a partnership in the resort business when he returned from the war. When the four Freed Brothers (Robert, Dan, David and Peter) gathered back in Utah they saw an appetite among young people for amusements and entertainments. They signed a 30-year lease with the Bambergers to run Lagoon (dropping the “the”) and the park opened its gates in 1946.

The Great Fire
On Nov. 14, 1953, a massive fire engulfed the amusement park. Firefighters from around the county and 500 volunteers fought the blaze but most of the park including the beloved Dancing Pavilion was destroyed. A valiant effort preserved the still-in operation Carousel (you can still see the scorch marks) and most of the wooden Roller Coaster. Lagoon was rebuilt and reopened in 1954 with the new attractions, includingthe Rock-O-Plane, Roll-O-Plane, the Octopus, the Spook House and Tilt-A-Whirl and the Patio Gardens, an open-air performance and dance hall. The children’s ride area Mother Goose Land was created and remains largely unchanged.

The Golden Age
The modern era of Lagoon began with its resurrection. The Freeds tried to top themselves every year with a new attraction. And Bob Freed developed a knack for getting big musical names to come to the park—Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, the Rolling Stones, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix all played in the The Patio Gardens.

Civil Rights at Lagoon
Farmington City, up to 1965, had Jim Crow laws that prevented African-American’s from entering many areas of Lagoon. This didn’t sit well with Bob Freed, who booked many musicians of color to play Lagoon. He successfully fought to integrate, not only Lagoon, but Salt Lake’s Terrace Music Hall owned by Lagoon.

The Silver Age
In 1976, Lagoon unveiled Pioneer Village, a collection of actual pioneer homes and buildings preserved and filled with artifacts in of the era. That same year they rolled out their first steel coaster, the Jet Star 2, which is still generating sore necks today. The park would go big in 1983 with Colossus, a double loop steel coaster. At the end of ’80s, the” fit to drink” swimming pool was replaced with a water park. The Freed family became the sole owners of Lagoon, making it the largest family owned amusement park in the United States.

To Infinity and Beyond!
Starting in 1996, with the Wicked coaster, a custom-designed, whoosh of a ride, Lagoon continued to expand its rides and even got into the coaster design business with its full-inverted and terrifying Cannibal. The old Log Flume got some splashy competition in Pioneer Village with Rattlesnake Rapids. a thrilling rafting ride that runs through a manmade canyon behind the historic pioneer buildings. And the park extended its season with “Fright-mares,” a spooky haunted amusement park. The ritual of going to Lagoon with the family or sending the teen-agers off into the summer night remains a Utah tradition.

10 Tactics From a Lagoon Mom

Natalie Simpson is a Lagoon Mom. She’s been taking her boys Raleigh, 11, and Crew, 13, to Lagoon since 2006 and, except for 2013 when the roller coaster-loving family made visits to amusement parks in Ohio and Kansas, she always buys season passes. Here are her tips, tricks and tactics for a perfect Lagoon experience.

  1. Buy season passes The passes pay for themselves with two trips to the park. Plus, with a season-pass, you’re not pressured to commit to a full day. “You can go for two, three hours, get your fill and go home,” Nat says.
  2. Buy the passes early There are early-bird specials on the passes and even more savings for purchasing four or more season passes. Lagoon opens in spring for weekends only and these pass deals expire when its official summer season kicks off in early June. Nat makes sure to get her family’s passes before school lets out.
  3. Get the parking pass  If you go the season-pass route, shell out $55 for the parking pass, otherwise it’s $10 dollars every time you go. “That’s how they get you.”
  4. Go north for parking Instead of turning toward the main entrance as you first enter Lagoon’s sprawling parking lot, go further north in the parking lot. Natalie says she often finds closer parking in the rows farther into the lot.
  5. Dress ‘Lagoon minimal’ “I only ever bring my phone and one credit card,” Nat says. “I don’t wear a hat that can fly off on the rides and we put our sunscreen on at the car.” Also, no open-toed shoes or flip-flops. “There’s a few rides they won’t let you on with the wrong shoes.”
  6. Avoid weekends Avoid weekends and go when it’s less crowded. Going early and late in the season, when Lagoon is just open on weekends, is also more mellow.
  7. Ride Cannibal first If the park looks busy, it’s Cannibal first. Lagoon’s most popular coaster is sure to have the longest line, so it’s best to get its wait out of the way.
  8. Scorcher? Get wet on the Hydro Luge The two most popular water rides, the Log Flume and Rattlesnake Rapids, are busy on hot days. The Hydro Luge, “a waterslide you ride with your clothes on,” has a faster line.
  9. The Sky Ride is not faster but it’s the best way to cross the park The Sky Ride, which takes its riders from one end of the park to the other like a flat ski lift, is slower than actually walking the midway but it’s much pleasanter to look down on everyone.
  10. Skip Lagoon-a-Beach The water is really cold at the waterslide and wet amusement park inside the amusement park. “Plus, I don’t like changing my clothes in the middle of the park and if you wear your swimsuit around afterwards you’re the person leaving wet marks on the ride seats.”

A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Rides at Lagoon 

You (yes, you in the dad jeans) are not a kid anymore. Nevertheless, here you are here with your landlubber stomach. A guide for the wary.

  • What it’s called: Tidal Wave
  • What it should be called: Giant Sea-Saw Swing McBoatie
  • What it does: It puts whatever food you have in your stomach into free fall.
  • Where to sit: The extreme back rows exaggerate the effect.
  • Upchuck Factor: High
  • What it’s called: Musik Express
  • What it should be called: The Spinning Circle Ride Where the Sadistic Kid Operator Plays Nickelback Real Loud
  • What it does: Goes in circles, like, really fast over some hills and on an angle while loud, very bad music blares out of speakers creating a Doppler affect in your brain that lasts the rest of the day.
  • Where to sit: It’s a circle, sit wherever.
  • Upchuck factor: High, depending on the tunes
  • What it’s called: Colossus: The Fire Dragon
  • What it should be called: The One Where You Scream for 61 Seconds Then It’s Over
  • What it does: Climbs up a steep hill, drops you down the steep hill onto steel tracks that rocket you through two loops and then you black out and sort of forget the rest until it stops.
  • Where to sit: The front row. It’s better to look doom right in the eye.
  • Upchuck factor: Low
  • Bonus tip: As you enter the loops, turn your head towards the midway to watch it flip upside down. This will increase the upchuck factor to High.
  • What it’s called: Turn of the Century
  • What should be called: Giant Flying Swings That Are Scarier Than They Look. 
  • What it does: Teaches principle of centrifugal force by hurling you in circles high above that gross lake in the middle of the park.
  • Where to sit: On the outside swings—or are you too chicken?
  • Upchuck factor: Medium
  • What it’s called: Boomerang
  • What it should be called: Bumper Cars. It’s just bumper cars. Sheesh.
  • What it does: Allows younger brothers to enact bumper car vengeance on older brothers who think they are so cool.
  • Where to sit: Car number 8. Eight is your favorite number.
  • Upchuck factor: Low
  • What it’s called: Log Flume
  • What it should be called: Weaksauce Splash Mountain
  • What it does: Allows you to fulfill your dream of feeling what timber feels like on the way to the sawmill while getting your clothes soaking wet.
  • Where to sit: First two rows get wet.
  • Upchuck factor: Zero. It’s just a plastic log that goes down a hill. 
  • What it’s called: The Samurai
  • What it should be called: Vicious Egg Beaters in the Sky
  • What it does: Flings you in every direction at once while you inventory everything you’ve eaten in the last hour. You just had to have those churros, didn’t you?
  • Where to sit: Not on the Samurai.
  • Upchuck factor: You will barf.
  • What it’s called: Wicked
  • What it should be called: WTF Just Happened? 
  • What it does: Sorry, it’s way more fun to see the look on your face when you poop your pants.
  • Where to sit: Middle, back, wherever, you won’t see it coming.
  • Upchuck factor: High
  • What it’s called: The Terror Ride
  • What it should be called: That Horn at the End Scares You Every Time
  • What it does: Subjects you to being stuck on a track in a bad haunted house that isn’t even scary until OH MY GOD!
  • Where to sit: Between your mom and dad so it can’t get you.
  • Upchuck factor: None.
  • What it’s called: The Wild Mouse
  • What it should be called: The Impertinent Neck-jerking Machine
  • What it does: Jars your neck and back at right angles enlivened by moments of tummy-flipping drops.
  • Where to sit: Doesn’t matter. This thing’ll jerk you around real good.
  • Upchuck factor: Low
  • What it’s called: The Roller Coaster
  • What it should be called: The White Roller Coaster
  • What it does: Gives you a sense of how boring life must have been in the 1920s.
  • Where to sit: Front. Always the front.
  • Upchuck factor: Medium
  • What it’s called: Cannibal
  • What it should be called: They Can See You Screaming on Google Earth.
  • What it does: Upside-down twisty thing from, like up way, way, way, way up there and then, WHOOSH it’s over and you’ve lost all the change in your pockets.
  • Upchuck factor: Medium
  • What it’s called: The Centennial Screamer
  • What it should be called: Screamer’s pretty apt.
  • What it does: Goes in a circle, fast, and then when you are used to the pain, the angle mixes it up like those things they put the astronauts on to teach them to fear gravity. You’re no astronaut, Claudia.
  • Where to sit: It’s a circle. Wherever.
  • Upchuck factor: High.

Eating at Lagoon

In good conscience, Salt Lake magazine can’t give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the food choices at Lagoon. It’s not that it’s basically fair food—we like fair food. It’s that it’s not particularly good fair fare. However, there is one shining exception: The grilled buttery corn on the cob at Rattlesnake Grub in Pioneer Village is a yummy summer treat. The Pioneer Village Ice Cream Parlor and Bakery are good bets for sweets.  Lagoon has a liberal picnic policy that allows you to pack in your own food (Maybe stop by Caputo’s on the way and pack up a nice cooler of treats and head back to the picnic pavilion area). This policy also applies to adult beverages, which you can drink in the picnic area (and discreetly on the midway). But we don’t advise too many tipples. Lagoon’s rides are designed to jostle your equilibrium—best not to start with an impaired middle ear.




Powder Play

Originally published in January 2017 Issue of Sunset magazine

Not a fan of hard snow, long lift lines, and drafty lodges? Well, get ready: The new and improved ski day is about to knock your socks off.

IT’S THAT TIME of year when a line is drawn in the snow. On one side are the powderhounds who stockpile gear and bank PTO days waiting for the next dump. On the other side, the rest of us. We’ve sat in the traffic jams, slept in the cheesy chalets, and shivered our butts off, all in the name of fun. No more. We’re here to tell you there’s a better way. While you’ve stayed away, ski resorts have been upping their game, from adopting new snowmaking technologies to expanding their après scene beyond buffalo wings. Today the snow is better, the terrain is endless, and the base camps are bad ass. Make this the year you cross the line and call yourself a skier.

The Best in Snow

There was a time, if you can imagine it, when we waited for nature to buffer. During the 1920s, the first ski resorts in the country relied on natural falling snow to blanket their mountains. Which worked out great when the flakes were flying but, in between storms, the slopes were often an icy-patchy-melty mess. We now live in a world where high-powered guns launch pristine powder 100 feet into the air—in July. And state-of-the-art grooming machines prowl the mountain, turning today’s ice into tomorrow’s corduroy while we sleep. Today’s snow is better, more abundant, and like everything else in our lives, on-demand. Are we spoiled? Probably. Does it feel good? Judge for yourself at these top flake-making mountains.

Hang Out at Basecamp

In the old days, resorts lacked comforts. You might expect to eat bland chili, sleep in a drafty lodge, and find the town asleep by 8. Now, the hills are alive—with top chefs, craft cocktails, even mountaintop yoga. Welcome to your perfect après-ski.

Learning Curves

Ski school is so much better when taught by a pro. Here’s Olympic racer Wendy Fisher on the art of not looking stupid.

Tips for first-timers? If you’re winded and struggling, you’re not doing it right. Skiing should be effortless. Try to learn on mellow runs, so you won’t fear losing control. And be sure to get equipment that’s sized right. You want a shop where the employees ski every day and understand the gear.

Should I take a lesson? Yes! You don’t want to start ski-ing wrong; it’s harder to correct later. Often an instructor will tell you something, and you won’t get it. Then after trying over and over, you’ll have a breakthrough, and suddenly you’re on the next level. It’s incredible to watch.

Why do you love skiing? The freedom. If you play tennis, you need a court. But skiing  you can do anywhere there’s snow—on the trails, in the treeline. I love that.

Better, Warmer

No more clunky coats and rickety skis to muck up your mountain fantasy. Today’s gear is engineered for maximum performance, while keeping you warm from nose to toes.

Your hands Take one pair of waterproof gloves, add a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and you get … the new Capstone Heated Gloves. Now, you can warm your mitts at the touch of a button. $500;

Your face The futuristic Anon M3 MFI Goggles have concealed magnets that attach to your face warmer, keeping you covered from chin to nose on windy lift rides. $265;

Your toes Cold, stiff boots are tough on the toes. The solution: the Transpack Heated Boot Pro bag, an ingenious satchel that plugs right into your car lighter. Works on socks, gloves, and hats too. $220;

Your core Made from 100 percent merino wool, the REI Merino Midweight base layer has the warmth of wool with the soft feel of a synthetic. The top also wicks moisture, keeping you dry until the sun sets. $80;

Your new skis With an hourglass shape, a lightweight core, and a tip and tail curved like Elvis Presley’s lips, the Rossignol Soul 7 HD skis practically turn on their own. $850;

Your tush Nothing can ruin your run quicker than an ice-cold lift chair. The specially designed Women’s Cheeky Pants combat bum-freeze with an additional, removable pair of thermal shorts. $450;

The Book of Mormon Comes Home

The musical arrives in Salt Lake City, and no, we don’t want to talk about it.

THE CURTAIN opens on a spare stage, a set of doors. A lone LDS missionary rings a doorbell and sings, “Hello, my name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book!”

Holding a blue, standard-issue Book of Mormon, Elder Price is joined by a growing chorus of crisp-white-shirted elders marching up to doors and harmonizing, so very perkily, an enthusiastic message from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “Eternal life is super fun!”

As the chorus builds to crescendo, the lights come up on the backdrop—an artful representation of the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, and for us Salt Lakers, a familiar view of the Wasatch Range and Ensign Peak.

“This book will change your life so you won’t burn in Hell…o.”

Thus begins, with peppy aplomb, one of the biggest hits on Broadway: The Book of Mormon. The musical, which opened in 2011, has won nine Tony awards and continues to sell out nightly at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The opening in London in 2013 was met with rave reviews and sell-out crowds, and received four British Olivier Awards in 2014. In the four years since its debut on Broadway, the touring production has continued to sell out shows at major (and even minor) cities, but it’s never played, until now, in the town so prominently featured in its opening number: Salt Lake City.

In a cultural milestone—the equivalent of Gone With the Wind premiering in Atlanta—on July 28th, The Book of Mormon will open to a packed house in the Capitol Theatre, just three blocks from the LDS Temple Square. Tickets went on sale last April and sold out almost immediately. Isn’t it significant that a play that so thoroughly skewers the LDS faith is finally coming on tour to SLC? For heck’s sake, one of the show’s best songs is entitled “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” (Sound it out.)

But the peculiar thing is, apart from Jerry Rapier of Plan-B Theatre Company, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby, Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker and a few other Utah culture watchers, not many Salt Lakers wanted to talk about The Book of Mormon. Here is this world-renowned musical dealing directly with the faith that is the Higgs boson of life here in Utah, chock-full of very specific references to Utah, its founding LDS culture, and the particulars of LDS missions, and…crickets.

Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Tribune’s religious reporter, demurred. Repeated calls to current LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins were unreturned. Downtown stakeholders I contacted didn’t have anything to say about one of the most exciting and noteworthy attractions of the year. One local official even replied by saying, “consider this email my version of a 10-foot pole.”

Curiouser still, not even the musical’s promoters declined to promote. After a lengthy exchange with Broadway Across America, I scheduled interviews with the actors who portray the elders, but they were abruptly canceled.  “At this juncture, we’d like to respectfully decline all press requests.” Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, I learned, “are on to other projects.”

“For a lot of people in positions of authority in Salt Lake, there is no political upside to talking about it,” Robert Kirby from the Tribune muses. “It’s too easy to alienate people. But you’ve got to figure that a large percentage of the people who bought tickets are LDS [members] to some degree or another. Appearances are important in any religion. Your outward conduct says a lot about you to other people. It’s how you identify one Martian from another.”

Lynne Gorton Cropper, who studied the impact of humor on Mormon culture as part of her Religious Studies MA at the University of Iowa, says while many Mormons like herself will avoid the musical because of its vulgarity, they aren’t overly troubled. “The general membership is getting used to people ribbing them,” says Gorton. “Members have grown confident enough with themselves and their place in the world that they are less threatened by negative media attention.”

And It Came to Pass—Again

The Book of Mormon isn’t the first hit play to mine Mormon foibles and take the show back to Utah. Angels in America, the 1993 Pulitzer-winning Broadway play about AIDS, used Mormon culture as a microcosm of puritanical America. It was staged in 2010 at Salt Lake Acting Company, with a seating capacity of less than 200.

The Book of Mormon invades the heart of Mormondom as a full-on production in the city’s largest theater.

After the play sold out in April, Fox 13 News conducted an informal poll on its website. Nineteen percent of respondents who claimed they were Mormon said they would be seeing the play, while 48 percent said they would not.

Kirby says he gravitates toward Mormons like himself, who would be curious enough to buy a ticket to the musical. “Mormons who are harder to offend, who don’t take themselves so seriously,” he says.

But then we are, after all, talking about a play that includes (spoiler alert!) a scene wherein an African warlord shoves a Book of Mormon up Elder Price’s rectum.

“Do people think it’s obscene because it is? Or because they think it’s obscene to Mormons?” Kirby asks. “I mean would they watch it if a Jehovah’s Witness got a Bible shoved up his ass? I mean personally there were times when I was on my mission that I wanted to shove the scriptures up my companion’s ass. So I get that. But there is a sense to me that if you’re going to be a player on the world stage of faith, you have to be able to take your lumps like everybody else.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who has invested much of his two terms in office into getting the 2,400-seat, state-of-the-art Utah Performance Center built downtown, not only recognizes the cultural significance of The Book of Mormon finally arriving in Salt Lake, but sees it as justification for his hard work, because the musical would have come sooner had the city had a bigger theater.

“I saw it in New York City about a year-and-a-half ago and was thoroughly entertained,” Becker says, “especially because I live in the cultural milieu where the LDS Church is the dominant faith. We all know the basics around the doctrines, whether we are Mormon or not. But I can also appreciate that for someone who is Mormon, it’s really understandable that they might get defensive and feel offended.”

A Strange Symbiosis

I started working with Salt Lake magazine in 2006, and over the years I became the de facto “Mormon guy” at the magazine, I guess because I’m technically a Mormon. I walked away from the church way back in 1991, never having served a mission, and I’ve just never gone to the trouble of having my name removed from the rolls. Hence the “technically.”

So now here I am again, “the Mormon guy” assigned a story about a play that clearly bashes the church. What’s a former Sunbeam to do? Well, call the church, obviously.

The church’s media relations representative Eric Hawkins never did return my calls, even though over the years I’ve had good relationships with church spokesmen. What, not even a “no comment” for old times’ sake, guys? Thus I’m left with the official boilerplate: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

Despite that determinedly bland statement, the church’s potent public relations and marketing efforts surrounding the play speak volumes. The opening of the play in NYC coincided with the LDS Church’s multimillion-dollar advertising campaign “I’m a Mormon” that included video in Times Square and more than 200 taxi toppers featuring “I’m a Mormon” ads.

Instead of actively protesting or whipping members into an indignant frenzy over the play, the Mormon Church bought advertisements in Playbill, a monthly magazine for theater enthusiasts, and continues to purchase Playbill advertising in cities where the musical travels. The full-page ads feature friendly, diverse faces above phrases like “I’ve Read the Book” and “You’ve seen the play, now read the book,” along with a link to the official church website and a (how modern!) QR code. There was no word at our press time on whether the Salt Lake production would receive the same treatment.

University of Utah professor of religious studies Colleen McDannell studied the LDS Church’s public relations response to The Book of Mormon’s openings in New York and London.

“Some sharp PR person decided that rather than protest, [the Church] should piggyback on the publicity of this particular production,” she says. “You saw massive Church advertising in NYC and London. That’s a strategic move and an innovative move for religions in general.”

McDannell points to the non-innovative Catholic protests against Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. The protests only resulted in the filmmakers raking in more money.

“In the London campaign, it was difficult to even tell which ads were coming from The Book of Mormon [the musical] people and which were from the LDS Church. But people were talking about Mormons, and both groups were getting two ads for the price of one. The hilariously funny thing is that The Book of Mormon [the musical] and the LDS Church will be linked for eternity.”

Cherry Atop the Church’s Tough Year

This sunny, open and friendly, yet ultimately absurd, musical is often all people in London and New York know about Mormonism, McDannell says. Many Brits and Europeans confuse Mormons and the Amish, in fact. But in Salt Lake City, it’s a different story. Here the LDS Church dominates the news and the culture, and the past year’s news cycle has included plenty of doublespeak from church leaders on LGBT marriage equality issues and the very public purges of prominent bloggers and women members who argue for change within the church. In the Big Apple, Mormons are just part of the multi-faith mix. But in Sal Tlay Ka Siti, Mormon Church leaders meet with Utah state legislators before they go into session, and everyone steps carefully around issues that involve the church. Not offending the “dominant religion” is an unwritten part of every savvy Utah business plan.  Heck, we even capitalize “Church.”

The musical, however, refuses to tiptoe. Elder Price and his hapless companion Elder Cunningham leave the MTC in Provo for Uganda, where they attempt to convert the impoverished and war-weary residents of an African village to Mormonism. The action is irreverent, absurd in its caricatures of both the missionaries and the African villagers, and certainly would be offensive to many a temple-recommend holder, and actually even more so to Africans. The language is foul and crude, as you would expect from the creators of South Park, and they resoundingly mock pretty much every aspect of the LDS Church’s origin story, even asserting at one point that Joseph Smith copulated with frogs.

“Nobody is worrying about the Jews in Fiddler on the Roof,” Rapier says. “And if someone doesn’t know that [The Book of Mormon] is crass, that’s just ignorance on their part. It’s been out there for four years. In three clicks, any person can have the entire score on their phone. If any offense is taken, that’s a failure of personal responsibility.”

Nevertheless, after four years, ignorance still abounds. Word on the Mormon street is that the musical is “actually kind of sweet,” as one young former missionary told me. Despite the obscenity, the play is generous towards the young missionaries. They come out looking kind and earnest and audiences root for them as they belt out the teachings of their faith: that ancient Jews sailed to America, that God lives on a planet called Kolob, that in 1978 “God changed his mind about black people,” and that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. Parker and Stone chose the trappings of Mormonism as a straw man for the absurdities of all religions, aiming their skewers at the institution, not its followers.

The modern LDS Church approaches proselytizing in this same way, McDannell says. “Do you convince people to join because of the revelations of Joseph Smith or because the church is made up of a bunch of cool, interesting, hardworking people? You see this in the musical, too. It centers on the delightful character of the Mormon missionaries. If anything, the bad guys are the bland, no-personality Mormon leaders who come to take these guys from Uganda. The missionaries are fun-loving, innocent, naive and a little stupid, but we like them more than the institution. And that’s very American. Americans distrust institutions.”

Rapier just hopes that despite the sound and fury over the profanity, audiences notice that it’s great theater. “I want people to look past crass because it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had watching a musical.”

Loyal Opposition: Mormon satire is old hat

The faithful of a different sort have gathered for decades at Salt Lake Acting Company for the yearly production of Saturday’s Voyeur that skewers Mormon culture and Utah politics. Though Voyeur employs the same edgy satire as The Book of Mormon, the LDS Church has yet to launch a media blitz in an attempt to subvert the campy production.

“We’re small fish—just a comedy group that makes fun of uptight people,” says longtime music director Kevin Mathie. “We’ve never really threatened the faithful.”

Gun-toting legislators, portly LDS Church officials, flaming-gay missionaries and a drunken, foul-mouthed Angel Moroni are among Voyeur’s caricatures. Board President Marian Jacobsen says, “It’s a way for us to vent and commiserate with like-minded people.”

Plan-B Theatre Company also tackles Mormon issues, but as serious drama. LDS cultural themes run through many of its plays, written by Mormon dramatists. “You can’t create art in Utah and not be connected to Mormonism in some way,” says Plan-B’s producing director, Jerry Rapier. “There is always some sort of influence on our work.”

For more information on upcoming performances, visit and

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