“Janie Thompson,” Ensign, Mar. 1986, 32
I’ve been everywhere man,
I’ve been everywhere man. …
Travel I’ve had my share, man,
I’ve been everywhere.
For an audience of one in her small office, or for an audience of millions over national television, Janie Thompson enthusiastically belts out that Geoff Mack song in her own inimitable way.
She means it. She really has been everywhere. She proves it by adding several choruses of her own to the song, listing the places she’s been with BYU entertainment groups. The last chorus goes like this:
I’ve been to India, Delhi, Agra, Tajmal,
Calcutta, Bombay, Sri Lanka and Nepal,
Romania, Brasav, Siveil, Sibiu,
Oradea, Hungary, Eastern Europe old and new,
Poland, Warsaw, Krakov, Club,
Budapest, Bucharest … what the heck,
There’s not much left.
I’ve been everywhere. …
Janie is a star in her own right, as well as a starmaker.
As a director of touring performing groups from BYU for more than twenty-four years, she earned the love and respect of LDS Church members and nonmembers in all of those places she sings about. For those who have seen a Janie Thompson show, her name suggests lights and music and non-stop action that leave audiences clapping for more.
But for student performers and stage crew members who traveled with her during those years, the name Janie Thompson suggests a stern taskmaster who could love the best out of them. She expected them to succeed, and they did.
Everyone calls her Janie. Somehow “Miss Thompson” or “Sister Thompson” doesn’t fit.
In the eyes of Millie Cody Garrett, a former student, there isn’t anyone else like Janie. Millie was Miss Indian BYU and traveled with BYU’s Lamanite Generation, the American Indian-Polynesian-Latin American entertainment group Janie founded, for four years before becoming a member of the Church.
“Janie saw something in me I didn’t know I had. She was like a mountain of faith—so much belief. She called me an Indian princess and wanted me to be Indian—to appreciate my heritage. And I do. However, because of her, I know that before being a Lamanite, I am an individual and a daughter of God,” Millie says.
“When I was baptized, she was there. When my husband and I went to the temple, she was there. She loves me. She loves all of us.”
Recalling her days with the Lamanite Generation, Millie says, “We never performed without a prayer.”
Those who know Janie understand that prayer is one of the guiding principles of her life. One student commented that she “has faith as thick as soup.”
Janie’s eyes sparkle when she talks about her family and her “kids.” She has never married, and her “kids” include anyone who has ever worked on a show under her direction. She has hundreds of them all over the world, many with grown children of their own.
Though she retired officially in 1984, she still works part-time at BYU on special assignments. She staged a production number spotlighting the BYU football team in connection with the 1984 Holiday Bowl, and in 1985 she produced a family show for Campus Education Week at BYU. She has also organized choruses for Church gatherings ranging from a meeting of General Authorities, mission presidents, and regional representatives in April of 1985 to the Young Women Fireside broadcast via satellite in November last year.
The best place to catch Janie is in her office. A piano, a desk, costumes, and mementos of her accomplishments and worldwide travels fill the space. All four walls and the ceiling are decorated with hundreds of pictures of people she loves and places she has been. A conversation with her is punctuated with snatches of song and hearty laughter. She often stops in mid-sentence to make sure one “sees” the person, the show, or the place she is talking about. One minute she’ll be seated behind her desk, and the next she’ll be at the piano belting out a tune. She freely shares her experiences, the successes and the setbacks.
Her sensitivity shows. As tears stream down her face because of a disappointment of the moment, she explains, “I’m not head. I’m all feelings.” But the clouds pass quickly in her life.
She was born in Malta, Idaho, the oldest of seven children. She’s proud of her family and doesn’t hesitate to say so.
“Mother and Father were so talented. Dad sang bass and Mother was a dramatic soprano. We all played the piano and a variety of other instruments. We had our own band.”
Pointing to pictures on the wall, she introduces “my brother Sam, in Germany being made up for Faust. And then my three brothers here, John, Joe, and that’s Bob. He’s six-foot-five and has a voice as big as he is. They’re all great talents and great pillars in the Church.”
She points to another picture. “These are my sisters Carolyn and Dot. We were a pretty hot trio in our day at BYU. Dot got killed a few years ago …”
“One of these days, I’ll write a Thompson show. We’ll WOW them! Can’t you just see these seventy-year-old people up there?” Janie dissolves into laughter.
The father of this extraordinary family was a bishop “most of his life,” and their mother was Primary president “forever,” Janie recalls. They were always putting on some kind of program that involved the family members. Janie would make up songs for any occasion. She still does.
Her performing years began in “my mom’s living room. I would turn on the radio, when we finally got rich enough to have a radio, and I would make up the most marvelous routines. I just knew there was a talent scout behind every crack watching me.”
It’s hard to imagine, Janie says, but she once had “the biggest case of stage fright that probably anyone ever had.” Although she loved to sing, she would hide in trios and groups rather than perform alone. After she had graduated from BYU and was teaching music at Timpanogos Elementary School in Provo, Utah, she was asked to sing with a band. She turned the invitation down, so they asked another girl.
“That cut to the quick. She was everything I wasn’t. She was beautiful. She was popular. And besides that, she could play the piano better than I could. Well, my jealousy got the best of my fear and I finally sang with them. I sang, ‘Some day he’ll come along … ,’” she says, breaking into song, “and someone came up after and told me I sounded like Ella Fitzgerald. Well, of course I didn’t, but that was all it took. From then on you couldn’t shut me up.” This was during World War II.
Janie quit her teaching job to go to California and get more experience in entertainment, on the advice of a United Service Organization (USO) recruiter. Her work in USO shows there was voluntary, so she had to hold another job to support herself. Then, after the war, she went to Europe with the Civilian Actress Technicians Corps to put on shows with talented people who were already in the military service.
Returning to the states, she made her living for a while singing with Ike Carpenter’s band, which played the big ballrooms in California.
But she felt the spiritual need to serve a mission, so she told her bishop she’d like to have that opportunity. She was called to Wales.
After her mission, she returned to California and was ready to resume her singing career when she received a telephone call from BYU President Ernest Wilkinson. He asked her to come back to the “Y” to add her professional expertise to what was then the school’s Program Bureau.
“I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay where I thought the action was. I cried all the way back to Provo. I couldn’t turn anything down from the Church or BYU—but I thought it was the end.”
She soon became known as “Miss Show Biz.” During the next four years the Program Bureau produced 2,463 shows, ranging from fifteen minutes to two hours.
Janie was also called to the General Board of the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association during that period. LaRue Longden, who was a counselor in the YWMIA General Presidency, recalls: “Everyone loved to work with Janie. She was not temperamental. She never seemed to have anything to worry about, even when we knew she did. Janie lives her religion to the hilt.”
Janie also served under President Florence Jacobsen, who comments: “Janie added to the YWMIA board her unending energy. She always did whatever she was asked, and everything she did was quality entertainment and inspired all who were privileged to associate with her.”
But demands on her time and energy began to take their toll. So Janie left Provo and went to New York City for a change of pace. It was there she realized some truths about herself and the field of entertainment that changed the course of her life and profoundly influenced her work at BYU.
“I could see the real power and influence of show business. I always knew it was important. But I didn’t realize what you could do with it until then. All you have to do is look at the big stars. They don’t sway just a few people, but millions. And if there’s any person who knows the power and influence of show biz, it’s the adversary; he practically controls the whole thing. We sit back and let him get away with it.”
BYU administrators wanted Janie to come back to the Program Bureau, “and I just couldn’t stand the thought of getting back into the rat race of go-go-go college life. But something told me that I should come. So I talked to myself like this: ‘You know how you feel about show business. Maybe you could do something about it if you go back.’
“I reconciled myself to being buried in Provo forever. Thinking this was the end of any more traveling, I went to Europe with my sister, Dot, as a final fling. That was the summer of 1959. The summer of 1960 was our first overseas tour [for the Program, Bureau], and I’ve hardly missed a year since. I’ve been everywhere.” BYU performing group tours have taken her throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia.
K. Newell Dayley, chairman of the Department of Music at BYU and one of her former students, pays tribute to Janie Thompson. “She is the real pioneer in the university’s touring program. She has taken nothing so many times and made something of it. It seems she always had less than she needed and produced much more than expected. She had the vision. Our performing groups are accepted with enthusiasm throughout the world. The heritage she has given us is incredible.”
That first overseas tour, in 1960, was sponsored by the Defense Department. It took the BYU troupe to military bases in the Pacific, including Naha, on the island of Okinawa. The show was “Curtain Time,” and student Norm Nielsen was there.
“Naha was the jumping-off spot for United States Marines who were fighting the undeclared war in Viet Nam,” he explains. The audience included perhaps a thousand battle-ready Marines who had thrown things at another college group and booed them off stage the night before.
Before leaving home, the “Curtain Time” cast had been warned that the only way to please a military audience was to use scanty costumes and “blue” humor. Of course, lowering their standards to that level was not in the BYU group’s plans.
“In the devotional, before the prayer,” Brother Nielsen recalls, “Janie reemphasized that we would not change the show for this or any other audience. She said, ‘Let’s do the best show we’ve ever done.’
“From the moment we stepped on stage shouting, ‘Curtain time! Curtain time! Curtain time!’ (“We always shouted it. We never sang it,” recalls then nationally-prominent accordionist Janet Todd, a cast member) the audience was caught up in the vitality and freshness of the show.”
“Janie always felt that there should be one part of every show that appeals to the spirit,” Brother Nielsen says. In this show, they sang “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Then, while the group hummed, one of the young women in the cast talked about being true to one’s country and to one’s belief in God. “We could feel the Spirit come into the hearts and minds of those Marines.”
“The show ended with an upbeat patriotic number, and the audience jumped to its feet with a standing ovation. Those big, tough Marines stood there with tears in their eyes, clapping and clapping,” Brother Nielsen says.
Janie explains the philosophy that guides her approach to a show: “We, as a people, need to build our own standards of everything, whether it be in entertainment, apparel, personal conduct—everything. We should build our own standards and not really follow the world. This is the kind of insight I’ve tried my best to instill into my kids.”
She expresses the feelings of many who have the opportunity to direct groups of student performers from LDS schools and institutes of religion.
“We are so appreciative of the opportunities the Church and the university give us. We don’t want to let our school down, or our General Authorities, or our audiences, or our families. We want to showcase our talent in such a way that it is representative of our standards. That is what we’ve tried to do. And once you explain it to these kids, they get sold on it and live it.”
Many of her students have gone on to professional success in the entertainment world. They include Heather Young, a performer in her own right who recently collaborated with composer Lex de Azevedo on his musical “Charly”; Sandi and Salli of the Lawrence Welk show; Jana Milo, star of Disney productions; The D’s; actor Joseph Running Fox; the Engemanns; and many more, including Tom Pike of the Lettermen, who says, “She taught me all I know about show biz. She is a great teacher and inspiration for young singers.”
Treasured most highly among the many plaques, trophies, awards, and citations Janie has received is a small bronze statue inscribed, “For your devotion to the Lamanite cause.” It is signed by President Spencer W. Kimball.
As the originator and artistic director of the Lamanite Generation, Janie has spent more time with this group than with any other. It was organized in 1971 as part of a missionary effort for the Southwest Indian Mission.
Dale Tingey, former president of that mission and currently director of American Indian Services at BYU, calls Janie “one of the greatest Lamanite missionaries in the Church. She’s worked magic on them. She’s been able to build these young people in a way that no other person has ever been able to do. She is a great soul.”
Elder George P. Lee of The First Quorum of the Seventy was one of the first American Indians she used in a show. Janie Thompson, he says, “radiates happiness, sweet spirit, joy. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Before the Lamanite Generation started, she selected a couple of Indians to be in her shows. I was one, and Carnes Burson (co-composer, with Arliene Nofchissey Williams, of the Lamanite Generation favorite, “Go, My Son”) was the other. We sang and danced. Janie would have me talk to the audience and bear my testimony during intermission. She was courageous to try something that hadn’t been done before with Indian people. She is extraordinary, a true Latter-day Saint with charity towards all.”
Rick Luna, a soft-spoken young Indian composer, expresses what many feel. “Janie Thompson is helping fulfill the great promise made in the Doctrine and Covenants, ‘and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose.’ (D&C 49:24.) She is one of the initiators of the blossoming process. She takes young people and molds them. They become leaders. Other Lamanites see some of their own people performing with bright, smiling faces, people who are going to the university, who are clean-cut, successful young Indians, and they say, ‘That’s my culture. I want to be one of them.’”
Blessings are abundant for young men and women who have the opportunity of working with Janie Thompson. Her sacrifices for them have included both her money and her time. Ken Sekaquaptewa, now a staff member teaching other Indian students at BYU, says, “Who would have thought that this minority kid from Phoenix, with a mother from China and a Hopi Indian father, would ever visit forty-two states and Scandinavia, see the Great Wall of China, and meet his Chinese relatives in Shanghai? It was all because of the Church and BYU’s performing groups, but most of all, it was Janie having faith in me.”
Janie never mentions her role in the blessings received by her students. She doesn’t seem to realize the impact she has had on their lives and the strength they receive because she lets them know, without question, that they can count on her. She tells them. They sing about it, in “Count On Me,” a song she wrote for the Lamanite Generation, and she lives her life accordingly:
You know if you need me I’ll be there.
I’ll go anywhere.
Hope then you’ll see
That you can always count on me. …
I will understand.
Eternally, count on me.