Saturday, February 16, 2002

Before the Winter Olympic Games began in Salt Lake City last weekend, the national media were having a field day. How on Earth could a largely Mormon state do something so daring as hosting an international celebrity meeting? Would the world come gladly to a state whose dominant religion asks members to abstain from alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine, three staples of international conferences?

In fact, there were so many wacko interpretations of Utah it was “the strangest state in America… a theocracy… holier-than-thou Hicksville” that even the Salt Lake City Tribune, hardly a Mormon newspaper, warned in one of its articles: “Get used to it, Utah.”

And then came the opening. On Friday, Feb. 8, the entire world tuned in, in one manner or another, to the extraordinary opening ceremony. With its gorgeous Native American powwow, stirring ice dances representing the saga of the settlers, with the railroads coming in from East and West, with exquisite music and huge, diaphanous great animals of the West growling and cavorting on the ice, people asked over and over: “This could happen in Utah?”

Where had this different spirit of the opening ceremony come from? What had melted away the tones of commercialism and crassness that have too often tarnished even the best of the recent Olympics? Had the state smuggled in, perhaps in the dark of night, more of those egregious “outsiders” who had always disdained Utah when, of course, they were not persecuting the dull and odd Mormons?

To delve into these secrets, I called first the artistic director of the Olympic Arts Festival, New York native Raymond T. Grant, out in Salt Lake. He was happy to ruminate about the aesthetics of the opening spectacle. “It’s about beauty,” he began over the telephone, “it’s about beauty.” But why had it been so unusually beautiful?

“It’s wonderful to speculate about it,” he said thoughtfully. And then he went into the interesting history of the last year and a half. “The aesthetic community decided to use storytelling to tell a deeper story about the West,” he began. “I helped orchestrate the meetings that were held with community leaders and artists from all over Utah. We brought them together. It was clear that there was a powerful story to tell and that there is still a huge fascination with the American West.”

Then he embarked upon the inner story, the place where parts of the soul of that unusual state met New York, Hollywood and the world. “You know, 98 percent of the entire cast were volunteers,” he went on, “and that’s huge. In fact, most were not paid at all. This is an extraordinary story, and I’d link it directly to Mormon culture. As a Catholic boy from New York, I found it interesting that Brigham Young, the founder of the Utah settlement of Mormons, built a theater before anything else.”

He went on to tally up: The state has six dance companies; more pianos and harps are sold in Utah than anywhere in the United States; the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has 350 members; and the oldest Steinway dealership in Utah, Daynes Music Co., was started as early as 1862. Utah’s per capita spending on students is one of the lowest yet they boast the highest test scores. “It’s been fascinating for me, having to tap into this culture,” he summed up.

I then put in a call to my respected friend Arnold Friberg, one of America’s greatest painters and the man who in earlier years did all the biblical paintings for the Cecil B. de Mille extravaganzas. Why was that opening so classy? I asked him.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he answered offhandedly. “I just suppose we’re classy people.” Then he explained: “Utah’s a state where the arts are mostly the performing arts. Often people here are downright hostile to individual endeavors (like my big painting of George Washington at Valley Forge). That is why they call this the ‘Beehive State.’ One person leaves the choir and another comes in. This attitude is deeply ingrained in the state.”

I rang up another dear friend, Peggy Roach, president of Salt Lake’s Westminster College. “I think these Olympics have represented the state very well, in all its diversity. And I think that there is in our families a strong commitment to education, to well-roundedness. Most likely, that is the commitment in Mormon culture, but there is a family orientation no matter what your religion. Families spend an enormous amount of time with their children it’s not only soccer, but ‘soccer and music.’ In fact, many of us saw the Olympics as a way of getting rid of all the myth about Utah and showing the humanity of the people here.”

There is still more about Salt Lake City and Utah that many outsiders did not “get” until they arrived there. The state is booming, with international investment one of the highest in the nation for many years now, particularly in the fields of high-tech and biomedical research. Classy hotels, motels and condos are sprouting up all over. The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce estimates that there will be another $3.5 billion in new development investment in the first five years alone, all because of the Games.

But I suspect strongly that the clean little secret of Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Olympics is that the artistic triumph of the opening night, the mostly smooth operations of the days thereafter, and the economic prosperity are all because of the same thing. What one sees there is not anything that should seem extraordinary: It is simply the mix of a serious and upright religion, of families who foster and insist upon providing the highest levels of culture right along with the highest modern technology, and of generally sensible organizing and governing. In short, it is a modern mix of the old America.

And perhaps that makes it extraordinary today, as well.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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