Renowned Osmonds leave west for spot in heart of Ozarks

As the Osmonds look back on 30 years marked by the ebb and flow of show-business fame and fortune, the title of a Beatles song might apply: it has been for them a "long and winding road."But mother Olive and brother Merrill both agree the family has been directed along that road by the hand of the Lord.

The road has led them lately to the entertainment resort town of Branson, Mo., on the shore of a lake in the Ozark Mountains, where the family members currently reside and entertain, except for Donny and Marie, who each pursue separate careers.

From their homes in Branson, Olive and Merrill spoke recently by telephone with the Church News.

"In our family we believe in the no-accident theory," Merrill reflected. "There's a reason for everything, why we went through all the different phases of life, why we had our difficulties, and why we're here today. And we have a lot of faith in what the future holds for those who love the Lord."

The difficulties to which he referred include a career decline, financial losses and occasionally being ostracized by their entertainment-world peers because of the wholesome image they projected and the moral values to which they adhered.

But they acknowledge blessings also, one of them being a divine manifestation early on of what the future would bring. The year was 1962.

"My husband George and I had built a business in Ogden, Utah, for 18 years," Sister Osmond recalled, "and the kids were singing at the churches and the civic groups and so forth and just doing fine. Then they had a chance to do the Andy Williams [nationwide network televisionT show. And I said to my husband, I would sure feel better about this if a couple more of our children were to get their patriarchal blessings."

Eldest brothers Virl and Tom (both hearing-impaired) had already received their patriarchal blessings. Alan and Wayne, the two eldest members of the original singing group were 12 and 10 years old respectively, and each received his blessing.

"We came home and started packing our suitcases," Sister Osmond said. "We sensed the importance of it, because they were told certain things that were quite thrilling and have come true."

Added Merrill: "It wasn't just two patriarchal blessings, it was each of our patriarchal blessings, done at different times with different patriarchs, and they all said basically the same thing, that we would travel all over the world as brothers performing and open the doors for missionaries."

The blessings came true. During the height of their popularity, the Osmonds regularly hosted missionary firesides in the locations where they performed that always drew capacity audiences.

Family home evening was the setting for the earliest Osmond singing efforts. During one of their outings, a weekend trip to Yellowstone Park, the parents began to harmonize on the song "The Old Oaken Bucket." Curious, Alan learned the harmony part. Before long, Wayne, Merrill and Jay were involved, and they began to practice hard.

That led to engagements at church and civic occasions. They were featured at a Primary conference conducted by Naomi Randall, then a general Primary officer, at which her song, "I Am a Child of God" was introduced.

"Our first big gig was at the Hotel Utah [now the Joseph Smith Memorial BuildingT where we got a $60 check," Merrill remembered.

The fateful trip to California, where they were discovered by the father of singer Andy Williams, was a near fiasco. They hoped, with the help of the Lennon Sisters' uncle, to meet Lawrence Welk, but the band leader went out of town before the scheduled meeting.

As a consolation, they went to Disneyland. There they were discovered on Main Street by the Dapper Dans, a barbershop quartet who liked their sound. That encounter resulted in their being seen on regional television from Disneyland.

The Lennon Sisters' uncle also arranged for them to sing at a televised boxing match between bouts. None of the fight fans was interested in hearing four youngsters from Utah sing. But Sister Osmond said it may have been that appearance that was witnessed by Andy Williams' father and which prompted him to get his son to book the Osmonds for a guest appearance on his TV variety show.

The mail response was so great that the boys became regulars. It was a sink-or-swim experience for them as each week they were required to learn new routines and skills. Thus, they developed a polish that would serve them for years to come.

As the 1960s ended, record executive Mike Curb signed them as a pop music group. He put them in the hands of arranger Rick Hall, who coaxed from them a sound similar to another brothers group, the Jackson Five. The formula worked, as the Osmonds caught the fancy of America's youth.

"Osmondmania ruled from 1971-1974," wrote Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. "During those years, the brothers had 10 chart entries, while Donny, Marie and youngest brother Jimmy also made the Hot 100."

During this time, the family rubbed shoulders with the famous and great. Sister Osmond tells of her experience meeting Queen Elizabeth II of England during an Osmond tour of that country. Sister Osmond brought a copy of the Book of Mormon to a reception as a present for the monarch.

Not finding an appropriate moment to present it, Sister Osmond approached her husband, Prince Philip, and asked him to give it to her.

"But he yelled: Elizabeth, Mrs. Osmond has a present for you.' I could have gone clear through the floor! And she said,Oh, my, come here.' And it was just like visiting with your next-door neighbor. I gave her the present and said, I didn't know what to give a queen, so I brought you our most valuable posession.' She said,My, can you part with it?' I said, Yes, I have another one just like it.' And she said,I'm going to put this on my fireplace.' "

Sister Osmond had another royal friend, the king of rock 'n' roll. Elvis Presley would send the Osmonds flowers whenever they played in Las Vegas, Nev. On one visit, Sister Osmond recalled, she said to him, "I know you can't believe what's in these teen magazines, but I read something that made me wonder. It said if you hadn't been a performer, you'd like to have been a minister."

"And he said, That's right,' " she remembered. "I said,Well we need to get together and talk.' And he said, `The next time you're in Vegas, we're going to have steak and talk about religion.' "

They never had the opportunity to do that. After Presley's death, the Osmond's received his copy of the Book of Mormon from his fan club. It was marked with such annotations as "I've got to look into this."

With tenderness, Merrill recalled associations with fans.

"There's one lady who's been following us forever. She was a stubborn little gal. She would be somewhat bitter about certain aspects of the gospel. Whenever we saw her we would meet her backstage and have these discussions. Well it wasn't until about three or four years ago that I saw her, and she was so humbled. She was ready to change, she said. And she did join the Church and then passed away about a month later."

In some ways the '80s were less than kind to the Osmonds. They disbanded, then reformed as a country act, but never achieved the fame they previously enjoyed.

A couple of years ago, their old mentor, Andy Williams, starred in Alan's "Stadium of Fire" July 4th extravaganza in Provo, Utah. He told them about Branson, a sort of oasis of wholesome entertainment. The idea of performing there appealed to them. A theater was purchased, and the entire clan - parents, children and grandchildren - moved to Branson.

Largely due to the influx of Osmonds, the Branson Branch is now a ward. They perform at their theater during the days and speak at such functions as missionary zone conferences in the evening. On Pioneer Day, July 24, Merrill produced a local pageant recounting the history of the Church, supported by local residents and members of the Springfield Missouri Stake.

Branson has been good for the family, Merrill said. "I don't think I have personally seen the brothers at such peace as has been evident here the last couple of seasons. I think it's because our overall mission is now being felt. We're getting up in age a little bit and we're together again as a family doing what we do best, and we think the Lord is directing our every move."

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