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Mormon Tabernacle Choir on parade

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was singing in the rain as it participated in the 54th U.S. Presidential Inaugural Parade Jan. 20. But from the enthusiasm of choir members and their resilient smiles, the day could have been warm and sunny instead of cold and rainy.

Tabernacle Chior at inauguration
Tabernacle Chior at inauguration Photo: Photo by Gerry Avant

As temperatures dipped to 20 degrees F and rain fell, from a downpour to a steady drizzle, choir members bundled against the elements, wearing black or other dark colored overcoats to achieve a uniform look. The cold weather and rain put them to the test of endurance, commitment and resolve to serve. A lot was at stake. Not only did the choir represent the State of Utah and the Church, but it also was in the parade as "America's Choir," a moniker given by President Ronald Reagan during his 1981 inauguration. Judging from the cheers, shouts and applause of people along the parade route, the choir accomplished its mission.

The highlight came as the choir's float passed the reviewing stand and received a "thumbs up" salute from President George W. Bush. That one moment, said director Craig Jessop, made worthwhile all the challenges and hardships the choir endured.

"The parade was wonderful," Brother Jessop said. "It was drizzly, rainy and cold, but it could have been worse. There was so much a festive atmosphere. It was such an impressive thing to see 300-plus people on that float. I think the choir generated immense good will.

"I was overwhelmed at their enthusiasm, their optimism, their joy. They were cold and wet and should have been miserable, but they were happy. Their smiles and their spirits just radiated. I was so proud of them. I was proud of our nation, a nation filled with high ideals and cold realities. Oftentimes those high ideals and cold realities don't meet on the same level. But the choir represents all that is good and noble and that man aspires to. They are a living example that things can be good, and that beauty can be created by mortals who are committed with faith in God, faith to high ideals. They are such a powerful, strong symbol."

As with many public events at which the news media are out in force, the parade attracted many demonstrators. However, even they cheered, waved and applauded as the choir's float rolled along the route. "I never saw one negative expression toward the choir at all," Brother Jessop said. "Even the demonstrators could not disagree with 'America, the Beautiful' and 'God Bless America.' The choir transcends any national, political boundaries; it also transcends denominational beliefs. It truly is America's choir. Americans feel ownership in this institution; it's theirs whether they're Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, or whatever — it doesn't matter. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir belongs to the nation."

Brother Jessop said that the choir would have responded to an invitation to the inauguration no matter who had been elected. "Politics aren't what's at issue here. The fact is that a president gives the choir an honor of an invitation and the choir comes. As far as I know, the choir has responded every time it has been invited to an inauguration."

As the choir's float got under way in the parade, Brother Jessop's enthusiasm seemed to brim. At one point, he turned to the person next to him and exclaimed, "Isn't this great!"

The choir's entry was the largest in the inaugural parade. The float was 150 feet long with 50 rows to accommodate 319 choir members, plus technicians and some of the choir's staff.

tabernacle chior float
tabernacle chior float Photo: Photo by Gerry Avant

Choir officers and staff had less than a month to put together the trip to Washington, which included arranging for a charter airline flight, contracting for bus services, booking hotels, finding a venue for a Friday evening Inaugural Gala Concert and "Music and Spoken Word" broadcast Sunday morning and a miniconcert after the broadcast.

"People bent over backward to help," said choir president McRay "Mac" Christensen. Some phenomenal things happened to make the tour fall into place, he said. The tour to Washington was Brother Christensen's "first time out the gate," having been named president of the choir just last November. He had never gone on a Tabernacle Choir tour. He credited his predecessor, Wendell M. Smoot, with providing invaluable assistance to make the tour a success.

"I was expecting a million problems," he said, "but you wouldn't believe how well these people travel. We had long days and short nights; breakfast at 5 a.m. and back to the hotels at nearly midnight. We had to travel two hours from our hotels in Baltimore, Md., to the concert hall at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., for the rehearsal Thursday evening, concert Friday evening, and the broadcast and miniconcert Sunday morning.

"On the day of the parade, we were on our buses by 6:30 a.m. We checked in at the south parking lot at the Pentagon; we were put in a large tent for four hours. Then we got on buses, where we waited about an hour, then went to the parade route. We got on the float about 1 p.m. It was cold and raining. We sat on the float from about 1 to about 3 p.m.; then the float started to move; we were another hour on the parade route. As we we went down the street, it became evident that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir needed to be there. You could just feel it, with all the cheering, smiling and good will. It was out of this world. All of a sudden, we forgot we were cold; we forgot we were wet."

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