BYU legend Janie Thompson launched careers, touched lives as founder of Young Ambassadors, Lamanite Generation
By Emma Penrod Jun 8, 2013, 8:57pm MDT Deseret News
PROVO — Sandi Griffiths attended her first audition at BYU as a spectator, initially feeling too shy to try out herself. But the director, Janie Thompson, had no ill words for the plethora of hopefuls. If a student really couldn't sing, she smiled and said, "Oh, you're wonderful! Could you carry a flag?"
Watching Thompson, Griffiths worked up the courage to sing "I'm as Corny as Kansas in August."
"She changed the course of my life," said Griffiths, who later sang on "The Lawrence Welk Show" for 12 years.
Thompson, who died June 1, 2013 at the age of 91, had a chance at her own career as a professional entertainer, but gave it up to mentor others as the founder of the Student Program Bureau. She ultimately founded six groups at BYU, two of which, the Young Ambassadors and Living Legends, continue to tour internationally today. She continued writing and producing shows after her retirement and published more than 100 musical works.
But her greatest accomplishment, those who knew her say, was mothering the students she considered her children.
"She had a superpower, if you ask me, to know the potential of her students," her niece, Barbara Acheson, said. "She could look past the makeup and clothes right into the soul and pull that out."
Thompson became the founder of a BYU entertainment initiative then known as the Student Program Bureau in 1952. BYU President Ernest Wilkinson called to ask her to start it shortly after she returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She had received a job offer from the Ike Carpenter band earlier that same day and was less than thrilled about giving up her opportunity with Ike Carpenter, but she considered Wilkinson's invitation a calling from God.
Randy Boothe, who performed with the Young Ambassadors during their first international tour, said the BYU job also helped align Thompson with her personal vision of using music to spread the gospel.
"She saw great opportunities — doors were opening for her right and left, but she also had opportunities to use her talents to sell cigarettes," said Boothe, now the director of the Young Ambassadors himself. "She thought to herself, 'I'm not going to use my talents to sell that.' What she was selling at BYU was everything that was good with the youth of America."
During her first four years, she put on more than 2,000 shows, traveling to every high school in Utah. At the same time, she put together several youth productions for the Young Women's Mutual Improvement Association. She burned out and then moved to New York for three years to teach in a professional studio.
Wilkinson eventually called again, and Thompson returned to BYU in 1959. She embarked on the school's first international tour a year later.
The Young Ambassadors came together a decade later, when BYU was invited to send a group to represent the U.S. at the 1970 world expo in Osaka, Japan. Boothe, who had played in a band for another BYU performing group, was recruited as a singer/dancer for the Young Ambassadors.
"We performed on the grand stage, which was separated from the main area by a fountain, like at the Bellagio," he said. "It was the first time anyone had seen water move to music with lights like that."
The band that accompanied the Young Ambassadors played from a motorized stage that moved around the fountain during the show, Boothe said.
"The international audiences just loved the group," Boothe said. "Year after year after that, they received invitations."
The Young Ambassadors have since performed in nearly 60 countries.
Thompson founded Living Legends in 1971. Originally called Lamanite Generation, the group featured Native American youths. Latin American and Polynesian cultures were added to later iterations of the show.
Thompson grew up in the small southern Idaho town of Malta, the oldest of seven children in an exceptionally musical family; several of her siblings went on to succesful careers in opera. The family had a single upright piano but no money for music lessons. Thompson taught herself to play, starting with melodies and harmonies on one hand, then picking out left-hand parts as well.
When her siblings began to play as well, "Their mom had to lock the piano to keep the kids from fighting over it," Acheson said.
The family later found a piano teacher for Thompson, and she took a few years of lessons before continuing her musical studies at BYU in the fall of 1939. She worked her way through school by playing piano for dance classes, according to a memoire from the BYU School of Music. When the dancers learned Thompson knew how to make up new music on the spot for their routines, she soon ended up playing for other schools, as well.
She later worked up the courage to join a band as a singer, and before long began singing with a few other groups playing in the Provo area. Then, she heard the miliary was hiring performers to entertain the troops overseas and realized she could fulfill her dream of traveling around the world.
She sang with several stars during her two years with "America's Band" in Germany, including Tony Bennett. She also met a young serviceman, called "Johnny" in her memoire, who Acheson said was the love of Thompson's life. He was a fellow entertainer, a child star on Broadway who later went on to Hollywood. However, he did not share Thompson's LDS faith, so Thompson decided against marrying him.
Thompson was never known to do anything halfway. Her shows were consistently elaborate, with large casts and colorful costumes. To make her grand visions a reality, Thompson often did whatever a show required — building sets and props, sewing costumes and writing music.
"She always had fun, great ideas, and always wanted to do things big, and bigger, with thousands of performers and millions of flags," Boothe said. "She kind of invented the spectacular."
Rehearsals with her were often long and difficult, Boothe said. She had high expectations and wanted to see each student achieve his full potential, both on and off the stage.
"She got so many guys and girls together that are now married," Boothe said. "She would organize a whole party so that two people she wanted to get together could dance."
Her dedication to her students was even more apparent at home, where she would pray for each one by name, Acheson said. Thompson aimed to remove whatever barriers prevented a talented student's success, and in some cases even brought food to students who struggled financially.
"Although she never had any biological children, she has more children than anyone," Acheson said. Thompson covered the walls of her office with pictures of her students. "Everyone felt a connection with her. Even in her age, her mind was sharp, and she could recall relationships from all walks of life."
She also created a scholarship fund, using the proceeds from sales of her own recordings, said K. Newell Dayley, an LDS composer who played in bands with some of Thompson's groups and who later became the dean of BYU's College of Fine Arts and Communications. He is now the dean of Utah Valley University's School of the Arts.
Thompson incorporated her spirit of service into the touring groups she founded, people who knew her say. Her entertainers perform at hospitals and orphanages by day and at grand international venues by night.
She retained an office at BYU after retiring in 1984 and continued working on reunion shows, church-related youth productions and other projects. She reported to that office daily for several years, until the building that contained it was demolished. Then, she moved her studio to her house, where she continued composing.
Thompson was extremely patriotic and remained involved with America's Freedom Festival at Provo for several years after her retirement. One of her favorite productions, Acheson said, was a show she created for the LDS Church to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution.
She had at least two shows in the works when she passed away. Up to two weeks before her death she had planned to play piano in a production her brother had put together.
"I don't know how she kept it all going, but she lived a very full life," Boothe said. "She was pretty busy and involved, and we all loved her."