BYU and “Destructive” Entertainment

The utterly fascinating comments about rock concerts confirm one of my theories about BYU and Provo. I want to pass it by T&S readers for critique, criticism, comment. My theory is that the mid-1980s was a turning point for BYU-sponsored entertainment. The nuclear family is the point around which everything pivoted.

Recall that in the early 1980s church leaders began speaking more stridently against practices they believed to be tearing apart the family: divorce, abortion, abuse, abandonment, immorality, and, in Pres Benson’s famous talk, two-parent incomes. BYU, which often (but not always) mirrors official church rhetoric, followed course by looking for ways to create new forms of family friendly entertainment while, at the same time, squeezing out the forms thought to be destructive. Rock music, with its link to the sexual revolution, was among those squeezed.

Considered broadly, we can imagine the “family friendlyâ€? forms ascending from about 1980 to the present even as the destructive forms gradually decline. (Appearing at BYU after Billy Joel, the rock bands Boston and The Cars are like little spikes on a negative-graph EKG. Chicago’s trumpets are an even smaller spike.)

What are the “family friendly� forms? Well, one form is the big BYU art exhibits coming in from the outside. The first of these, Ramses II, arrived at BYU in 1985, the year before the Billy Joel concert. The exhibit lasted far longer than a rock concert (5 months), pleased many more people, drew in far greater revenue, and generated far more intellectual stimulation. Most important for this time, the exhibit was “safe� for families. Bus loads of school children came from all over the state. Parents brought their children. The mummies may have scared little children, but all in all, as a form of Mormon entertainment, Ramses II was considered an immense success.

At this point BYU realized they needed a modern art museum if they were to ever attract such exhibits again. Ramses II was held in the Bean museum. The lacuna was filled by the Museum of Art, built in the 1990s, which brought major exhibits almost immediately: the Imperior Tombs of China, the Etruscans, and Masada, all intellectually stimulating with the same family-friendly aura as Ramses. School children once again came in droves. The only negative came with the Rodin exhibit of the 1990s. BYU got hammered in the national press when it pulled a couple of nude pieces from the show. BYU offended highbrows by saying “The Kiss� was ill-suited for families and school kids.

Another big “family-friendly� form was (is?) football. BYU stadium expansions came in the early 1980s, during the heyday of the team’s pass-happy years, in the same years the nuclear family was said to be disintegrating. Posters and souvenirs marketed to children brought fathers and sons to games. Cougar Stadium was billed as a place for families to get close. Families from all over the valley braved traffic jams to watch God’s children beat each other up (an irony, certainly) on crisp fall afternoons. It all seemed tame compared to domestic abuse.

One might argue, as I just might, that Ballroom Dance, the Young Ambassadors, and the International Folkdancers were all “family-friendlyâ€? forms rising in popularity by the late 1970s and early 80s (though some started years earlier). I happen to think these groups were more about missionary work and church image in lands where the church wasn’t a recognized presence than they were about creating alternatives to destructive entertainment, but I may be wrong about this. In an odd mix, these performing groups too might be paired with football and art exhibits in the larger family-friend trend.

The rise of BYU-TV, which I know nothing about, seems to function as an alternative to the trashy nightly fare on the networks. Perhaps someone can tell us about BYU-TV.

Finally, on the destructive forms ledger, consider also that BYU stopped showing edited R-rated movies at the Varsity Theater. This move happened in 1998. Now the Varsity shows old classic movies, the kinds families rent and don’t get embarassed watching together (which is also the reason, not coincidentally, the Varsity is not doing well financially these days.) The issue of editing movies at the International Cinema that has so riled T&S over the last few weeks may be part of the same trend. In a strange twist, BYU may be trying to provide alternative forms of movie entertainment for families through edited foreign (as opposed to domestic) cinema.

The big picture in all of this, in my view, is that BYU exists to serve the church, not the academic establishment. If the church says the family is important, BYU will wrap its programs around the family, even if the establishment says that looks weird.

13 comments for “BYU and “Destructive” Entertainment

  1. Interesting post, Jed. I think your analysis makes many good points, but the desire of Church leaders to protect members from “destructive” entertainment has of course a long history. Think of anecdotes surrounding Brigham Young and theatrical productions in Salt Lake in the 1860s. All along you will find those warnings and corrective policies. All by all, the decisions of Church leaders reflect understandable concerns. I would not go as far as stating that BYU does not serve “the academic establishment” as you mention. My feeling is that BYU does both pretty well, striking a good balance between the two.

    One point I would nuance is when you mention the BYU performing groups.
    “I happen to think these groups were more about missionary work and church image in lands where the church wasn’t a recognized presence…”
    I wish that were true. But, as I have mentioned in another post, BYU groups do a great job to promote themselves, but most often their connection to the Church remains in limbo when they perform abroad.

  2. One note: I believe the Varsity Theater closed down its film operations for good in September 2001 for financial reasons (International Cinema took over the space the following summer).

  3. Justin B: the Varsity Theater closed down its film operations for good in September 2001

    I did not know that. I have very fond memories of that place. I don’t think that International Cinema can replace it; for example, I remember seeing “Goldfinger” (the double entendres, like the chick named Pussy Galore, were all the funnier due to the venue) and “Airplane!” there in the early 1990s, and I doubt that these are potential IC fare. I’m saddened to hear that it has ceased to exist.

  4. Justin B.: Thanks for the tip on the closing of the Varsity. My understanding is the theater still shows a few classic films every semester. I’ll check it out over Christmas break. I think “closed” must mean no films every weekend.

  5. Destructive???? Sometimes it’s just ignorance and bigotry at BYU.
    BYU used to be against JAZZ music, calling it fakery.
    They didn’t let black groups perform either, worrying that the all white hotels wouldn’t have a place for them.

  6. Keith – yep.

    The Varstiy did try to expand its mission by having local bands play there, but (and despite my own band playing several shows there) that didn’t pan out. It tried to show classic and family films for a while, but that didn’t pan out, as students didn’t want to watch anything animated or more than five years old, apparently.

  7. I worked at the Varsity from 1993ish till about the middle of 1994 and I was one of the EDITORS (censors).

    So if you have any questions about any of that I’d be happy to answer them–how about 12 questions for the varsity theatre projectionist.



  8. CJE, I have one question, why did they show the same dang Looney Tunes cartoons over and over again? Couldn’t they get any more? (BTW – I did love how everyone started yelling at the screen, “don’t do it,” every time Wil E. Coyote attempted a scheme)

  9. Jed, I’m not sure your timeline convinces. Weren’t GAs decrying rock music several years earlier? And I think you need to flesh out the connection between “not-rock” and “family entertainment” a little more–after all, they could have cancelled the rock concerts and had family devotionals or mass family home evenings or something. Also, I’m not thoroughly convinced about the museum’s trying to be family-friendly–it seems likely to me that kids come with school groups more than with families. So maybe “safe” entertainment is a goal, but I’m not sure you can necessarily call that “family” entertainment, at least not without some more connective tissue. I think it’s clear that BYU came down hard on one side of the culture wars, but tying that to the emphasis on the family will take some work, at least if you want to make an argument for a specifically Mormon case, and not just a sort of general conservative “family values”-flavored anti-post-modern-relativist-artistic-production reaction.

  10. I think the time line presented represents the poster’s time line of life and awareness of issues. I would be tempted to make the same arguments only with a start date in the 1960’s. It is all a product of living in the world but trying not to be of the world.

    As to the past 25 years, I think events are more a reflection of BYU reacting to changes in music groups and cinema than they are of BYU reacting to Church authorities’ comments. The lyrics and performances changed past a trip point and cinema offerings definitely got slimmer. Actually I’ve noticed a change in the last few years with more PG and PG-13 productions being marketed. I think the Varsity could survive in today’s environment but for a few years there was very little coming out of Hollywood that met my standards. The closing of the Varsity Theater was kind of like Sears closing its mail order operation just before the internet took off.

    People at BYU in the late 1960’s and 1970’s got a much more conservative “indoctrination” (I’m not using that term in a pejorative sense) regarding entertainment than students in the 1980’s, 1990’s or 2000’s

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