Pageant is generational tradition

Annual ‘Our Country ’Tis of Thee’ presentation stirs nostalgia, patriotism, community spirit

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Pageant is generational traditionThis year’s presentation of “Our Country ’Tis of Thee” — the annual Fourth of July pageant that tells the story of America’s history through catchy music, lively dances and colorful costumes — will return to its former venue, welcoming community members back to the Burroughs High School Parker Performing Arts Center at 10 a.m. on Thursday, July 4.

For more than a quarter of a century, the congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints collaborated to bring the musical by Ruth Roberts and William Katz to the community.

Starting in 1977, Loretta Schiefer and Doris Bullock (later joined by Arlene Decker) cast local children ages 5-12 into the show. Each age group told a different part of American history. Mothers and other volunteers devoted their summers to sewing costumes, designing and teaching choreography, conducting music rehearsals and filling in all the necessary production needs.

It became a popular facet of our July 4 traditions up until 2002.

After a 10-year hiatus, a group of moms — including Decker, Penny Belt and Erin Ross Zobell, decided to try and bring back that custom. At first, some 35 children were brought together to sing a few of the favorite numbers. But since then, the production has continued to grow — especially as previous performers began to seize the opportunity to share with their children a bit of their formative culture.

According to Belt, about 10 second-generation families have children in this year’s cast of 65.

“Honestly, it started out that my kids were doing it because I loved doing it,” said Torri Ralston, who, along with her six siblings, started performing shortly after the Ratliff family moved here in 1976.

“I think it was about 1980 when my son was old enough to be in it,” said Torri’s mother, Vicki Ratliff, who also served as a choreographer and costumer when her children were performing.

“Patriotism has always been very important to me. My husband served in the Army, and it was important to me to be a part of something that recognized military service,” said Vicki.

“Especially living in a Navy town — this is something we can do to honor those in the service,” said Torri.

After getting her own children (who embraced the production with varying degrees of enthusiasm) involved, Torri herself began to assist in the behind-the-scenes elements of the show.

“I still remember the original dances — I was one of the first to be in ‘Fifty Nifty United States.’ My feet still go through the steps when I hear that song.”

“The other thing I appreciated was how Sister Schiefer was very diligent about making sure that the kids knew exactly what the songs meant — that they knew the significance and historical context of the songs,” said Vicki.

“There were times that saved my history grade in school!” said Torri. “I still remember, ‘It happened on the 10th of May in 1869,’” she recited from “Wedding of the Rails.”

Zobell, also a previous performer, continued that part of the tradition — bringing in excerpts from speeches and pictures from Gettysburg in for the kids learning the “Bugle Boy” number.

“It was so reverent and quiet,” recalled Torri. “You knew the kids were not just memorizing their words, they knew that there was a story behind it that mattered.”

“I think the kids who grew up with this production had a better sense of history because of it,” said Vicki. “I think people who come to the show can share in that same sense of patriotism.”

Those stories and impressions were echoed by each subsequent interviewee.

“I still remember getting caught up in the history — coming back from being in the show with a renewed sense of patriotism,” said Amy MacFarlane, who grew up performing along with the other six Moffitt children.

“Now my kids are super patriotic because of this show — the get so excited when they see an American Flag!”

MacFarlane now teaches one of her favorite dances — “The Empty Jug” — to this next generation of performers. “That’s the square dance. It’s the hardest one, but I think it’s the funnest one to teach!”

In addition to the benefits of learning about their country’s history, MacFarlane said that she loved having a regular summer activity to keep her kids engaged and socializing.

The children involved also get a great opportunity to learn how to be in front of a crowd without feeling nervous. “This is the perfect level of commitment,” said MacFarlane. “I think it helps draw kids out of their shells so they are not shy about being in a spelling bee or a talent show.”

She said that she misses some of the songs from early iterations of the show, but she likes that they have added a military song.

“I do wish we had more kids involved. I think this show gives you a really great sense of community and patriotism.”

Kristi Ross Staheli still remembers her line as the representative from Massachusetts from one of her earliest performances. “Now, both my children have been Massachusetts. And my sister, who was Virginia, got to see both of her daughters in her role.”

Staheli, who recalled the excitement of performing as a child alongside her friends and family, now has a greater appreciation of all the work those early mothers put into the production.

“It was definitely a bit more than I realized. I did not know how much time went into the planning and preparation. But I enjoyed it, and my kids are having great time and it’s been fun to reminisce with them,” she said.

Like many of her peers, Staheli appreciates the educational element of the story. “My kids will come home from school and talk about how they were able to use their knowledge about the states or the battles from the program.

“It’s really a great learning tool. I still remember the 13 original colonies, and their roll call order!”

Juliana Burns comes from a three-generation family of performers — with her uncle, herself and now her children participating in the tradition.

“Looking back, I realize that this just made my summers. The feeling of patriotism, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves, was really emphasized for me. Summers were about swimming, barbecues — and this program.”

Burns loves that her children have that same opportunity to have their patriotism and sense of history reinforced, “and it’s also nice that it keeps them a little bit busy over the summer!”

She hopes that the production continues to find new audiences and performers.

“We need something that brings us together,” said Burns. “This is our country — all of ours, despite whatever differences in our views or beliefs. This gives us something in common that can draw us closer together. It’s more than just a barbecue or fireworks — it really brings home the meaning of the Fourth of July.”

Tami Letsche Hill was 5 years old when she made her pageant debut in 1986. “Honestly, I don’t remember much about it, I think because I hated being in front of people.”

Despite her shyness on stage, Hill was sad to see the tradition lapse, and happy to help bring it back for her four children.

Her older children, Bryce and Connor, are now too old to be in the cast, but they have stuck around to help their mother with anything the production needs, including teaching choreography or standing in for their dad, Chris Hill, who will return as “Uncle Sam,” the show’s narrator.

Logan and Kylie, the two youngest Hills, are still in it.

“I just like dancing with my friends. Some of them I don’t get to see at school,” said Kylie, who admitted that, like her mom, she does not love being on the stage. “I just hope I don’t mess up!”

“I just hope the audience likes it,” said Logan.

Bryce and Connor said they are happy to see that the show has grown since it’s been brought back. “I thought it would be cool if other kids come and see it. It’s going to be a great show,” said Bryce.

Belt was first involved in the pageant in 1991, when her eldest daughter, Sylvia, was in the cast. “This was so fun because it gave the kids something productive to do during summer vacation. They got experience singing and dancing onstage, and they got to learn about our country’s history.”

Belt noted that there is a 13-year gap between her two youngest children, Karen and Deanna. “So when I heard Arlene talking about reviving it, I was on board.”

In 2015 volunteers started a community organization called the “Fourth of July Children’s Program.” The LDS Church still allowed the group to use its building for rehearsals, but it no longer sponsored the program.

Directors collect a small fee from participants and solicit sponsors to cover their costs. “If people want to contribute, donations are always appreciated. We always put out a jar when we do the program, and people are very generous.”

Belt added that being able to move back to the Burroughs PAC — the largest stage in town — is a very exciting development. “We are growing. I hope we keep growing!”

“I remember watching my mom teach dances even before I was old enough to be in it,” said Karen Belt Maughan, whose daughter, Josie, is in the show this year.

“For me, growing up watching my brothers and my sister, this was a big part of childhood. Finally being old enough to participate was like a rite of passage that I looked forward to,” said Maughan.

She no longer lives in Ridgecrest, but like some of her siblings before her, she has allowed her daughter to stay with Grandma for a month so that she could be in the show.

“I think that really says everything about how important this was for us – that we are willing to be parted from our children so that they can experience it, too.”

Like the other first-generation performers, she loved getting to see her friends during the summer and catching the acting bug (Karen was a noted vocal talent when she lived here, and her mother is still a crucial part of the musical community).

“I don’t think it was until I was older that I really developed a deeper appreciation of the history, and the connection and meaning behind some of the songs we learned,” she said.

“I think everyone should come out and see it,” said Penny. “And a special shout-out to all the adults who have helped out this summer, and to the businesses that have supported us.”

This year’s music director is Kimm Washburn. Other legacy families include Steven Ross, Trent Ratliff, Amber Cox Kisselburg, Amitie Richards Paulsen and their children — who can be seen on stage next week.

“It really does take a village,” said Belt.

Pictured: Penny Belt (at the piano) with her daughter Karen, surrounded by Karen’s little ones — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-06-28