Down the Up Staircase.

As the Denver area resonates with the sounds of the season, there's a death knell ringing through Broomfield. Last week, the board of directors of Up With People -- the do-gooder performance and service group that calls Colorado home and employs more than 260 people worldwide -- suspended operations indefinitely, citing an "inability to financially sustain" itself. Considering the grim numbers, it's easy to see why the board voted unanimously to dismantle the organization: During fiscal year 2000, the company's expense budget exceeded its revenues by a cool $3.2 million. Apparently, Up With People's global mission (essentially attaining world peace, one uplifting song at a time) and its presentation (equal parts Mr. Rogers, "We Are the World" and high school vocal ensemble) have lost their appeal in this cynical, post-Cold War world. Even the organization's unmistakable, unshakable theme song ("Up... Up...With People! You meet 'em wherever you go!") wasn't enough to stem the tide of red ink.

It's kind of sad, really, for Broomfield, for Belgium (where Up With People's European headquarters are located) and for Backwash. True, since its founding in Tucson in 1965, Up With People has set new standards of cheese in the performance world; its most recent touring production, "A Common Beat," melded Western urbanism with various cultural traditions in a show that was so hip! so now! so positive! Essentially, Up With People would take a bunch of college-bound Westerners, teach them to do a time step and harmonize, and send them into far-flung locales where they did good deeds, wore funny hats and reminded the natives that -- gosh darn it! -- if you sing a happy song, everything'll be okay, even if you sleep on a mud cot and eat rice cooked in cow pee. Up With People was kind of like the Peace Corps for theater geeks, the kind of group the Flanders twins would happily join, as long as Father Ned said it was okaleedokalee by him.

Still, I lament the group's passing. Not just because I think the organization was well intentioned (and besides, the world needs a little cheese now and then), or because I think thespians need healthy activities like anyone else (let's face it, playing improv games night after night can get a bit tedious). I'm sad for a personal reason, if you'll pardon the self-indulgence -- for I, dear readers, am an Up With People alumna. Sort of.

In a not-so-former life, Backwash was a member of a performance group that licensed its concept and most of its material from Up With People. We had our own theme song (just as bad, but not nearly as catchy), our own multicultural costumes and our own itinerary: We traveled not only to retirement homes and underfunded schools, but also to cheery places like pre-Perestroika-era Russia and Poland. But we shared Up With People's sunny philosophy that the world could change, if only it could hear our songs. And hear them it did. In Minsk, we "sang a song of peace/in a world that's full of fear" to kids on a playground flanked by color paintings of Joseph Stalin that were easily thirty feet high. In Warsaw, our group leader thought a concentration-camp memorial was a good place for our number on "how everything looks different/sharing someone else's eeeeyeeees!" En route back home, we stopped in New York City, where our (clearly sadistic) director forced us to share our a cappella song about "rocking the Berlin Wall/oh, it's gonna fall" with the people gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library. (Just to be prepared for such impromptu performances, we had to wear our matching uniforms at all times.)

Sometimes I still have flashbacks of that tour, as, I suspect, do other former Up With People cast members -- all 20,000 of whom are scattered around the world. For me, they come as images of an eighteen-hour train ride from Leningrad to the Polish border; of the way the people we met seemed to regard Americans with a combination of fear and total amazement; of the time my friend bought some firecrackers in Moscow and they exploded in the airport. (The Moscow airport, by the way, is not the place for an American to get caught with explosive devices, even if he's twelve.) But I also remember the way the audiences applauded our shows -- our bad music, tokenistic costumes and cloying dialogue -- like we were the Beatles incarnate. They loved us. They gave us presents and invited us to play soccer, to eat dinner. We had changed the world -- we were pretty sure -- with music.

Over the following summers, I got into good stuff. Yet, humiliating as it sometimes was in retrospect, I knew that my faux Up With People experience had deepened what was then a fairly new exploration of music. I had seen its power firsthand. I'll bet that's true for others who participated in various Up With People productions, whether they went on to pursue careers as performers or missionaries or, God forbid, smartass writers for alternative newspapers. So while the world of sounds and songs will no doubt forge ahead without it, I can't help but hope that Up With People finds a way out of its financial hole. Considering that the company is planning to sell its Interlocken property to help eradicate some of its debt, and will terminate all but a very small percentage of its staff, things don't look good. Maybe there are some globally minded, music-loving philanthropists out there? They're the best kind of folks we know...

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