Carolyn Besselman was a student at North Texas University in 1971 when she stumbled by chance into an audition for Up With People.
In high school she had seen a performance by the group, which preached a message of human interconnectedness and respect through song and dance. So she decided to stand in line with the 600 or so other people waiting to try out.
Besselman remembered telling herself, “I’m just going to stay here and all day and try. What do I have to lose?”
A few days later she got the call: She was going to join Up With People’s 1971 cast, which “staged,” or prepared for, its whirlwind international tour, in Jackson.
Forty-eight years later Besselman talked with the News&Guide from her car, driving back to Jackson, where a reunion with 60 or so members of the ‘71 cast will take place from Thursday to Sunday at Cowboy Village.
People who were involved with the original production — performers from Japan, Europe and North and South America stayed with families across the valley in the summer of ‘71 as they prepared for their tour — are invited to drop by the village after 3:30 p.m. Friday, when organizers will open the reunion to the Jackson community.
“One of the great experiences, parts of Up With People, is coming into a community and getting to know the community and living with host families,” said Dale Penny, the current CEO of Up With People, who was a performer in the ’71 cast.
“The Jackson Hole community was so welcoming to us all those years ago. ... We couldn’t have asked for a better way to start our Up With People experience than there in Jackson Hole.”
A worldly experience
When Besselman first arrived in Jackson (her father drove her from Houston, where she was from), she remembered thinking, “Here we go. This is going to be interesting.”
At first it wasn’t easy acclimating to being constantly surrounded by a hundred or so students from all over the world. And with professional producers keeping them busy learning their songs, they didn’t have much downtime. Still, being young, the cast handled it.
“Once I got the hang of it, I was in,” Besselman said.
After finishing staging in Jackson and, later, Billings, Montana, Penny remembered traveling to Denver, which was going through the “throes of busing to overcome racial divides, which was actually creating a good bit of tension.”
The cast spent two weeks going to schools every day, promoting respect across racial lines.
Besselman remembered the tour becoming something an international whirlwind. She said the cast performed in front of President Richard Nixon before traveling overseas to Italy and Germany. In addition to presidents they sang for astronauts and regular people. But for Besselman, who later became a teacher in Texas, the best part was going into high schools and performing for assemblies, which the state later nixed.
“Going in to sing the types of songs we sang about peace and love and getting along and different races helped kids so much,” Besselman said. “They had somebody to identify with, whereas today kids don’t have that.”
Donna Soest hosted some of the Up With People cast members during their staging in 1971.
She had about five staying with her and her husband, Hugh, who later sat on Up With People’s board, and remembered one girl who was Japanese and didn’t speak any English.
“We all sort of learned sign language because that was all she knew,” Soest said. “There were lots of laughs.”
She said cast members also exuded the positivity they displayed on stage in their home stays.
“We were blown away with the upbeat, positive attitude — helping worldwide peace and communication,” Soest said.
Penny said that message has not changed. He became the CEO after working for years with another nonprofit because the program had “meant so much to [him] over the years.”
“Our world is so divided right now, this country is so divided,” Penny said. “Everybody’s sort of pulling back, fearful of others, and drawing into their own tribes.
“The mission of Up With People is more important now than it was in 1970,” he said. “This is what we need right now. We’ve got to learn to work together and find common ground.” ￼