Michael McLean: Dreaming big

Like a Don Quixote, he strives to uplift

Published: Thursday, Nov. 13 2003 11:40 a.m. MST

Michael McLean, playing the piano in his home, says most of his best work has been done at his "Scotshaven" property in Heber City.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

HEBER CITY — A large wooden statue of Don Quixote stares down at visitors from its perch on a ledge high above the family room in Michael McLean's spacious log house. As with everything else in McLean's world, there is a story behind it. Newcomers quickly learn that McLean — storyteller, songwriter, pianist, author, moviemaker, singer, producer — finds meaning and epiphany everywhere.

The story goes that at the age of 15 he saw a performance of "Man of La Mancha" in Chicago. When the show was finished and the audience was filing out of the theater, McLean remained seated, moved to tears but too stunned to move.

"I was transformed," he recalls, eyes tearing up again at the recollection. "I identified with Don Quixote. He saw the greatness in people. Dulcinea says to him, 'Why don't you see me for who I am?' And he says, 'I do.'

"I decided I wanted to be like Don Quixote, and I wanted to be like those guys who told the story about him. I thought if I could uplift somebody else the way this uplifted me, I will have used up my space here meaningfully."

Now 51, McLean has made a career of trying to do just that. He has written lyrics and music for an exhausting 25 albums. He has written books (with accompanying music CDs), theatrical productions, oratorios, music videos, films for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, radio and TV commercials, jingles and TV movies. Among his most famous creations are "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" (starring Jimmy Stewart) and "Nora's Christmas Gift" (starring Celeste Holm), both TV films, and "The Forgotten Carols."

McLean also does live shows, which consist of him telling stories and then singing songs he has written that fit the story or idea, accompanying himself on piano. "Garrison Keillor meets Billy Joel" is how he describes himself. He has played everywhere from cruise ships to Mormon firesides to Disneyland to a dental conference at Abravanel Hall to dozens of other largely LDS audiences around the country.

Not bad for a guy who says he can't sing or act and isn't "good looking like Kurt Bestor." (What would Don Quixote think?) The irony is that for many years McLean couldn't see his own worth until he discovered therapy and medicine, but more on that later.

"Michael is one of a kind, truly," says Sheri Dew, CEO of Deseret Book, which distributes much of McLean's work. "There has been no one else in the LDS culture who has been as prolific and as diversified in his talents. . . . It would simply be impossible to measure or quantify the good this man has done."

McLean believes his mission in life is to move people the way he was moved in that Chicago theater, and he lives for such moments as this:

Once a young girl called him and explained that she was pregnant and unmarried and planned to put her baby up for adoption. She asked McLean if he would write a song that would help her baby understand someday that she was given away for the right reasons. When McLean finished writing "From God's Arms to My Arms to Yours," he played it for the girl over the phone. The girl cried and asked, "How did you know? That's exactly what I am feeling."

McLean says he still gets 20 requests a month from people who want permission to use the song. Marie Osmond read the song's lyrics on "Larry King Live" and shared it on TV with Rosie O'Donnell. Afterward, adoption agencies around the country called to gain access to it, and Dave Thomas, the late Wendy's restaurant founder, used the song as part of a campaign to encourage adoption.

"He has his finger on the pulse of how men and women really feel — which is why so many of his songs connect with so many people," says Dew.

Once a young woman approached him after one of his "Forgotten Carols" concerts in Texas during the Christmas season. Looking at her feet, she mumbled, "I think I can like Christmas now," and then turned and walked away. Moments later, another woman approached him and explained, "That was my best friend. She was raped on Christmas Eve and has refused to participate in Christmas. I begged her to come tonight because I saw it last year. How can I thank the man who gave my best friend Christmas back again?"

Well, if McLean's life sounds like a Hallmark commercial or a Christmas special, so be it. McLean is unapologetically sentimental.

"I think I was sent here to help," he says. "It's something in the way I'm wired. I'm painfully sensitive to what other people are going through. I know it sounds pretentious. But there's this sense of wearing out my life doing something for someone else."

Not that McLean hasn't helped himself. He quit his day job with Bonneville Productions a dozen years ago after writing "The Forgotten Carols," which began as a book/CD combination and morphed into a one-man live show and then into a full-blown two-hour theatrical production that makes a 16-city tour each Christmas. That has afforded him independence and a 20-acre estate near Heber, surrounded by alfalfa fields and mountain vistas, not far from trout streams in which to indulge his fly fishing passion.

"My life is so cool because I don't have to put in my 40 hours and then figure out how I'm going to write and do these other things," says McLean.

Passionate, animated and driven, McLean burns as many calories by talking as most people do jogging. He seems to have a dozen projects going at once, and twice that many ideas. That keeps him on the road. There is an upcoming trip to Italy to seek funding for a movie project. There is his annual nationwide tour during the Christmas season. There is a gig at Disneyland. There is a trip to L.A. to promote his new book.

He has never lacked ambition or determination. After all, we're talking about a man who began making a list of goals when he was 8 years old. He wrote his first song at 11 — about the mashed potatoes and gravy on his Sunday dinner plate, which he still plays for laughs at his concerts. As a teen, he made a list of things he needed to improve about himself. When he was finished it was six pages long.

As a high school student in the Chicago area, he was student body president, the lead role in the "Music Man," an Eagle Scout, an A student (second in his graduating class), state qualifier for the varsity tennis team and runner-up in the state speech contest for original monologue — and that was just his junior year.

Even then, he was sensitive enough for others' needs that he arranged for football players and "cool" kids in the school to devote the first hour of school dances to making sure every girl was danced with before they could dance with their dates. As the lone Mormon in his school, he made a conscious effort to build goodwill for his church and win a few converts, handing out copies of the Book of Mormon and holding monthly firesides at his house.

McLean's father, Hugh, was a business consultant whose job required frequent moves. His mother, Marty, was a homemaker who probably contributed to her son's penchant for telling stories. After watching movies at the local theater, she would act out the entire show the next morning for her two children, performing all the parts and even singing the songs if there were any.

"When I saw the movie itself, I'd think, 'Gee, it was better when Mom did it,' " recalls McLean.

McLean began studying classical piano when he was 10. His role model became his piano instructor, a strong, masculine paratrooper with the National Guard who played piano like a master, at least in the boy's eyes. "He wasn't a wimp in the rest of his life," recalls McLean. At their first lesson, he made his mark on McLean with a series of rhetorical questions. "Do you know what it's like to feel really mad? Really happy? Sad?" he would ask him, and after each question he would play a song that matched the emotion.

"He was like Yoda," says McLean. "He looked at me and said, 'Michael, you've got all that stuff in you, but you can't get it out of your fingers. It's stuck in your heart and brain. You've got the music in you the same as I do. The reason we practice is so we can let it out.' "

They started with Rachmaninoff. They spent six weeks just working on the left hand of the first page, then six more weeks on the right hand, and then three more weeks putting them together. It was eight months before he could play the entire three-minute piece from memory. The next song took almost a year. By the end of his second year of lessons, he had learned a grand total of three songs.

His teacher created another significant moment for McLean when he took him to a classical piano concert. McLean was moved by the performance, but then his 11-year-old mind was struck with a thought on the drive home: The memory of the musician's performance would fade over the years, but the song itself would go on and affect people forever. If he wanted to have a lasting impact, he would have to write songs.

He wrote songs for his Boy Scout troop. He wrote them for trick-or-treating. ("It increased my candy take 400 percent.") He wrote songs for school assemblies and church skits and for girls. He wrote about loneliness, anger, unrequited teen crushes. He liked to lock the downstairs bathroom and sing his songs in front of the mirror.

"It was the way I coped with life," he recalls. "It expressed what I was feeling. What my teacher had said was true. I could get these emotions out now."

The real trick, he discovered, was earning a living with it. He served an LDS Church mission in South Africa, where, as part of his missionary work, McLean and his companions formed a musical group as a way to reach people and promote families. After their missions were completed, the band regrouped and began playing the Utah music scene, which was mostly bars, clubs and dances. Their biggest payday came when they wrote the score for the movie "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams," which netted them $1,000 to be divided among six band members for six days of work, no royalties.

McLean dropped out of school to pursue his music, but the band couldn't get a record deal, and the clubs they played frequently stiffed them for their fee. Eventually the band disbanded. McLean's music ambitions were getting little encouragement. He had taken a music theory class at BYU "to see if my passion for music might be worth pursuing professionally." The professor gave him a C and told him to enjoy music as a hobby and keep his day job.

He took the advice and transferred to the University of Utah to study business with plans to work with his father. In a last-ditch attempt to see if he had what it took, he drove to BYU weekly to take a music composition class from the highly respected Merrill Bradshaw. The other students were producing symphonies; McLean was writing pop songs about the death of a friend's baby and a humor piece about applause. Bradshaw gave him little feedback, and at the end of the term McLean asked him if he should continue his musical pursuits.

After a long pause, Bradshaw said he didn't know what to make of his talents, "but if you quit I would consider it a personal loss. Whatever it is that you do affects me."

By now, McLean was married and had a daughter. His wife Lynne worked as a nurse, and McLean sold shoes at ZCMI and continued to do free-lance music work. Noting their empty bank account, Lynne suggested that he try writing commercial jingles. McLean became a one-man ad agency, writing countless jingles, some of which won Clio Awards. (Years later he was watching the news, surfing the three local TV news programs, when he realized he had written every local commercial on the air that night.)

Many of the commercials still get played. His work includes:

Deseret Book ("When you open a book from Deseret Book, you open a wonderful door"); Zions Bank ("People really do mean everything at Zions"); milk ("Cola darkness covered me til the Refresher set me free"); Motorsportsland ("Let Motorsportsland help you get away"); Gibsons ("Gibsons gives you more, because we are a very extraordinary discount store"); R.C. Willey ("There's a house of things for your home"); and Major League Baseball ("Who will be the real hero?").

When Lynne got in a bad automobile accident, McLean dropped out of school to take care of her and their daughter and never went back to finish his degree.

"I wonder now why my father let me marry him," says Lynne. "He had no education and no prospects. He was a rock and roll singer. But I believed he could do it. It didn't dawn on me that he wouldn't be successful. He always found a way to support us. After we had Meagan, I told him we needed to talk about our budget. He was very uncomfortable. He didn't want to talk about it. Finally, he said, 'How much more do we need?' I told him $100 more a month. He said, 'I'll get it.' So he wrote another jingle. He was a good provider."

After seeing LDS Church commercials that encouraged parents to love and understand their children, Lynne told her husband he should write similar commercials for rock stations that encouraged kids to love and listen to their parents. Bonneville Productions liked the idea, and McLean created a number of ads for the LDS Church's Homefront campaign.

They offered him a job as producer of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He was 24. He worked there for the next 17 years.

McLean's job was to produce the choir's radio and TV show and also expand its audience. And so he wrote "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" — the story of a lonely old man who daydreams about conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and being present at the birth of the Christ child.

McLean spent the next four years trying to convince the church to make it into a TV special. Just as his mother did years before, he stood in front of various LDS leaders, including the First Presidency, and acted out each part for 35 minutes, running back and forth between the piano and his floor act. After killing the project several times, the church finally gave it its blessing and then asked him who would produce the movie.

"Me," he said. He had to do some fast talking. He had no experience making movies — all he had done was commercials and how would he sign a star for the show?

After pretending to be a deliveryman to deliver the contract to Jimmy Stewart's agent, he signed the legendary movie star for a fraction of his normal fee. The film has reportedly been seen by more than 300 million people and has become a TV Christmas tradition.

In the years since then, McLean has been nothing if not prolific. Besides "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and "Nora's Christmas Gift" (which was inspired by his grandmother), plus his 25 albums, he has:

• Produced theatrical presentations;

• Written "The Forgotten Carols" and "Celebrating the Light" (which made a five-year run at Promised Valley Playhouse);

• Co-written "The Ark";

• Written three books, "The Forgotten Carols," "Distant Serenade" (one of McLean's personal favorites) and the autobiographical "Hold On (The Light Will Come)," which evolved into a theatrical production;

• Co-written a 75-minute oratorio about the Garden of Gethsemane, which premiered in Israel and employs a 200-voice choir, a 60-piece orchestra and seven soloists;

• And co-written and produced several films that have become staples for the LDS Church, including "Prodigal Son," "Together Forever," "What Is Real?" and "Our Heavenly Father's Plan."

"He is as purely creative as anyone I have ever met," says Dew. "There is no end — at least none that I have seen — to the new ideas he can generate. He's a big thinker. He's a dreamer. He's visionary."

Kurt Dahl, the creative director of Bonneville Communications who worked with McLean for 12 years, tells this story about a commercial he wrote called "The Waterfight," which went on to win a medal at the Cannes Film Festival and was included on a list of the top 100 TV commercials of all time:

"We were in the scripting stage, and I had a tagline for the commercial: 'It's often life's small moments that bring the great memories; don't let the magic pass you by.' I took it to Mike and I told him about this line and this spot. I said it needed a song to go with it that would make it enjoyable and fun, something to set the tone. Twenty minutes later he comes back and says, 'I've got it. Come listen.' I thought, are you kidding? He played it on the piano for me and it was perfect.

"He always has ideas. Where his strength lies is that he can distill an array of emotions into one small lyric. . . . Whenever we wanted music and lyrics, he was the first guy we called. He is brilliant."

None of this is by accident. McLean has worked hard at his craft. Early in his career, he decided that if he was going to make a career of songwriting, then he had better discipline himself to write them whether the inspiration was there or not. So he wrote a song every day for one year.

"I wrote a lot of really bad songs, trust me," he says. "But I learned how to get to the core, and how to find a good hook. It really paid off. I wanted to discipline myself so that if someone said, 'Mike, I need a song,' I could do it without waiting for a time when I was feeling great inspiration."

Once an idea strikes, he works and reworks it, sometimes sitting at the piano at home in the middle of the night, playing it over and over again. Then he looks for an audience, and anyone in the house is fair game. Lacking that, he has even been known to sing his latest creation over the phone to get a critique.

"What he does best is tell stories that reach the heart and connect with people," says Lynne. "It helps them find hope in their own lives."

"I love what I do," says McLean. "If I could have chosen what I would do, it would be what I'm doing."

There have been hard times, though. He battled depression for years, suffering a handful of collapses. He finally sought therapy and two years ago he began taking medication — "magic pills," he calls them, which he considers a new lease on life. And there have been battles with his own insecurities — namely his voice, which is adequate but not strong, and his stage presence — all of which no doubt were at least partially abetted by his depression.

For years he wrote songs for other people to sing. When he began performing live, fans would say they wanted to hear the same on his albums that they heard at his concert. Lynne finally convinced him to make an album on which he sings his own songs, "Michael Sings McLean."

"I talked him into it," says Lynne. "I said I need something for my grandchildren."

His insecurities and depression notwithstanding, McLean would certainly seem to be a man who has fashioned a good life. He lives in the countryside near Heber, with a view that could be straight out of the Swiss Alps. And he speaks passionately about his love for his wife of 29 years. They met on a blind date.

"The first time I met him I was thinking, 'Is this guy real?' " says Lynne. "He was really energetic. He was playing every song he knew and telling every story and poem he knew. It was hysterical. I found out that's the way he is. He's a lot of fun."

In 1983, during a particularly down period of time in his career, McLean used to drive to Heber every day for a year just to hang out in the valley. Sensing McLean's melancholy over the phone, a friend named Keith Ross flew out from New York to offer support. They drove to Heber together and wound up standing in the middle of an alfalfa field. Ross called a real estate agent and wrote a check for the property on the spot.

When McLean protested that he couldn't afford it, Ross replied, "This is where you need to be to do what you need to do. Pay me back when you can."

McLean has done almost all of his writing in a home office here. With success came money, and he and Ross split the property and built two homes here. They named the place "Scotshaven." Over the years, it has served as home for extended family and friends.

"Ross' words came true," says McLean. "Almost everything I've written has been here."

The McLeans have raised their three children at Scotshaven. Meagan, 28, a law school graduate, is director of a mediation firm in Seattle. Scott, 25, who graduated from a prestigious acting conservatory in New York, is an actor and dabbles with songwriting with his father. Jeff, 24, who studied singing in California, teaches voice and is working on a record deal and has collaborated with his father.

This time of year McLean is preparing for the annual "Forgotten Carols" tour during the Christmas season. There are arrangements to be made and promotions to do and a diet to weather. ("So I can get into my skinny pants.") He will play largely to LDS crowds, which are his niche, although he hopes to broaden his audience.

"I never thought of the stuff as being just for Mormons," he says. "I thought I was writing for everybody. I got labeled as the Mormon songwriter. I would hate for someone to shut off the power of the songs because they thought it was just for LDS people. I would like to reach everyone."

McLean is still dreaming big.

Don Quixote would.


E-mail: drob@desnews.com

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