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The Saliva Sisters

Published: Friday, Oct. 17 1997 12:00 a.m. MDT

They are incognito.

Although undeniably attractive even in street clothes, they walk around town virtually unrecognized. And that's just the way they like it.They would rather a store clerk did not shriek with delight and scream, "WOW! Are you one of those Saliva Sisters?"

For their witty, mocking Barbie-doll impression, they dress to the hilt - high heels, brightly-colored short balloon dresses and huge hats molded in the form of giant lips, with a dangling drop of shimmering, pearlescent saliva.

On stage, they are incomparably funny and uninhibited, while typically singing 15 or 16 numbers from a repertoire more than twice that size. Many of their songs are hilarious parodies about events in the news, rendered to the sentimental tunes of old romantic standards, like "Can Can:"

If your thigh size

Makes you realize

You ought to lose a pound or two

If you're feeling fat and smarmy

And you've gotta find your inner Barbie

If dropping a ton would be marvy

Maybe you should Phen-Fen too.

Closely allied with current events, some of their biting parodies are sung only once, and some never see the light of day. They are written by the two sisters who revel most in irony - Rebecca Terry Heal and Kristen Merrill.

Michelle Nunley, a blonde who resembles actress Teri Garr, focuses her considerable talents on costuming and booking. She knows fabrics and is the one who invented their signature costume.

One of their most popular parodies reflects Utah's immersion into Olympic preparations, sung to the tune of "Winter Wonderland":

When it snows, ain't it thrillin'

Rent your house and make a killin'

A storybook tale

This is the place that's for sale

We're just as good as Colorado now

"Feelin' Grumpy," written to the tune of "Feelin' Groovy," speaks to the growing disenchantment among Utahns over burgeoning traffic:

Slow down, you move too fast

You gotta make the drive-time last

Just three more hours till you get home ...

... on the freeway - feelin' grumpy.

Still approachable at the peak of their popularity, the Saliva Sisters are not really sisters, although all are Utah natives.

In the 1970s, they were floating around as "chick singers" with local bands, just waiting to meet and do some harmony. When they sang their first song in public, "Bunk Bounce Boogie," says Nunley, they wore garbage bags. "After that, it got sillier and sillier."

That was back in 1981.

When they added a second song, "Lullaby of Broadway," and a third, "Boogie Boogie Bugle Boy," they were ready for Sundance and the Utah Arts Festival.

Ever since, Nunley has sung the high part, Merrill sings in "the basement," and Heal sings in the middle, which is, by the way, where she also stands. "I stood in the middle, because I knew when to come in, and I've been standing in the middle ever since," she explains.

There was never a grand plan, just an evolution of delicious zaniness. Now when they perform at any one of numerous Utah venues, women say to them, "Oh, I want to be you!"

Their band, "The Lymph Notes," consists of three guys who complement their arrangements closely. One of them, drummer Mark Chaney, is married to Nunley. Dave Despain and Jim Stout round out the group.

The sisters have performed on a scaffolding built on top of the Fort Douglas Club swimming pool. They have come out of birthday cakes, landed in helicopters and been ushered to a venue by limousine.

They sing for urologists, lawyers, newspaper columnists, aluminum siding salesmen and women judges. In recent years, they have traveled to perform before groups in Denver, Chicago, Albuquerque, Dallas and New Orleans.

But mostly, they just pop around the Salt Lake Valley. Last year, they performed 71 shows.

Sometimes a parody generates controversy, but almost universally, the Salivas are enthusiastically received.

Once, when they were asked to perform for a group of four-star generals, a nervous organizer kept requesting they not sing certain songs. According to Nunley, "We finally just said, `Oh, let's just do them all."' They did, and "the generals were crazy about them."

A few years ago, they performed for the National Conference of Republican Governors, held in Salt Lake. "We freaked out," says Heal, "worrying that they were too conservative, but it went beautifully."

During the performance, Heal planted "a big red kiss" on then Gov. Bangerter's head, and it ended up on the front page of the Deseret News. Heal had it framed, and still prominently displays it in her hallway at home.

The Salivas, who characterize themselves as "a boomer-yuppie phenomenon," relish musical-comedy and oldies. Luckily, says Heal, "we usually perform for people about our age, and they usually kinda get it."

Practicing is not their strong suit. Heal says, "We practice over the phone or in the car on the way to a performance. When we get together for actual practices, we talk for an hour and practice for 20 minutes, then we go home."

Naturally hyperactive, they come alive at show time. They are determined to keep performing, even though it means they will probably "go through menopause together and then sing about it."

In real life, they all melt into regular jobs where no one expects them to be funny. Nunley manages a music store, Merrill is a property manager, and Heal is the director of development for Utah Youth Village. And all three are married and devoted to their families.

Singing at various events has sometimes interfered with family reunions, vacations and parties, but their husbands lend enthusiastic support.

Many fans have wondered when they are "going national," but they have no such plans. They admit to having two tapes of their work in circulation, and they are frantically preparing a CD for a Christmas release.

But that's it.

"If we were swept into it, maybe," Merrill says. "We're not going to knock on any doors. If it fell into our laps, and they threw money at us, maybe we would."

Heal adds, "If we were to approach a national agency that could open doors for us, we could say, `Well, we can travel a little bit. We're in our mid-40s, and if we get our laundry done, then maybe we'll consider this gig,' you know? They'd think we're nuts."

There is one exception.

All three are very fond of new daytime TV star Rosie O'Donnell. Heal says, "We do want to get on the `Rosie' show. But do we send her a tape? Nah."

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