Bitter, sweet night for Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Christmas concert
As Brokaw concluded the narrative, simulated snow began to fall from the ceiling in the Conference Center along with hundreds of candy pieces attached to handkerchief parachutes.
But the bigger surprise came a few minutes later, when Brokaw introduced Halvorsen himself, now age 92, who appeared on stage in his original 1948 flight suit and was swarmed by a crowd of children dressed in 1940s-style clothing.
Greeted by a standing ovation, Halvorsen accepted a gift of two sticks of chewing gum from Brokaw. He told the newscaster and the audience, "Two sticks of gum changed my life forever. Through the years I've had many wonderful gifts, but … they pale in comparison to the fulfillment and the happiness of serving others, giving outside of oneself."
He told of one dispirited child who on a cloudy day was surprised to encounter a chocolate bar landing at his feet, thrown from the passing airplane overhead. The boy later told Halvorsen it took him a week to eat the candy bar. "But then he said with a pause, 'It wasn't the chocolate that was important. What is important was that somebody in America knew I was in trouble and somebody cared.'"
Responding to a question at a news conference on Friday, Brokaw credited the candy bomber segment of the program to "the genius" of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir organization. "It was their idea," he said, noting that he had "tweaked" the script a bit, but not much and that it was very well written.
"I was aware of Hal for a long time," he said. "The candy bomber was famous in the kind of extended history of World War II that happened during the Berlin airlift. … Mr. Halvorsen was a heroic figure in that, because he brought this sense of humanity to it."
Brokaw reflected, "I had no idea that he was still with us — I met him when I got here — though I knew that he was going to be a part of this. And I only hope that all of us at age 82, much less 92, will be as spry as he is."
Another segment in the program that drew a prolonged standing ovation was Boe's performance of "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables." The song seemed to take on added significance in the context of the day's tragic event.
The selection is a high point in Boe's concerts and the title song of one of his albums. He has performed the role of Jean Valjean in presentations of the musical in England, including the 25th anniversary of the show, now seen widely on PBS television stations.
"It's a song that has turned my life around," Boe said. "I'm only one of many people who sing that song, and it's not the singer, it's the song, basically. I believe that music speaks for itself; the words speak for themselves."
He noted that in the stage show, the song's title is not "Bring Him Home," but "The Prayer."
"So if you have that in mind, that you're actually saying a prayer instead of singing a song; it comes across really well, and that's the beauty of it, really."
Asked about the standing ovation after his performance of the song, he said he at first didn't notice that the people were on their feet and he didn't hear the applause.
"It's one of those songs that I lose myself in, because it's so emotional for me. By the end of the song, I'm in my own world; I'm still sort of praying those words, still saying, 'Bring him home,' even after that last note is finished."
He added, "When I opened my eyes and took it in, it was like somebody was turning the volume switch up, and that was when I could hear the applause."
Another high point of the concert was Salt Lake Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott's performance of his own arrangement of Leroy Anderson's holiday classic "Sleigh Ride." To the delight of the audience, Elliott had equipped the Concert Center Organ's console with a sound-effect device of two boards adjoined with a spring. This he slapped at appropriate points for the whip cracks in the song. And he made the familiar horse whinny at the end by moving his fingers rapidly across the organ keys.
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