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Spain and How Did We Get There!

Spain and How Did We Get There!

By J. Blanton Belk

 “Mr. Belk, how did Up with People ever get to Spain?” The answer was always people, people opened the door.  There was a Canadian friend, and a former British naval commander living in Mexico, our Up with People attorney in Tucson and lastly a Spanish Jesuit priest. My Canadian friend was Bob Fleming who was the publisher of Pace magazine and whose father had a home on Gibraltar south of Spain. Bob was a superb  photographer and he had been chronicling Up with People. He boldly took his camera and went to Madrid where he miraculously charmed his way into a meeting with Manuel Fraga Iribarne, the Minister of Information and Tourism. He was  thrilled with Bob’s photographs and he said, “I’ve been looking for a way to link the youth of our country with the rest of the world and this seems to be a good way to achieve that!” There was Tony Blomfield, a former British PT boat squadron commander who introduced me to Rodolfo “Rudi” Bay. Our attorney,  Anthony Terry who had a distant cousin in Andalusia and finally, Father Jóse de Sobrino who was assigned to the Vatican.

In June 1966, Betty and I were excited when an invitation arrived from Minister Fraga Iribarne inviting us to accompany Sing-Out ‘66 to Spain, so that “the government, public, and especially the youth will have a chance to view your program personally.” At that moment, Paul Colwell was on a train bringing the cast from Vienna to Madrid. He remembered: “Now with this invitation to Spain, we were wrestling with how to say Up with People in Spanish. My brothers Steve, Ralph and I were huddled around a table on the train with Ramona Abella and David Sierra from Cuba. We were deep in discussion on the subject and throwing ideas around. Suddenly Ramona said, ‘How about Viva la Gente?’ Our response was immediate and simultaneous, ‘That’s it!’ She had found the gem and we were ready for Spain. In the ensuing decades, Viva la Gente became a household phrase throughout the Spanish-speaking world.” One of the first shows of Viva la Gente in Spanish for 35,000 people took place at Valle Hermosa Stadium; in the audience was the president of Spain’s Olympic Committee and the Director General of Information. Sing-Out ‘66/Up with People also performed at the final banquet of the Spanish Theater Festival attended by Minister Manuel Frage Iribarne and the elite of Madrid society. The show was broadcast on national radio and TV. It was a packed two days of activity.

       This visit to Spain was a success because later an official invitation came from the government of Spain in 1969 inviting Vive la Gente to tour the country.  Before the opening of the Festivales de Espana in Madrid they performed in 9 cities including in Valencia. There the cast performed for 18,500 people who gave them the famed white handkerchief salute. Then, at the end of June, the cast opened the Festivales de Espana in Madrid. The editorial from Madrid, a leading afternoon newspaper said, “Some spectators were crying on Saturday when the 200 young people of Up with People appeared on the stage mounted in the Sports Palace. From every side there sprang up boys and girls who, at full speed, formed into a chorus singing a song of optimism and faith in man, in human beings. With the slogan, “Up with People” they were asking with great simplicity for “ the world as it is meant to be. The fact that there were young people of both sexes and from every race gave greater force to their contagious charm, the broad smile which they gave to the audience…. It is understandable that a great many of the people in the auditorium should be moved. In the face of the disheartening news which we hear every day of continuing international clashes, of partial wars which are killing men day after day, these young people bring to the world an encouraging message of goodwill. They don’t limit themselves to singing platonic hymns of peace and love, but they call for a great crusade to build the future. They speak of hard effort, constant work, a long job. And they volunteer their services to this common cause for humanity…. The song which won the most applause was “What Color is God’s Skin?” a magnificent song of human brotherhood, enhanced by the presence, side by side, of black, white and yellow. In one of their songs they say, “You must not allow men to hate each other.” And they say it in a very realistic way. There is nothing trite about it. There is none of the pacifist force like the refined propaganda which hammers at our ears. In this event of the Festivals of Spain 1969 there is something more than folklore, something, more than music and songs: there is youth, hearts, cleanness, hope….”

In November 1972 to my total surprise when I deplaned in Madrid, there was Father de Sobrino with his friend Minister Fraga Iribarne to welcome us. He was bubbling with news. He said, “When I heard from my friend Fraga that he had invited you to Spain, I immediately sent word to the palace asking that Prince Juan Carlos and Princess Sofía receive you and the cast. I have had word that we are to be received tomorrow morning at 9:00 am in the Zarzuela Palace here in Madrid. Please ask the cast to wear their national costumes so the prince and his guests can identify all the countries represented.” I was there the next morning along with Father de Sobrino, whom I had met in Italy in 1968, to welcome the cast as they poured off the buses. They were excited when Prince Juan Carlos, Princess Sofía and his sister, Princess Margarita arrived.

During the cast performance the prince and princess were totally focused on the young people and applauded loudly after each song. The final song was ¿De qué color es la piel de Dios? The silence was deafening during the song followed by loud applause. I stepped forward and said to Prince Juan Carlos, “Would you like another song?” Father de Sobrino shouted, “No, no, no the prince does not have time for that.” There was dead silence. Then the prince said with a twinkle in his eye, “Father, don’t you want to hear another song?” Father de Sobrino immediately said, “Yes, yes, yes if you have time.”  So the cast sang “¡Que Viva España!” This elicited loud cheers from everyone. Afterward, Prince Juan Carlos, Princess Sofía, Princess Margarita and their guests spent time speaking to many of the cast and thanking them for their contribution to Spanish youth. When the cast left, the prince motioned to Father de Sobrino for the two of us to stay for a moment.  He said how impressed he had been and he wanted to be kept informed. When the prince said goodbye to me he said, “I’m sure we’ll meet again.” 

Then in December of that year, Father de Sobrino connected us with his cousin Fernando de Terry in the southern state of Andalucia. He was the owner of one of the largest sherry bodegas in Andalusia and also a well-known breeder of Andalusian horses. This courtesy led to a lifelong friendship with the de Terry family.

The royal family continued to support us whenever possible. During the International Year of the Child in 1979, Father de Sobrino and I had a private audience with His Majesty King Juan Carlos. He welcomed us and gave Father a big embrace. He was full of questions, especially about Up with People. 

Later that year a cast arrived in Spain for a tour which covered 47 cities in 14 provinces. Her Majesty Queen Sofía was the principal sponsor of our performances in several cities for the benefit of people with disabilities.      

Another key player in the early development of Mallorca and Spain was Rudi Bay. He owned one of the largest charter airlines in Europe called Spantax and helped fly our cast all over Europe. He did this free of charge when there was space available! A most valuable contribution and we are grateful for his generosity! 

We had many tributes to what the cast did in Spain but one stands out.  The phone rang in our home in Tucson and a very friendly voice said, “Mr. Belk, we’ve never met but I’m an officer representing the US Fish and Wildlife Service in southern Arizona. We have a very large parcel that has arrived for you from Spain and you have to come immediately and in person to receive it. I was completely mystified but soon found out we had been given a lion cub by the Lions Club of Mallorca who had sponsored several Up with People’s tours in Mallorca. It was a very thoughtful gift and we hastily searched the country for a zoo that could take care of it! Bruce Erley found a home for her at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska and she was named Adelion. We have a lovely picture of Bruce walking the lion cub down the street on a leash.

Many newspapers wrote feature stories and editorials about Up with People. Ultima Hora, the largest newspaper in Mallorca said, “Up with People is one of the very few musical shows of today in which the audience leaves the theater truly satisfied, pleased and renewed. We all know that the crisis in moral, intellectual, religious, and family values has invaded the western civilization…we should applaud the aims of Up with People in a world that seems to look with pleasure to their own destruction…but, beyond that, the Up with People show is based on the most authentic giving of themselves…for once, young people are not manipulated by commercial interest. Another fascinating element of Up with People is that it interests all kinds of audience, whatever their age, nationality, or their cultural background. Without any reservations, we wish Up with People a long life for many many years. Up with People!”  Looking back, the facts are exciting. During these many visits, the host families of the cast members and the public moved all of us. Up with People definitely moved the hearts of Spain. 

To the best of my knowledge approximately 16 million (15, 578, 000) people saw a live performance during Up with People’s 13 tours of Spain. Approximately 100 million viewers were reached by television or radio beginning in 1966.  Over 65 different sponsors supported us over the years; many multiple times. Up with People was officially sponsored by the Festivales de Espana twice. From 1966-1992, Up with People performed in 220 Spanish cities and towns and stayed in over 13, 500 host families. 

A big thank you to those who played a vital part in getting Up with People to Spain: Bob Fleming, Fr. de Sobrino, Rudi Bay, and  the Fernando de Terry family from Andalusia and, of course, all of the many casts of Up with People.

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