The origins of Sing-Out and its successor Up With People can be traced directly to the World War II-era Moral Re-Armament movement.
As dictated by founder and Pennsylvania native Frank Buchman in 1938, the country was in a crisis of morality. In his view, it made sense that as countries were “re-arming” themselves with weaponry, the United States needed to get back to a place of ethics.
The central tenets of the MRA movement were honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, without a basis in any one church. Followers were not only encouraged to adopt a pious lifestyle themselves, but also to seek out others to join the organization. The thinking was, if world leaders could be converted, too, peace and understanding would overtake the globe.
Following Buchman’s death in 1961, the mantle was taken up by J. Blanton Belk. In summer 1965, thousands of young people descended on Mackinac Island, Michigan, for an MRA conference where the first Sing-Out performance was arranged.
Belk immediately saw the potential in a chorus of people singing songs about social and political change. Before summer’s end, the national Sing-Out ’65 cast was off touring America, hoping to plant the seeds of Sing-Out on a local level.
In August 1965, Schick Electric Co. underwrote a prime-time performance of “Up With People: The Sing-Out Musical” that featured icons such as Pat Boone and John Wayne extolling the virtues of Sing-Out on national television.
CBS refused to air the program, pointing to its policy banning “commercial entertainment programs with an editorial or ideological point of view.” Despite this, NBC aired the special, purportedly to an audience of 100 million people.
When Sing-Out Lancaster member David Kirk graduated to the nationally touring Up With People, the experience allowed him to see his recruitment from the other side. Casts arrived in small towns with military precision, first sending a bus of teens ahead to seek out Rotary Clubs and church groups that held members who could house and feed more than 150 youths. Next, the high school-aged cast arrived and hosted mini-shows in parking lots for their host families.
While the high school kids did school work, the younger kids would do community service and host more teaser shows to bring big crowds to performance spaces, where the cycle would continue again.
In 1970, the global Up With People organization faced a crossroads, as it sold nearly all offices in the United States and cut ties with Moral Re-Armament. The Mackinac Island property that had served as the birthplace for Sing-Out shuttered its doors and was listed for $7.5 million.
But Up With People famously bounced back in a big way over the next two decades by way of the group’s record five performances in the Super Bowl halftime shows in 1976, 1980, 1982, 1986 and a pregame show in 1991. To this day, Up With People continues to tour the globe.