Founder of Living Legends and the Young Ambassadors passes away

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Janie Thompson, founder of Living Legends and the Young Ambassadors, passed away on June 1 at the age of 91.

Thompson was born in Malta, Idaho, and was the oldest of seven children. According to Penny Lee, Thompson’s niece, she was inspired to pursue music and dance by her mother.

“Her mother had a train accident when she was younger, and she didn’t have the use of her legs,” Lee said. “So she would teach Janie the steps and Janie in turn would teach the kids in the neighborhood.”

Betsy Bailey, a niece of Thompson, described her as larger than life, dynamic, feisty and a performer through and through. Thompson was given the nickname “The Energizer Janie” by her friends and family because she was a part of every aspect of musical productions.

“She was doing the singing, the arrangement of the music and the writing of all the dialogue in between the songs. Show business, you know? She wanted to set up the lights, to make sure all the costumes were just right, and she even would design most of them,” Bailey said. “She was the whole package.”

Thompson graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree in music in 1943. After years of performing music overseas and in California, Thompson was called to serve a mission in Wales. After returning in 1952, BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson asked her to come to BYU and lead the Student Program Bureau, an entertainment group that would later become the Young Ambassadors in 1970. She accepted and the group thrived, producing over 2,000 shows in just four years.

Music pervaded every aspect of Thompson’s life. For weddings, Thompson would interview the bride and groom and then set their stories to music to be sung at the reception. Thompson would make similar tribute songs for BYU athletes. Her family reunions would become entire musical productions.

Janie Thompson in her office surrounded by photos of her "kids." (Courtesy BYU Photo)
Janie Thompson in her office surrounded by photos of her “kids.” (Photo courtesy BYU Photo)

Thompson’s shows have been described as a huge missionary tool for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thompson’s program Lamanite Generation, which later became Living Legends, permitted the Church to be allowed in countries for the first time. Lee said that Thompson’s shows brought a spiritual aspect seldom seen in entertainment.

“Her shows had to touch your spirit in some way. That was her goal,” Lee said. “You could have fun and laugh, but there was always a point when your spirit was touched by what was performed onstage.”

Thompson would never lower her standards while performing and was a representative for the Church. Lee recalled the story of one of Thompson’s first oversea tours to a marine base.

“Their guide said, ‘Last night they booed the entertainment off, so you girls are going to have to show more skin and tell some off-color jokes.’ Janie turned around to the cast and said, ‘We will not lower our standards for this audience or any audience. You go out there and give them your best,'” Lee said. “And from the time they hit the stage running until their final number, those Marines were on their feet with tears in their eyes. The guide was blown away, and told Janie to never change a thing.”

Thompson was later awarded with a Department of Defense Certificate of Esteem for providing entertainment to U.S. Armed Forces members.

Thompson had a lasting impact on BYU and Provo. She pioneered the Fieldhouse Frolic, which would later become Homecoming Spectacular. The city of Provo declared Nov. 14, 1968 as Janie Thompson day in commemoration of her influence on the city.

Pat Debenham, professor of contemporary dance and music theater, appreciated the work Thompson did for both the church and art.

“She was always so vital a person. She was such an incredible force for good in the world, and she’ll be greatly missed … She had a great singing voice, and she was just an amazing light and a vibrant personality,” Debenham said. “She did such a large amount of good in the world. Through entertainment she was able to help people understand who they are as individuals and as cultures.”

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