“The Book of Mormon” in Des Moines

Des Moines Performing Arts is one of the most crucial cultural resources in Central Iowa, working tirelessly to offer exceptionally high-quality, often challenging theatrical, musical and educational experiences at their three great downtown performing arts spaces: The Civic Center, The Stoner Theater and The Temple Theater. I’ve already enjoyed many performances through their great work, and look forward to another fabulous experience next Tuesday, when my wife and I will be going to see the Tony-winning play, The Book of Mormon.

It’s wonderful to see the advance enthusiasm that this theatrical performance is generating within our market, and its week-long run will no doubt play to rapt, packed houses, show after show. But, then, as happens with touring productions, The Book of Mormon (musical) will move on to Minneapolis after its exciting run here . . . while The Book of Mormon (first print edition, 1830) remains in Des Moines, in the Salisbury House Library, along with an extraordinary collection of other historic Mormon books and documents.

Just after the turn of the 20th Century, Carl Weeks (who built Salisbury House) was doing poorly. His first business — The Red Cross Pharmacy in Centerville, Iowa — had not been successful, and he had been diagnosed with “tubercular glands” which precipitated three painful rounds of surgery. Imagine how he must have felt when he then learned that his initial diagnosis had been incorrect, and he actually had nothing more than a case of tonsillitis. Needing a reprieve period to recover — physically and emotionally — and following the advice of his brother Deyet, Carl traveled to “Mormon Dixie,” the then-largely unexplored and unpopulated southwestern corner of Utah.

Carl’s time in Utah was clearly both restorative and formative. He returned to Des Moines, met, courted and married Edith, worked with his brothers in their patent medicine and toiletry businesses, and in 1915 launched the Armand brand that made him his fortune. The trip to Utah also instilled a love of the American West in Carl, and from the very first plans for what became Salisbury House, he clearly identified a need for an “Indian Room” where he could display his collections of Native American art and culture.

Carl also came home from Utah with a strong interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon Church), and he collected many important books and documents related to its history and culture. Additionally, he maintained a fascinating, lively correspondence for many years with Maurine Whipple, a nationally-prominent novelist and short story writer who lived and whose work was primarily set in Mormon Dixie.

Many of these documents and books remain in our collection today, and in honor of Des Moines Performing Arts’ opening of The Book of Mormon (musical), I share some of them with you, below. At our February Treasures Tour, Curator Leo Landis and I will have The Book of Mormon (first print edition) available for viewing, so if you’d like an up close and personal view of it, come see us! (Click on photos below to enlarge them).

This shelf in the Salisbury House Library is almost entirely dedicated to Mormon literature.

This shelf in the Salisbury House Library is almost entirely dedicated to early Mormon literature, including “A Plea for Polygamy.”

Title page, first edition "Book of Mormon."

First edition “Book of Mormon,” published in 1830 in Palmyra, New York.

1845 "Doctrine and Covenants," published in Nauvoo, Illinois.

1845 “Doctrine and Covenants,” published in Nauvoo, Illinois.

The Mormon Church published many immigrants guides to make it as easy to get to Utah as possible.

The Mormon Church and its partner presses published many immigrants’ guides to make it as easy to get to Utah as possible.

Once you arrived in Utah, this book would help you navigate.

Once you arrived in Utah, this book would help you navigate.

Signature of Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Mormon Church. It is from the signature block of a letter to one of his wives.

Signature of Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Mormon Church. It is from the signature block of a letter to one of his wives.

Letter signed by Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith and led the Mormon Immigrants to Utah, where he founded Salt Lake City and later become governor.

Letter signed by Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith and led the Mormon Immigrants to Utah, where he founded Salt Lake City and later become governor.

One of many letters in our archives from Utah/Mormon writer Maurine Whipple, in this case thanking Carl Weeks for advancing her funds to complete a book.

One of many letters in our archives from Utah/Mormon writer Maurine Whipple, in this case thanking Carl Weeks for advancing her funds to complete a book.

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Let me note right up front that this is a shallow post . . . I’m talking about little things that make me happy, not profound ones. The big things don’t lend themselves to list-making of this online variety, because my family, and my home, and my work, and my friends please and delight me on such fundamental levels that they’re beyond reducing to a piffle and tripe blog post like this one. The fact that they make me happy goes without saying, so these five items are just the sorts of little details that make me smile amidst the rush and hustle of life. Simple pleasures. Easy thrills. Happy happy happy.

1. The “Metalocalypse” Theme Song: I love everything about this cartoon centered around a death metal band called Dethklok, who — despite its members’ idiocy and disregard for the consequences of their actions — become the world’s seventh largest economy, worthy of attention from a shadowy supernatural cabal called The Tribunal. But I particularly love the way that the series’ opening theme song boils everything stupid and happy-making about the death metal genre down into a perfectly nuanced 30-second nugget of brutal excellence. We tape “Metalocalypse” on our DVR, and for most shows, that would mean that we fast forward through the opening and closing credits. But I don’t allow that in this case, and make my family watch it in its entirety, every week, because it makes me smile with glee every time. Here ’tis, if you’ve not seen it:

2. Our Backyard Ecosystem: Marcia quickly created an amazingly beautiful series of gardens in our backyard in Des Moines, just as she had done in Albany. My role when it comes to these gardens is to provide brute labor when heavy things need to be moved, and to provide the required elements of chaos, either by sowing Johnny Jump-Up seeds that will propagate and blossom for years to come in places where they aren’t supposed to be, or by putting out feeders that bring critters to lively up the space. I have to refill my two bird feeders pretty much every day at this point, as we get an incredible assortment of avian visitors, and the seeds that they scatter also attracts fox squirrels, chipmunks and bunnies galore. We also have bats and cicadas aplenty, and I like seeing and listening to them, too. Sometimes when I look out at the backyard from our dining room, I can see literally dozens of mammal, bird and arthropod species going about their business, blissfully unaware of how much I am enjoying watching them do it.

Dining room at Alba, Des Moines. (Photo from their website).

3. Alba: This exceptional East Village venue is rapidly cementing its stature as my favorite restaurant in Des Moines, as we keep having outstanding dining experiences there. The menu is eclectic, with most of its dishes based on sautes involving fresh, rough cut vegetables and meats, served with beautifully balanced and tasty sauces. The service is knowledgeable and attentive without being obtrusive, the dining room is comfortable and spacious (it’s situated in a converted car showroom), the decor and location are appealing, and the wine list is strong, creating a complete dining environment that’s hard to match, in Des Moines or anywhere else I’ve been in recent years. We went there for dinner last night, and I had an incredible English Pea Soup followed by a prawn gnocchi dish to die for. Sublime, divine, and deliciously pleasurable.

4. The Lyrics of John Balance: It’s hard to explain why these make me happy, as you’d be hard pressed to find someone more different than me, on some plane, than John Balance, a proudly gay English musician with the group COIL whose chronic alcoholism led to his untimely death by misfortune in 2004. (His long-time musical and personal partner, Peter Christopherson, also flew from this world in 2010, which I wrote about, here). Balance’s subject matter was often dark, and reading many of his lyrics after his demise creates an uncanny sense that he knew it was coming, perhaps even down to the manner of his passing (e.g. “When I find you I will remind you: most accidents occur at home.”) But I still listen to his music on almost a daily basis, and I am regularly moved by the beauty of his words and the imagery that they evoke, regardless of their seemingly insurmountable surface darkness. As I type, I am listening to COIL’s “Are You Shivering?“, which contains the following lines: “In the oceans of the moon / swimming squidlike and squalid / This bright moon is a liquid / The dark earth is a solid / This is moon music in the light of the moon.” “Squidlike and squalid”?!? That’s lyrical magic, and it makes me happy to know that such creative beauty can emerge from such seemingly dark spaces.

5. The Library at Salisbury House: I said I wasn’t going to write about obvious things like my work, and this is equally obviously work related, since as Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation, I am responsible for the care and promotion of this incredible collection of books and documents. But the happiness this collection evokes in me is deeper than sheer professional responsibility would dictate, as I am legitimately moved — deeply — by the objects that are housed in my workplace.  I have spent a lot of my time at Salisbury House researching this under-utilized and under-promoted resource, and the more I study, the happier I get about the objects that have been placed under my supervision and care. I have held in my hands a leaf from an original Gutenberg Bible, and a letter signed in 1492 by King Ferdinard II of Aragon, and a hand-illuminated Book of Hours from the 14th Century, and galley proofs hand-edited by James Joyce, and a first edition Book of Mormon, and countless other epic historic and literary works, experiencing their corporeality and presence in ways that few people will ever have an opportunity to share. I spent most of this week working on a grant application to the National Endowment of Humanities to allow us to better catalog and share this awesome material, and among my many aspirations for Salisbury House, few would make me happier than reaching a point where our library receives the international acclaim from scholars and researchers that it deserves.

So those are some things that are making me happy these days. What sorts of things are rocking your worlds?

The library at Salisbury House. The shelves to the left of the fireplace contain some of the world’s most amazing D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce collections, which make me shiver every time I walk into the room. How could I not be happy to spend time here?