Fog, Cancelled Flights, and No Sleep: How the Choir Almost Missed Lyndon B. Johnson’s Inauguration
Wake Up Call
It was 3 a.m. on a foggy morning Tuesday, January 19, 1965 in Utah, the day before the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s first-ever performance at a presidential swearing-in ceremony. Choir members were awakened by Choir secretaries alerting them that they might leave for Washington D.C. via Hill Air Force Base instead of the Salt Lake Airport. All Choir members were originally supposed to meet at 5:45 a.m., which was then delayed until later in the morning, due to changing weather conditions.
Finally, when the Choir members met in Salt Lake City, they were bused to the Salt Lake City International Airport not Hill Air Force Base, and as the fog thickened it became a “hurry-and-wait” situation. At 10:30 a.m., the first of three flights carrying Choir members finally took off. Not long after, the pilot of the first plane notified the airline that the other two flights would not be permitted to leave from Salt Lake City.
The first plane which did take off landed at Dulles International Airport around 5:00 p.m. Upon arrival, this group was taken to the U.S. Capitol grounds where they endured the bitter cold weather for a short rehearsal. After the rehearsal, they headed for a local church building where they met their host families and headed to local homes for a meal and a good night’s rest.
Meanwhile in Salt Lake City, those who had been left behind read, knitted, talked, and slept. After hours of waiting, the remaining Choir members boarded buses for a trip to Las Vegas to catch different flights as the thick fog prevented any departures or arrivals from Salt Lake City. The bus made one stop along the way and arrived in Las Vegas at 11:10 p.m. Due to Civil Air Patrol regulations, the passengers were not permitted to board until 12:30 a.m. when the flight crew had met their rest requirement.
Time is Flying
The remaining flights took off at approximately 1:00 a.m. and arrived at Dulles International Airport shortly after 6:00 a.m. Once both flights arrived and everyone had a chance to freshen up, waiting buses took them to the church building where the first group of travelers (and a scrambled egg breakfast) was there to greet them. Choir members then hurriedly changed into their performance clothes, which included winter boots, extra socks, and cellophane bags to cover their boots. Coats, hats, and head scarves were allowed to be worn before the inaugural performance. Associate Choir Director, Jay Welch gave instructions that at the conclusion of the Marine Band’s opening number, these clothing items were to be quickly removed before the group stood to perform their songs.
One final eight-mile bus ride was all it took to get the Choir to the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington D.C. Upon arrival, each member was checked in before finally taking their places on the platform. As they took their seats, news reporters were stationed nearby on telephones and typewriters. Makeshift buildings were filled with television anchors and camera operators. Guards were stationed everywhere and a helicopter repeatedly flew around the area.
While the crowd was still restless and talking, Richard P. Condie, the Choir’s director, warmed up the Choir's voices. Reporters seemed to be warmed by the singing and applauded. Accompanist (Tabernacle Organist) Alexander Schreiner’s hands were warmed by heat lamps on his keyboard.
Once the ceremony began, and “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band performed its numbers, the Choir arose to sing “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” After the program and swearing-in ceremony was complete, the Choir closed by singing “This Is My Country.” President Johnson smiled and waved at Richard Condie.
At the completion of the event, the Choir filed out of their seats to the awaiting buses, which took them to the church building to change their clothes and grab a quick box lunch before returning to the airport. Upon arrival at the airport, the airline stewardesses urged the Choir members to board quickly so they could have a chance to flying back into Salt Lake City before the fog became too thick. At the time of departure, the initial plan was to land in Denver, Colorado and take a train to Utah unless conditions changed allowing flights to land in Salt Lake. Aboard one plane, stewardesses announced that dinner would not be served until the passengers gave the crew a concert. Within a few moments—at 33,000 feet—the plane rang out with song and a roast beef dinner was served shortly after. All was well.
Home Sweet Home
As the flights neared Denver, with the passengers dreading a long train ride home, the captain made an announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have received word that the fog has lifted sufficiently in Salt Lake to enable us to carry on.” After the shouts of joy subsided, the Rocky Mountains came into view. By 6:30 p.m. the first planes landed with the remaining flights not far behind.
The video below features news footage of Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration, including a two-minute opening of the Choir singing "This Is My Country." Since this is an edited news story, the song appears first instead of last, and the other two Choir numbers are not included. Choir members can be seen during the prayer by Reverend George R. Davis at the 12-minute mark in the video.