An Interview with Dennis Lauper, age 74
April 9, 1989 – San Ramon, California
by Julie Lauper and Karen Danielson
edited by David Peterson
[His wife, Helen Lauper, was also present and makes some comments.]
Julie: So, Dennis, what can you tell us about your childhood?
Dennis Lauper: Well, I'm ahead of you because I just had a birthday and my sister sent me over the Birthday Times.
Dennis L. Lauper was born on Friday, April 2nd in 1915.
The year's top story was the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat, with the loss of 1198 civilians, including 124 Americans. Also, the news of the month was Jess Willard beats Jack Johnson, (that won't mean anything to you girls, but that was the world's prize fight). In the 26th round. (They fought for 26 rounds!)
Germans use chlorine gas at the second battle of Ypres that year in France.
Wireless communication opened between Washington and the Canal Zone.
People who share your birthday: Charlemagne, French ruler; Hans Christian Anderson, writer of fairy tales; Emile Zohler, French novelist; (and so forth. I won't read all of those.)
The President of the United States was Woodrow Wilson and his Vice President was Thomas Ralley Marshall. (I never heard of him, so it's possible to have a vice-president that you don't hear about, like Quail!)
And the winner is ... the best movie that year was "The Birth of a Nation". (We saw that. It was a really good one.)
The best actor was Henry B. Walthal, the best actress was Lilian Gish, [Helen: I remember her.] (These young girls may have even heard of her.)
The outstanding movie that year was "The Tramp", starring Charlie Chaplin.
The world series: Boston won over Philadelphia.
The US Open golf: Jerome Travers was the winner.
The Kentucky Derby winner was Regret.
Jane Utterup... [Helen: That's nothing in your life!]
OK, let's move onto something they'll identify with.
The Tunes of the Times: Pack up Your Troubles, M-O-T-H-E-R, Memories, Are you From Dixie, Fascination, Paper Doll, Kiss Me Again, Canadian Capers, I Love a Piano (I never heard of that one), The Sunshine of Your Smile (that one is familiar).
That was the year that the first Frigidaire was marketed. "Frigidaire" is the word they used to use for all of the refrigerators. Now it's trademarked by one company, but the name became generic after a while because people identified with that.
The handball game was invented, back when I was born, 74 years ago.
Rocky Mountain National Park was created.
Heat and shatter resistant Pyrex glass.
Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental phone call.
Lipstick was marketed in a metal cartridge. [Helen: It used to be in a little flat box.] You take that for granted, of course.
The nail[?] foundation was organized and begun.
Hall Brothers bought the engraving company and started producing greeting cards, of which this is a successor.[This Birthday Times was printed by Hallmark?]
"Don't take any wooden nickels" meant "goodbye, good luck".
War songs popular: Keep the Home Fire Burning.
Ford produced it's millionth car. (so that means the company was a lot older than that.)
The first movie serial: "The Perils of Pauline"
Douglas Fairbanks first starred in "The Lamb".
Tunics to the knee were worn over long skirts. (...kind of like that.)
Karen: Wait, what was that?
Dennis: Tunics to the knee length were worn over long skirts.
Helen: Well, that isn't so much different. They'd wear pants. They'd wear tunics, you know. Now tell about your life, you told about the world.
Julie: Yeah, that's interesting. Tell us about yourself, like your goals and your schooling, your activities. Between all the brothers, we'll get a basic feel about the family, but about you, personally.]
Dennis: Uh, hum, well we grew up in Sugarville, Utah, which is in Southern Utah, [actually central, western Utah] and on the edge of the great American desert where there is a little two-room grade school, a grocery store and a meeting house. That's all we had, and when we wanted to have some candy or something choice from the store, we'd take a couple eggs, mother taught us that. Go out and roust a hen off, pick up a couple eggs, put them in a paper bag, take them to the store and you could trade them for some candy. You see we didn't always have money out there, we were poor people. Somebody said that we were so poor off that the poor people shunned us, but we didn't know how poor we were, so it didn't bother us that much.
We had some great sports. We would play with tops, you know, the spinning tops, and marbles. Every year we'd have that season to go through that when we'd spin our tops and throw them at each other. You'd get a sharp one and take a file and make it just like a needle almost, and if you threw it down real hard you could split the other guy's top apart, you know. Well, that would be the objective. Same way as playing with marbles, we'd play for keeps. We'd try to win the other guy's marbles, especially his little cheap marbles; we'd call them dogs. So that's what we'd do, and then on weekends...
[Helen calls out to Ivan: "Stay right there, you're next Ivan."]
Dennis: ...On weekends we would go hunting wild horses. How about that for a weekend pursuit? We'd take our horses and ride out in the desert and see if we could find some wild horses running loose and cut a couple out and bring them home. That would be our objective.
Dennis: Yeah, that was fun. Or when the sheep herders come through with several hundred, or maybe even a thousand, sheep. When you see a thousand sheep together, the road is just white and wooly and just moving like that for better than a mile down the road. Just the full width of the road, and in those days we'd only have two lanes. There wouldn't be four lanes, you know, so that a car could pass in the opposite direction. There would be two lanes and you'd see these thousands of sheep going down the road there just moving along slowly and the sheep herder coming behind with two or three trained dogs to keep them in line. Afterwards, sometimes, they would have the misfortune of losing one or two of them. You know, they had to keep moving along and sheep are funny, they spook easily and run off and hide and get caught in the brush and they'd leave some. So, often we'd go out when we knew the herd came through, and we'd cut out of school, get our horses, and ride out there and see if we could find the sheep. A sheep was worth $20 or $30. We did find one once that way and had it in the coral, but the darn thing got away. So, we lost that one, but that was one sport, and to hunt for these wild horses. I got a real nice pretty grey, silvery-grey horse one time and trained her and broke her in and we even brought her to California with us and I sold her down here. And later I'd heard that they'd used her in some stage play. She was a pretty horse. So that was something that we liked to do.
We'd take our lunches in a paper bag; there wasn't a cafeteria; that wasn't even dreamed of in those days. There was only this grocery store where you could buy things if you had any money, and you couldn't very well bring eggs to school to trade so we were pretty much on our own. We'd bring our lunch and put it out in the hall. When you come in the school, there's this little hallway between the two rooms. The first four grades are on the right and the next four grades are on the left, and there's about 30 kids in each room. That was the extent of the Sugarville school district. And you'd come out for lunch and you'd take your paper bag to eat your lunch and your sandwich would be frozen solid, you know. I'm talking about wintertime. The darn thing would just be as unpalatable as could be, but you were so hungry that you'd just keep chewing on it. Maybe it's just a fried egg sandwich and an apple, so we didn't have a lot of luxuries.
We did have a pit cellar where we'd keep apples and keep them from freezing by putting them down in the ground about 10 feet below the ground and cover them with dirt so that the temperature didn't change that much. We'd go down and dig up an apple and have a nice red apple. We'd buy those in the summer when it was an appropriate season and save them that way; it was the same as potatoes. We'd store them in a root cellar, was what we'd call them. Then we would... Dad would have us cut cabbage up in little pieces so we could make sauerkraut. We'd make several barrels of sauerkraut. Also, in the fall we would butcher two or three animals and hang them up. We had a big scaffold, and with a block and tackle you'd hook it on the animal's hind legs and pull him up and it would hang there in the winter and the refrigeration was natural because it was freezing all winter so these animals would hang here and when mother would say, I need something for stew today, or I'd like some pork chops, we'd lower it down and cut off a piece of meat and then she'd cook it up.
But [cooking] wasn't so easy, you didn't just go and press the microwave or anything like that; we're talking about wood-burning stoves. First you'd have to go find the wood, chop it up to stove length, then haul it in by the armful, put it in the wood box, and then feed it into the stove and keep that hot so it would get up to the temperature that would cook your food. So it wasn't a simple matter to prepare your meals in those days. Mothers would work all day busy in the kitchen just keeping things going and then at night when everybody was ready to go to bed, then they'd mix the dough for the next day for the baking of the bread. In a family of 10, which our family consisted of, three girls and seven boys, you had to cook bread every day. There was no place to buy it; that country store didn't have bread. We never heard of having bakery bread in those days, so poor mother would have to put the yeast in the dough and mix it up and that meant mixing it like this, or kneading it. That came first, but later we got a mixer that we'd turn this big thing and sit there for a half hour. So life wasn't easy. I'm telling them how to make bread in those days, [but] Ivan knew it better than I did. He'd even use corn in place of yeast to get the bread to rise. Sometimes, if it was too active, why the bread would come out, the dough would rise up, you know, with the yeast in it, and rise up and run over the side of the big bowl and be partly on the floor. So there was problems. And then in the morning, once you got up, you'd finish mixing it and bake it. And when we'd come home from school, that bread was ready to come out of the oven, and oh, man that would smell good, and we'd be so hungry after having that poor lunch, a long time since breakfast, and a mile and a half walk home, that you could just smell the bread from a distance. You'd run up there and she'd just take the loaves out and cut off a piece, and then [you'd] go out in the yard and get some tomatoes or celery to go with it or just bread lard on it, just plain old lard.
Helen: Now tell them about your dates!
Dennis: I never had any. My goals, well, we wanted to be educated, mother taught us that, to aspire to better things. She was great, she'd take time out every day to read to us from the Relief Society magazine, of all things. I'd look at that and pretty soon she'd be reading a good story, you know, a pioneer story or something. The whole Relief Society magazine was full of good stories, so despite myself, I'd find it interesting and if she didn't bring us in why we'd get jangled and fussy. There were only Ralph and I to play together. The neighbors were too far away. Any children were a mile away or more, so you didn't just run in and see each other. So we'd be playing out there and pretty soon we'd get fussin' and she'd say, "Shame on you boys, no wonder the Germans fight, you can't even get along together," so she'd put Ralph and me over to the other side until we shaped up. A good spankin would have been preferred to those long sittings there on the chair looking at the wall. I never did like that so we tried to behave ourselves. But she'd read these sweet stories to us and inspire us and teach us to memorize things so that when we're called on at church we could do something, you know, give a talk. The only criticism I'd make is that we'd memorized it, not think it out like children today do nowadays. It seems like they learn to think about what they're saying like adults do, rather than just do it be rote, but anyway we'd usually have something we could say or do and give these talks at church. Especially in California, we'd find some of the oldsters would ask us for copies of our talks. That was kind of awesome, some of them that were converts or whatever.
After we'd moved to California, and we were just young boys, Ralph and I were the only deacons in the ward, or in the branch. It was just a branch; there were about 160 people. (Is that thing still going now?) Why, they depended on us to pass the Sacrament. I don't think they'd even have Sacrament if we weren't there, so it was that important that we'd be on hand. This one counselor in the presidency, (see, before you get big enough to be a ward, you're a branch) and he was an old military guy and he got the idea that when you pass the sacrament, you have to have your right hand holding the tray and the other one behind your back like that. We'd come from Sugarville where it wasn't as structured as that. You didn't have to hold your hands and your mouth a certain way. So all of a sudden I'm passing the sacrament down there and [since] I got my back to the stand, I didn't see him coming off the stand. He comes down and he grabs my hand and put it back there. I wanted to say, are we going to go for two faults out of three or something. You know a young guy; it was embarrassing to have him be so militaristic and so structured, but anyway, life went on.
I thought at one time that I would be in the forestry service. Well, I was in junior college, but that didn't work out, so I decided to go into sales work and that's what I ended up doing.
Julie: What about your mission?
Dennis: That was something we were inspired to do and we had the example of Ivan and Serge, both the older brothers going on mission, so that seemed to be the right thing to do. Mother would encourage us along that line, in fact, she manipulated her uncle who was a kindly old gentleman with a Spanish-American war pension. He'd fought in the Spanish-American War, which was with Cuba many years before, around the turn of the century, so he got a little pension from that and a little from his investments and so forth. He had a little money coming in each month and he invited mother -- I guess she'd told him that she'd like to have her sons go on a mission -- so he said, "send me back your oldest one," that would be Marcel. Those boys [had] already done theirs, Ivan and Serge, so Marcel went back and he arranged to send him money every month to pay for his mission in Denmark. After he'd been a while, he said, "I think we can send another one," so ...
Julie: Who was this?
Dennis: That was me then, the next one. This was Uncle Julius Vissing. [Helen: Not Vissing, Madsen.] Ah, no, Julius Sorenson, Julius Sorenson. I don't even know his name, my goodness! Julius, Thomas Vissing was our witness at our marriage, but this was Julius Sorenson, our mother's uncle, and he financed the mission for Marcel, me, Ralph and Alice, in that order. So he was a good man, a great man, as far as we're concerned. He opened up new possibilities to us.
Julie: Where did you go? Karen: Yeah, where did everyone go?
Dennis: I beg your pardon...
Julie: Where did you go on your mission?
Dennis: I went to Switzerland and France and Belgium; that was all one mission at that time. This was back in '37, '38, and '39, and they had calls for 30 months, two-and-a-half years, in those days. But since the war broke out in those days...
Julie: I think it's done...it's still going.
Dennis: The war broke out so they ordered us home and uh...
[Tape cuts off.]
Dennis: Where was I?
Julie: You were talking about your mission, the last thing.
Dennis: When the war broke out and Germany attacked Poland was back in September of 1939, and the State Department ordered us home –- to return home. They said they could no longer afford us protection as American citizens, so we better return home, so I did. It was kind of a scary time, I won't go into that, but when we got back to the United States, we met with the Church authorities in New York, and they told us we could either continue our mission in the States or return home. Those of us who had already served two years, and I was just in my 24th month then, so I said well, I might, rather than try and get started again, I might as well go home, so I did. I returned home and that ended my mission. I waited for Ralph, however, to come in from Denmark. He was aboard one of the ships on the high seas and had some scary times ahead of him and was very seasick. We spent a few days in New York and also in Washington DC, and then I came on home and he went to Kentucky to continue his mission. After I got home, I got a job and was working as in sales, and after a year, why, I was able to ask Helen to marry me. We were engaged and eventually, why, I went back to claim her as my wife.
Returning back to Oakland, just a very short time, in fact we'd been home a little over a month, and the Bishop came and asked me to be his 1st counselor, so I got involved in Church work right off.
Julie: How old were you then?
Dennis: Well, I was old when I went on my mission, so now I was 26 years of age.
Julie: That's pretty young.
Dennis: I remember the gospel doctrine teacher calling me into class one day to illustrate a point. He says our Bishop's the same age as Joseph Smith when he organized the Church. I said, "well, I'm a little behind on that. I'm not going to organize the church, but I will try to keep this ward going," which I did during the war and received exemption from the military for that reason; I was an active minister. And, um, that's about all I guess I have. I'll say I have been greatly blessed. The greatest of my blessings is my wife and my children and now my grandchildren. So thank you very much. I'm very impressed with you young ladies coming to see us to talk with the old folks on this occasion and I still want to know which one of you will apply for the job of maid around our house!