Jerry Elison taught and mentored hundreds, if not thousands, of would-be actors and directors in his lifetime. He was considered a gift to the Utah arts community and to his neighbors and friends.
That is why Elison’s funeral Saturday at the Sharon LDS Stake Center in Orem, was filled to the brim with fans and family honoring him through their tears, laughter and impromptu singing.
Those in the congregation that had been tutored, directed or acted with, or for, Elison were invited to join in an on-the-spot choir.
“About 50% of the congregation stood up,” said Adam Robertson, CEO of the SCERA Center for the Arts. “They sang (the hymn) ‘Each Life That Touches Ours for Good’.”
That is what Elison did: He touched lives and made them better, Robertson added
Gerald (Jerry) Howard Elison was known to most friends as “Mr. E.” He was born on June 16, 1930, in Oakley, Idaho and died Dec. 21 in Orem.
Even at the end of his 89 years of life, Elison died with his theatrical boots on. He was directing “A Christmas Carol” at the Hale Center Theater Orem but just couldn’t finish the rehearsals. He never got to see the show. He died two days before the final performance.
Laurel Barham, a former director and children’s theater coach worked extensively with Elison and has carried his mentoring style to many others both in Utah and California where she now resides.
Barham started teaching in elementary schools with no formal theater training and says she was constantly looking for contacts and information to help her gain practical experience. It was a tech crew member on an outreach show from Sundance that guided her to Elison.
“I asked the tech guy if there would be a time I could meet with him to learn a thing or two. He said I could, but he said there was a man locally who knew everything there was to know and an invaluable resource — that I should reach out to him. That man was Jerry Elison,” Barham said. “I had just been cast in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and Jerry was in the cast.”
Barham said she didn’t know what a big deal Elison was but they became fast friends.
“He mentored me from that point on, often piling his truck with set pieces and props and sending them to the elementary school for us to use in our shows,” Barham said. “He taught me so many things but most of all he taught through example the importance of loving what you do, and making sure the people you work with know how much you care about them as a person.”
Jerry graduated from Oakley High School and served in the Korean War. He attended Utah State University and graduated from Brigham Young University.
He spent most of his adult life in the classroom teaching choir, English, drama and stage crew. He served in the Alpine School District for more than 50 years.
Most of his notoriety came from his contributions to theater in Utah County. He directed shows at the Sundance Summer Theatre, Hale Center Theater Orem and the SCERA Center for the Arts. He has adjudicated and helped with auditions at several other community and professional theater organizations.
“He has directed more than 50 shows (mostly musicals) at the SCERA,” Robertson said. “Thirty four shows were at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theater. He acted in dozens more.”
His first musical at the SCERA was “Brigadoon” in 1986. He was already known at the Sundance Summer Theater and was one of the first directors of the Orem Summerfest as far back as the 1960s.
“No one has directed that many shows at the SCERA and no one ever will,” Robertson added. “He really knew the power of the tool of theater. He had an infectious theater bug.”
Some of his favorite shows were “Fiddler On the Roof,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Hello Dolly,” “Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Big River” and many more.
Elison has trained young children that, as adults, have found their theatrical path from Broadway to Southern California theater and throughout the country.
“I will be forever grateful to Jerry Elison for giving me a sense of self-confidence and for giving me his positivity whenever I was around him,” said Jason Evans of Orem. “He was a master of his craft. I will be forever grateful for him for trusting me with Mr. Fezziwig along with all the other roles he cast me in; for teaching me so much about acting, directing and having an entire vision of my craft as an artist.”
One of Elison’s protégés, director, musician and actor Jeremy Showgren, said he not only learned from Elison as an actor but he learned much of his directing skills from him.
“He had a unique way of helping everyone to discover their value,” Showgren said. “I learned a lot from Jerry as an actor in some of his productions but even more as a fellow director. Whenever he saw one of my shows, he made sure to find me afterward and shower praise on the production. If he didn’t tell me in person, he would mail me handwritten letters on fancy stationary.”
Showgren said Elison taught him how to be a supporter and cheerleader for fellow artists.
“Whenever I’m directing a show, I find myself focusing on the aspects that he was known to praise in order to ensure that I make him proud,” Showgren said.
Danielle Berry, SCERA stage manager said, “He wanted to give everyone a chance to be involved, if not in the show, then to work on the sets.”
A former student of Elison’s from Orem’s class of 1979, Laurie Baum, paid tribute to her teacher citing his profound love of theater and people.
“He could gently guide the character of budding youth, cultivating confidence and encouraging the timid into believing in themselves,” Baum said. “He gave people opportunities to live up to the potential he saw in them, and he gave hope to many a darkened soul. In a nutshell, if Jerry Elison were a musical, he would be all of the best lines and all of the best notes.”
Jerry and his wife Barbara Neeley Elison are the parents of seven children, 28 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. Some of those children are following in their father’s footsteps.
Jerry was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His favorite calling was playing the piano in Primary, the children’s organization, of which he was a part for over 20 years.
Baum added to her tribute, “It doesn’t surprise me that Jerry made his final earthly bow so close to Christmas when hearts are heightened with extra love to help sustain the sting of his loss. One thing is for sure, none of us are alone in our sadness in missing him. Mr. E made sure of that with the abundant community he created united with love, kindness and compassion. The lives he touched are countless, and the lessons he taught by example are immeasurable. The legacy he left will leave multi-generational ripples of goodness throughout all time of a life well-lived.”