Donny & Marie: Utah’s 1970s ambassadors

From 1976 to 1979, Donny & Marie was a hit cornball variety show featuring the young Osmond duo, Donny, 18 and Marie, 16. If you were a young Mormon growing up in Utah, this show was the original must-see TV, because these famous Osmonds were Mormons, too. In 1976, there weren’t a lot of famous Mormons to point to with pride. 

Donny and Marie were it. And, moreover, Donny & Marie was produced here, at Osmond Studios in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. It wasn’t some Hollywood co-opting of Utah, it was Utah in all its family-friendly, corny glory. At the height of their ’70s powers, Donny and Marie were Utah incarnate, on display for the rest of the world. We watched because all our neighbors watched and because we didn’t really realize how goofy it was.

Each show started out with, yes, an ice skating bit, for some reason, then moved on to groaningly bad comedy skits, more musical numbers, and then the whole “I’m a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock ’n’ roll” schtick. Week after week, Marie would sing a country song alongside Donny (most often in purple), who would sing a rock tune.

But it was fun—good, clean fun—although most of us secretly preferred The Muppet Show, which was somehow more racy. But for me, Donny and Marie were amazing. 

They were (and still are) amazing because they taught me about live television.

To explain: My father went to a live broadcast of the show’s Halloween special at Osmond Studios, which improbably featured a performance by KISS (a band that the pearl clutchers in our midst referred to as “Knights in Satan’s Service”). But I was 5 years old, didn’t know much about Satan and KISS was my favorite band. I played their album “Destroyer” on my Burt & Ernie tape player alongside another great album from the era, “Burt’s Blockbusters.” Plus Gene Simmons blew fire! FIRE! Burt liked pigeons and linoleum. 

So, there I am. I’m watching our teeny black-and-white TV, in my footie-pajamas, waiting for Gene Simmons to blow fire, and my mother tells me that my father is there, right there, right now. What? Wait. What? The producers cut to a shot of the crowd and there he was, my dad, with his ’70s-guy mustache and perm. Right there. On the TV. My Dad, KISS, and Donny and Marie all together inside the TV. My whole world exploded. Dad brought back an autographed picture of Donny and Marie that I kept on my wall for years. It said: “Keep smiling, Jeremy. Love, Donny & Marie.” I doubt Gene Simmons would have been so nice.

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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