Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
Welcome back videophiles, and thanks for joining us again in the vault! Have you been enjoying glorious fall weather? Finally gotten into your back to school schedule groove? Still riding your General Conference spiritual high? Let’s take all that down a notch with a decent back into Mormon Noir with What About Thad?
What About Thad? Was originally released as a 16MM film in 1968. It was produced at BYU by the LDS Motion Picture studio for the Primary Association and was later released on a VHS tape with 4 other films in 1982. Wetzel Whitaker produced and the story was written by Carol Lynn Pearson.
The film opens at a school with empty swings blowing in the wind. After a few seconds of the empty playground we cut to a busy classroom with students finishing work in preparation for after school play. Thad is the last one to finish and the teacher encourages him to hurry up so he can go outside and play ball. He is in no rush because no one will choose him as he is not “good enough.” The teacher encourages him further and suggests a ball field where he may find a more receptive team. Sadly she sits upon a throne of lies because that team rejects him too.
Dejected, Thad begins the lonely walk home. It’s a long walk. Through the city’s central business district. Along a rail road track. Where is he walking to? Where is his house? One would think he would have a bus? When he arrives home to an empty house we realize perhaps he is taking the long way home to avoid being alone at home. He gets a snack, knocking a stack of pans to the floor in the process. Perhaps this is foreshadowing of his life falling apart. Dum, dum DUMMMMMMM.
Later he calls for his dog and we see him happy for the first time. As he plays with his dog, Silky, he sees some well-dressed children clamber into a classic station wagon of the era. One kid shouts “Come on, hurry so Mom can take us to Primary.” A sister asks “What about Thad?,” but the brother says not to worry as “he never comes anyway.”
Thad pets Silky and says “Maybe I SHOULD go to primary.” He bids his dear pet to stay and then heads off to primary. Children are gathered outside of the meeting house playing games and a boy offers to have him play ball. Thad is excited but then the boy fakes him out and purposely throws to someone else. Another boy urges him to let Thad play but the instigator says Thad can’t even catch. Thad protests that he “can too catch” and the boy responds by throwing it hard into Thad’s midsection. A girl tells him to not be a bully to no avail. This only fuels the instigator’s bullying and he dares Thad to throw it back while standing right in front of the meetinghouse’s glass entry. He starts chanting “You’re a coward!,” as Thad clutches the ball through tears.
“Don’t do it, Thad! You’ll Break the glass!,” the girl pleads.
“I don’t care! I hate you, I hate you all!”
Thad throws the ball and breaks the door/window—immediately regretting his choice he slumps to the ground in tears. The kids scatter. The primary leaders come out and the girl says it wasn’t his fault the others teased him and made him do it. The Primary President (it could have been a primary ward officer, not sure) invites him in but he shouts that he will never come back to primary again and begin to run. He runs–driven onward by the underscoring suitable of a criminal on the lam. Fueled by his anger and frustration he decides to take the long way home again. He runs through a shopping arcade, an open field, a construction site and the same alley from before. He sits behind a dumpster and cries.
A “What About Thad?” title card comes to the screen.
The next part of the film involves different leaders reflecting on what went wrong with Thad and what could have done differently in the past. The Primary president and the primary teacher discuss what they learned from reaching out to Thad’s mom. Thad’s parents are separated and his mom works nights. He has taken it all personally and is in need of support.
The Primary President remembers her early days as president and she asks her secretary to set a note for them to give Thad some extra encouragement—but they don’t do it. The Primary teacher remembers a class in which she teaches clueless of Thad’s situation. She tells the children how they all have fathers who love them and asks how they could get in touch with a father who is away. They suggest the telephone, but then Thad asks “what if you don’t know the number?” The children think it’s a great joke and they laugh. He later offers to say the closing prayer but is ignored again.
The teacher and president speak with the bishop (It’s famous actor Gordon Jump!), and he too wonders if he could have been more perceptive. He suggests they all work together to support Thad and his mother and want to get the home teachers involved.
Later the teacher and president meet with the home teacher. He recalls a time when he visited but was clearly in a hurry to do his visit and get out. Thad was really excited to learn he had horses, but was quickly brushed aside in the efforts to have an efficient home teaching encounter. The home teacher invites the sisters to join him on the next home teaching visit so they can meet with Thad and the mom and make some plans.
The final scene of the film takes place at the chapel at another primary meeting. You feel a sense of hope that the ministering team has rallied and that Thad will come around. We see the teacher watching over the gathering of children as they sing I Know my Father Lives. Is she looking for Thad? Is he going to come? As the camera pans we see Thad is outside in the distance. He looks at the chapel, but doesn’t go in. He turns and wanders into the sunset.
Although it seems that the team of people to support Thad came together in the end we are left wondering. Did they actually come up with a plan for Thad? Did they execute it? Did they fall back into old patterns and say they were going to act and then didn’t? We don’t really know and only get another “What About Thad?” title card.
I know as I watched I was reminded of a few failings I had as an Elder’s Quorum President. I remember being busy with young kids and being more focused on process than people, on dividing the work more than just doing the work. It still stings even many years later, but I am reminded that I can be better.
What About Thad? strives to be that inspirational reminder but in the balance it is a bleak portrayal of failing to minister to the one. The leaders could have listened, could have supported, could have helped but they didn’t and we never know if they do. If you are looking for a feel good motivational film for your next Ward Council, keep looking. If you want a sad tale of a lonely boy that will make you feel like you have never done enough (and never will) this is the film for you.
Thoughts, Musings & Trivia
- I rode in the back of one of those classic station wagons from Provo to Vernal, Utah. (nearly 3 hours) one summer. They folded the seats in the back flat and we lounged all the way there and lived to tell the tale.
- The Bishop is Gordon Jump. He is most noted for portraying station manager Arthur in WKRP in Cincinnati in 1978.
- Prior to WKRP he starred in smaller rolls on Green Acres, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Rockford Files, and Starsky and Hutch, among others.
- He joined the church in 1960 and appeared in several church films including When Thou Art Converted, and Pioneers in Petticoats. He also had a small part in The Singles Ward in 2002.