Lee Storey was always fascinated by the stories her husband, William, would tell their kids before their bedtime. With bright eyes, they listened as their father told them about how, as a boy, he traveled the world with a happy group of people that met kings and popes and wanted to make the world a better place. Then he'd sing the kids a few songs before they fell asleep.
The couple was married for 15 years before William told Lee that his stories were true; as a young adult, he was a member of Up With People and was often responsible for speaking to world leaders and citizens on behalf of a hopeful, smile-drenched United States.
Lee had no idea what her husband was talking about.
To be honest, she says, the clean-cut singing group hit its peak a little before Lee's time. They were touring the world in the late '60s and early '70s with a hyper-sweet, youthful idealism that U.S. leaders wanted other countries to soak in during the Vietnam and Cold wars.
Lee was fascinated. She grew up with an appetite for a good story. As a water rights attorney by day, she knew how to research and interview her way to the bottom of nearly anything. She was hooked.
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In 2000, Up with People closed its doors, filed for bankruptcy, and threw its archival footage in a garage. During an "Uppie" reunion, Lee persuaded the organization to let her go through the tapes, dust off the photos, and interview a number of members who, she says, were surprisingly willing to talk about years of singing and dancing but also of strict conformity and, ultimately, disillusionment.
For the next five years, Lee threw herself into making a documentary. She sorted through almost 1,000 hours of footage and worked closely with her team of filmmakers to produce Smile 'Til It Hurts.
The project wasn't for fame or money, Lee says. Her law office in downtown Phoenix has a great view, and she and her husband built a home years ago in North Scottsdale. "It really started as this interesting mission to find out about my husband's past," she says. "And it quickly became something much bigger."
Since the film's release in February, Lee's toured the country with it and met Uppies who continue to sing and dance while the film rolls on the screen. No word on whether she's planning a sequel or looking into any other sugary U.S. diplomacy campaign. We just hope William has something else up his sleeve.