A public celebration of Kristen Merrill's life won't be held at a chapel or a cemetery, but instead at a bar.
At Pierpont Place on Sunday, mourners and fans are invited to mark the passing of the acclaimed singer, who became a local legend as one of the founding members of the Saliva Sisters, a beloved comedic girl group. At the gathering, friends will be told: "In lieu of flowers, tell a joke."
"I have no problem believing that," said Steven "Doc" Floor, a musician and friend, about the planned instructions for mourners. "That says a lot."
Merrill, a longtime fixture of the local music scene, was known for her role as "Byla Saliva." She died Nov. 21 from liver disease at age 60.
Merrill described herself as a "crone." She disliked cut flowers and loved mooning people from car windows, said fellow Saliva Sister Rebecca Heal.
She was well-known locally for her voice, which in the 1970s was the focal point of memorable bands such as Rowboat, Steamboat, the Bel Aires, and the Kristen Merrill Band. "When I moved here, 35 years ago, she owned the town," said Andy Monaco, a fellow musician and neighbor.
Later that decade, Merrill blended her acerbic wit and music to form the Saliva Sisters, a trio that made their debut, dressed in garbage bags, performing a song at the Utah Arts Festival.
For more than 30 years, Merrill performed as one of three front-women in the irreverent group who parodied Utah life with velvet voices and eye-winking charm. With colorful costumes that usually included a larger-than-life pair of lips (with drips of saliva, of course) as their hats, the Saliva Sisters were a fixture for decades as opening-night performers at the annual festival.
Known for opening shows by jumping out of cakes or other props, they were an in-demand opening act for comedians such as Roseanne Barr and Joan Rivers, and featured performers for conventions ranging from the Western Governors Association to the Utah Gay Rodeo Association. The trio recorded three albums: "Spit Happens," "Delusions of Granger," and "Songs Our Mother Asked Us Not to Sing."
"No one was ever better jumping out of a green garbage can than Kristen Merrill," said Robyn Nelson, former executive director of the Utah Arts Festival, who asked the Saliva Sisters to perform at her 40th birthday party. "They were always topical. They were always such a huge local favorite."
Babs De Lay, principal broker at Urban Utah Homes & Estates, regularly booked the Saliva Sisters to participate in V-Day "Vagina Monologues" performances. "[Merrill] was the queen of one-liners," De Lay said. "She was always on her game onstage."
Fans of the band will be relieved to know the Saliva Sisters aren't planning to disband. With Merrill's blessing, two months ago Karen Nielsen-Anson (as "Droolia Saliva") joined Heal ("Uvula Saliva") and Michelle Lunley ("Levator Saliva").
The trio has a performance scheduled for Dec. 2 in Elko, and Heal said the group had received three "nibbles of interest" from organizations on Tuesday alone. "We're going to keep singing Kristen's songs until they tell us to stop," Heal said.
Merrill's friends are readying their jokes for her remembrance party. Delay recalled the first joke Merrill told her, cribbed from W.C. Fields. De Lay asked Merrill once at a bar if she needed a water; Merrill had a whiskey in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. "Water? Don't drink water. Fish make love in it," was Merrill's retort.
Heal hesitated before recounting one of Merrill's favorite quips. "I'm trying to think of something you can print," Heal said. Then she remembered this one: "Celine Dion walks into a bar. Bartender asks: 'Why the long face?' "
Monaco offered another example of Merrill's quick, feisty wit. Once he attended a jazz concert with her. After the band gave a spectacular performance, Merrill told the musicians "You guys are so deep in the pocket that you're spitting lint."
As Merrill and the rest of the Saliva Sisters liked to remind their Utah fans, spit happens.
Remembering Kristen Merrill
P A public celebration of the singer life's will be 5-8 p.m. Sunday, at Pierpont Place, 163 Pierpont Ave., Salt Lake City.