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A Brief History of the Hill Cumorah Pageant

In commemoration of the Dedication of the Palmyra, NY Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

April 6, 2000

By Gerald S. Argetsinger

Copyright 2000 Gerald S. Argetsinger

The original copy was placed in the Cornerstone Box of the Palmyra, NY Temple. A second copy was filed with the Church History Office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah

For over six decades, thousands of individuals, including hundreds of artists and church leaders, have contributed to the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Many of these names have been lost to time. This brief history represents my best effort, to date, to chronicle the development and impact of America’s Witness for Christ. It is my prayer that those whose names are omitted will understand that their contributions were real and valuable and that no individual was intentionally slighted.>>

Almost every summer since 1935 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has staged a pageant at the Hill Cumorah. Missionaries originally presented these as part of the annual “Cumorah Conference” of the Eastern States Mission, which was convened annually to coincide with the July 24th Pioneer Day celebration marking the day when Brigham Young first entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The tradition of the Cumorah Conference was begun in the early 1920’s when the mission president, B. H. Roberts, and a group of missionaries traveled from New York City to the newly acquired Joseph Smith Farm to celebrate Pioneer Day. Part of that celebration included the acting out of scenes from the Book of Mormon and Church history. Over the next decade the Cumorah Conference expanded to a three or four day event and included missionaries serving in both the Eastern States and Canada. The program expanded to include sermons, athletic events, a Hill Cumorah pilgrimage, and a variety of entertainment programs to which the public was invited. On September 21, 1923, “Episodes” were acted out at the Joseph Smith Farm, the Sacred Grove, and the Hill Cumorah, marking the centennial of Joseph Smith’s receipt of the gold plates. Permission to use the Hill was granted by its owner, Pliney T. Sexton. Footprints in the Sands of Time by John W. Stonely was presented at the Joseph Smith Farm, honoring the centennial of the Church in 1930, to an audience of two hundred. The final pageant as part of the annual Palmyra celebration at the Smith Farm was presented July 23, 1934 by a cast of thirty.

The Church acquired the Hill Cumorah in the early 1930’s and in July 1935, the Palmyra Conference events were moved to the Hill. That summer, as part of the Dedicatory Exercises of the Angel Moroni Monument, “The Book of Mormon in Song, Picture and Story” was presented, featuring vocal selections by such eminent soloists as Margaret Romaine, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera. For the first time, trumpeters played from the crest of the Hill, a tradition that still marks the commencement of the Hill Cumorah Pageant. The theme for the 1936 conference was “America’s Witness For Christ” and featured an historical pageant, Truth From the Earth, adapted by Oliver R. Smith and Meryl Dunn from the works of O. F. Whitney and C. W. Dunn. Mission president Donald B. Colton announced plans to make a pageant at Hill Cumorah an annual event. Even though there was no specific script, it was their intention to present a pageant of quality that would quickly be recognized as “America’s Oberammergau.”

The next year was the pivotal year in the development of the pageant as we know it. Until then all programs had depicted scenes from both the Book of Mormon and Church history. In 1937 the two themes were separated and two outdoor dramas were presented. The Builders by Oliver R. Smith, about the Mormon handcart pioneers, was performed on Saturday, July 24th. A Book of Mormon play taking its title from the previous year’s theme, America’s Witness For Christ by H. Wayne Driggs, an English professor at New York University, was performed on Friday, the 23rd and again on Sunday, the 25th. This script, with occasional modifications, became known as the Hill Cumorah Pageant, and was presented annually, excluding the War years, for fifty years, 1937-1987. Its purpose was to depict the Book of Mormon as the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and as a testimony of Christ’s divinity. The dramatic structure was chronological, but generally followed the tradition of the American community pageant, depicting independent scenes on its theme. That first year, it included six episodes from the Book of Mormon: the Prophet Abinadi, Alma the Younger, the Sons of Mosiah, Samuel the Lamanite, Signs at the Crucifixion of Christ, and Christ’s Appearance to the Nephites. As the missionaries grappled with staging the first production of America’s Witness For Christ, a new Elder with theatrical experience easily solved some staging problems. His name was Harold I. Hansen, and he was quickly named a co-director of the pageant, working with Oliver R. Smith. In 1939 J. Karl Wood was called to direct the pageant, the first time a theatre professional was brought in from outside the mission to oversee the production. He invited Hansen to return after his mission and the two worked together, dividing producing, technical, and directing responsibilities through 1941, the final year of production before the pageant was suspended for the duration of World War II. When Mission President Roy Doxey revived the pageant in 1946, Harold I. Hansen was called as the pageant’s artistic director, a position he filled for the next thirty years. During those years he oversaw script revisions, incorporating episodes depicting King Mosiah, Alma, Ammon and King Lamoni, General Moroni and an exciting Destruction Scene that preceded Christ’s Appearance at Bountiful. Hansen also worked to ensure that the pageant incorporated advances in technology, such as the development of unique water curtains and the computerization of stage lighting. Harvey Fletcher, inventor of stereophonic sound, designed, built and installed a system that utilized state-of-the-art, five-track recording techniques. Another of the most significant modifications came in 1957 when Crawford Gates, then a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music, composed an original score for the pageant which was recorded by the Tabernacle Choir and Utah Symphony Orchestra. This was then mixed with recorded vocal characterizations and sound effects. That master recording was used through the final performance of the original pageant in 1987.

The release of Harold Hansen in 1977 necessitated several changes in the way the pageant was produced. His role as producer/director was divided into two separate positions. Jack Dawson, a retired television producer, was called to serve as the Pageant Producer. Jack Sederholm, one of Hansen’s assistants, was called to serve as the Artistic Director. Together Dawson and Sederholm made two major contributions to the pageant. The first was the up grading of the costumes. Until this time, the pageant had never been designed. Instead, costumes were acquired from the theatre department at Brigham Young University and other organizations. These often reflected what was available rather than historically accurate clothing. For example, pumpkin hose and tights from a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, were used for a few years on Alma the Younger and the Sons of Mosiah. Costume designer Gail Argetsinger was called to design and supervise the construction of spectacle costumes for the major characters. The impact of that work led the producer and director to embark on what was to become a re-vitalization of the artistic components of the entire pageant. Argetsinger’s call was extended to design all remaining costumes and Barbara Williams, the wardrobe mistress, was sent to New York City to learn the art of crafting hand-ventilated beards and wigs. Argetsinger and Williams worked together on pageant costumes and hair for almost twenty years.

The second major contribution of Dawson and Sederholm resulted from the 1973 visit by the Church President, Harold B. Lee. He remarked that it was time to phase out participation in pageant by missionaries. As a result, the cast now consists entirely of church members, primarily families and single adults, who converge from all over the world to participate in the “pageant experience,” a unique opportunity that is much like a Youth Conference during rehearsal week and like a Missionary Conference during production. Lund Johnson was called as Artistic Director for 1986-87, the final two years of the original pageant. Reflecting his southwestern background, he added a golden palomino to the Title of Liberty scene and directed the Fiftieth Anniversary production. When the original script was retired after fifty years, it was the last representative of a lost art form: the American community pageant. Times had changed and communities had stopped producing Founder’s Day and Fourth of July pageant celebrations, the tradition from which America’s Witness For Christ had developed. The audience was now accustomed to films and television and could not understand a presentation of unrelated “scenes on a theme.” The time had come to completely re-work the pageant at Hill Cumorah for a modern audience. For the first time a Pageant Presidency following priesthood lines of authority was called. This significantly shifted responsibility for the production from Utah to the Cumorah region. President Roger Adams, with counselors Jerry Meiling and Gerald Argetsinger, handled the logistical end of the production, including such things as casting, housing, local arrangements, permits, and budget. Charles Metten was called as Artistic Director with the additional responsibility to oversee the unified artistic creation of all aspects of the new pageant. Orson Scott Card was assigned the responsibility to write the new script that would become the foundation for all other artistic decisions. Card was instructed to make the script accessible to the modern audience, targeting the non-scripture reading, non-Mormon young adult. Card accomplished this by presenting episodes from the Book of Mormon as a story with a beginning, middle and an end. It is the first script produced by the Church wherein the narrative is told in dialogue that incorporates modern English; the only characters using direct quotes from scripture being angels and Jesus Christ. The running time of the new pageant is one hour, fifteen minutes, approximately forty minutes shorter than the previous version, allowing families to return home at a reasonable time. A final point of interest is that the older script features the conversion of the Lamanites, while the new script focuses on the story of the Nephites. This change subtly instructs the modern audience that our message is not only for those who are not Christian; even though they may have the Bible, it is necessary to have the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and priesthood authority as provided by the Restoration.

The new script required a new score, so Crawford Gates was again called to compose music for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. For the few similar scenes, such as the Nativity, he created new arrangements of established musical themes; for the new scenes, he composed fresh motifs. Finally, the new pageant was scored similarly to motion pictures, the music playing continually, underscoring all dialogue and special effects. The new settings and properties were designed by Eric Fielding, who designed seven separate stage-units that, when viewed from the audience, create the impression of an ancient Mayan temple erected on the side of the Hill. Modern lighting is provided from ten towers that flank the stage, utilizing almost five hundred instruments that provide always-changing patterns of illumination. Finally, Gail Argetsinger was asked to continue as the costume designer, initially being required to design over four hundred new costumes for the new characters and scenes. Rodger Sorensen assisted Charles Metten with the pre-production work and Michael Campbell was called to create new choreography for the production. Campbell’s dances uniquely progressed from traditional Old World dance patterns in the early Jerusalem scene, evolving into South American Indian dances toward the end of the play. Brother Metten served for the 1988-89 productions, taking responsibility for the initial evaluation and revisions, working closely with the Salt Lake offices and the Pageant Presidency, firmly establishing the new production.

Gerald Argetsinger was called to serve as Artistic Director for the years 1990-97. He was given the charge to keep the pageant vibrant and to coordinate its evolution as it settled in for a long run. He and his team of associate directors continued to discover new and more effective ways to stage the production in order to tell its story in a clear and exciting manner. Argetsinger worked closely with Rick Josephsen, a motion picture special effects director, who was called to serve as the pageant technical director. They worked closely with each other to imagine, design and effect an ever-increasing array of special effects that supported the theatricality of the pageant.

As the Pageant Presidency worked with the artistic team during the maturation process, attention was drawn not only to the artistic quality of the production, but also to the overall experience for the participants and to the success of the pageant as a missionary tool. Two important lessons were learned. As the spiritual quality of the experience was enhanced both the aesthetic quality of the show and the quantity and quality of missionary referrals increased. Although it is obvious that a balance is necessary, it became clear that taking time for the participants’ spiritual development and service was more effective than requiring more time for rehearsal. The number of referrals generated in 1997 was ten times greater than the number of referrals in 1988 and the positive response to missionary contacts was also significantly higher. The second most important lesson was the realization that the spirit with which an artistic work is created is communicated to the audience of that work. When every member of the cast and crew strove to improve their own testimonies, the spiritual impact of the performance was improved for each member of the audience.

The Hill Cumorah Pageant is a major media event drawing almost as many non-Mormons as members. As the pageant became a more professional production, promotion also became more professional. Public Relations experts Bert Linn and Richard Ahern expanded media coverage from local newspapers to the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Good Morning, America. This increased tenfold the number of bus tours adding the pageant to their itineraries. When Donny Osmond and his family participated in the 1997 cast, hundred of newspapers across the country chronicled the event, substantially increasing attendance. As a public relations tool, the pageant is credited with changing the attitude within the Cumorah area from antagonistic to positive. The most notable change occurred in 1991 when local service organizations were invited to provide snacks and meals to pageant visitors. The offer was accepted by the Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis organizations who have turned it into their primary annual fund-raising event. Because of their involvement, the community no longer views it as their pageant, but as our pageant. It’s acceptance by the community was demonstrated when it was given a full page in The Image Is Rochester by Gabe Dalmath and G. R. DeFranco, a book describing notable achievements in the Rochester, NY area. The contributions of the pageant are also chronicled in the mass market book, Mormon America by Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling. As a missionary tool, cast members circulate among the thousands of non-Mormons who attend each performance, greeting them and extending invitations to receive copies of the Book of Mormon. Most converts in the region credit the Hill Cumorah Pageant as one of the significant experiences in their conversion process. As a spiritually enriching activity for Mormons, participants value it as one of the finest events in which their families can participate. Rodger Sorensen became the Pageant’s eighth artistic director in 1998. Under his direction it will continue to evolve and grow, always remaining the flagship pageant of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[Posted by permission of the author and by the Palmyra Temple Committee]

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