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Hill Cumorah Pageant attendance down despite national media attention

Published: Thursday, July 21 2011 1:29 a.m. MDT

PALMYRA, N.Y. — As the LDS Church's annual Hill Cumorah Pageant opened two weeks ago, local media outlets were wondering if Pageant attendance would go through the roof in light of the current ongoing "Mormon Moment."

The answer is in: no.

A pageant official said Wednesday that attendance was actually down a little from last year's Pageant — from a seven-performance total of 33,000 patrons last year to about 30,000 this year.

So much for "The Book of Mormon" coattails theory.

Still, the national media attention lavished on this year's Pageant was way, way up. The 2011 version of the LDS Church's annual Hill Cumorah Pageant closed Saturday, with national media attention similar to the New York Times story that accompanied its opening two weeks ago.

Spurred by that "the Mormon Moment" attention, with two Republican presidential candidates and a Tony Award-winning musical among the elements stimulating media interest seemingly everywhere, the Los Angeles Times sent reporter Robin Abcarian to Palmyra to watch the pageant and speak to members of the LDS church who participate in it.

"This seems to be a propitious moment for Mormonism, a uniquely American faith beset by misconceptions, many stemming from its polygamous roots and an enduring suspicion among some Christians that Mormons are not really Christian," Abcarian writes. The reporter runs down the litany of events and circumstances that compromise the much-discussed "Mormon moment," including "The Book of Mormon," musical, which some people see as the antithesis of the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

"What's exciting to me is that it may be in some measure a reflection of our faith's coming of age — that people think we're important enough to make fun of in a friendly way," Pageant director Brent Hanson told the Times.

Another large national publication, the National Post in Canada, sent a reporter — Charles Lewis — to upstate New York for this year's pageant.

"This . . . is ground zero for the faith, and for the faithful," Lewis writes. "Nearly everyone gathered here tonight brings rock-ribbed faith and cheerfulness to unheard of levels. It is hard to imagine a friendlier people squeezed into a similar-sized plot of land on the planet. To anyone outside the Mormon faith, this kind of openness can be oddly unnerving. Anyone carrying a bag of popcorn or a paper cup of homemade lemonade from the concession stand to his seat must constantly rearrange their treats in order to shake the many hands that constantly reach out to greet.

"'Is this your first time at pageant? Do you know about the Mormon Church? Ask us anything you want.'

"The scene epitomizes the term wholesome; Mormons do not smoke, drink alcohol, coffee or tea. And they never swear, at least not public," Lewis continues. "Before the play begins, the actors mingle with the crowd as if greeting long-lost friends. The costumes look like an odd mixture of wardrobes that flew off the pages of 1,001 Arabian Nights and Cecile B. DeMille's film The Ten Commandments."

Lewis writes about a number of issues confronting contemporary Mormonism from both a historical and doctrinal perspective. But he returns to the pageant for the conclusion of his story:

"The production is jaw-dropping," he said. "But instead of raucous cheering, there is only polite applause and beaming faces. Here the play holds no surprises.

"'It's all about faith,' says one of the many volunteers. 'Read the Book of Mormon for yourself and then decide. God will tell you it's all true.'"

The National Post packed the Hill Cumorah Pageant story with two other companion pieces: "A (very) condensed history of the Mormons" and "Despite role as ideal citizens, many view Mormonism with suspicion."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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