MANTI — For several nights each summer, the picturesque hillside below the Manti Utah Temple becomes the site of one of the largest outdoor productions in the world.
The event draws an average of 100,000 people each season. The production comes with a cast of more than 950 performers, including 650 under age 18. Approximately 400 people set up (and later take down) about 14,000 metal folding chairs. Another several hundred people — the directing crew, wardrobe and make-up artists, ushers and security personnel, the stage and production crew, as well as those who serve dinner to the cast — volunteer in various ways. The Sanpete County Search and Rescue and the Manti-Ephraim Emergency Medical Technicians are also on hand to assist when needed. Lastly, dozens of Primary children and adult leaders from local wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints walk the temple grounds the morning after performances to clean up trash.
“I doubt there are this many volunteers for an ongoing project anywhere else,” said Merilyn Jorgensen, a longtime Manti resident.
All the manpower is enlisted for the purpose of presenting the “Mormon Miracle Pageant.” This annual LDS Church-sponsored production intertwines the stories of the Book of Mormon, the Restoration of the gospel and how Mormon pioneers came to the Sanpete Valley into a demonstration of music, drama and dance that expresses love for Jesus Christ.
This year’s pageant runs June 20-22 and 25-29. Each performance begins at 9:30 p.m. Admission is free.
The Mormon Miracle Pageant has both entertained and enlightened more than 4.5 million visitors since it started in 1967, according to mormonmiracle.org. The history of the pageant is full of community service, creative solutions, religious dedication and family tradition, said Jorgensen, who has been involved with the production for three decades and is now the pageant’s historian.
“It’s done amazing things for the people of the Sanpete Valley,” she said. “It’s been a family affair,” Jorgensen said.
The idea for the "Mormon Miracle Pageant" began with Grace Johnson, an author and lecturer who thought there ought to be a work portraying a picture of both Mormon theology and history in a single presentation. She felt the story should not only be factual, but also carry a feeling.
“It’s so easy to become complacent and forget about the impact the Mormon story had on the settlement of America,” Johnson said, according to the pageant’s history on its website. “The story of the church with its constant movement westward was a factor that completely changed the face of America.”
Johnson began presenting the LDS Church’s story as a dramatic lecture to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs throughout the United States. In 1947, she was invited to give her presentation at the Salt Lake Tabernacle as part of the centennial celebration of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in Utah.
Johnson’s work, “The Mormon Miracle,” was published by Deseret Book Company.
In 1964, Brigham Young University sponsored a production of the story using a cast and 75-member choir. It was also presented at the LDS Church’s college in Hawaii.
Johnson’s story was eventually presented in Ephraim, Utah, where a number of people were discussing what could be done to hold a more meaningful July 24 celebration, according to mormonmiracle.org.
“Why not dramatize Grace Johnson’s ‘Mormon Miracle?’” Someone asked.
The idea stuck.
On July 23, 1967, about 1,500 gathered in the freshly painted grandstands of the Sanpete County fairgrounds. Despite rain and stormy weather, the show went on. Most of the performance took place on and around a small stage set up on the fairgrounds, with one or two scenes on the west side of hill below the Manti Temple, according to Helen B. Dyreng, the production’s first director.
The local stage crew rigged a rusty metal pipe with spotlights made from used gallon soup cans taken from the elementary school cafeteria. They also had one handcart and borrowed the orange velvet drapes from the Manti American Legion Hall for a cyclorama. Plywood panels left of the stage hid the waiting cast members from view. Merritt Bradley provided the sound system using a small microphone machine he used to call square dances. A choir sat near the stage and sang hymns. The production was funded by local donations, including monetary gifts, supplies, material and labor of all kinds.
With permission from the Manti Temple presidency, the pageant was moved to the southwest slope of Temple Hill in 1968 and played for two nights. Some scenes required the use of a wooden stage borrowed from Snow College.
In the years that followed, attendance increased to more than 5,000 people a night with standing room in the street. Eventually, an alfalfa field and potato patch on the lower temple grounds were leveled and added to the grounds. The LDS Church’s First Presidency granted permission to remove some trees to make the stage more visible to the audience as they watched from the grass at the base of the hill.
As they continued to perform the pageant year after year, the cast grew larger and more scenes were added to the script. Lighting and equipment were upgraded. Chairs were borrowed from Mormon wards and stakes from Richfield to Spanish Fork and Brigham Young University. From 1969 to 1971, driving the 6 miles from Ephraim to Manti for the pageant was a highway patrolman’s headache as pageant attendance skyrocketed from 9,000 to 83,000. In 1973, 121,000 people flocked to Manti.
Moving the pageant?
In 1972, a rumor began to circulate that the “Mormon Miracle Pageant" would be moved from Manti to a location better suited for its growing needs. When Mabel Anderson heard the news, she wrote a three-page letter to Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve expressing her concerns.
“I can’t believe it might be true, that the most successful and beautiful thing we have ever done in our stake, the pageant that has become such a labor of love from young to old could be taken from us,” Anderson wrote. “After shedding many tears I got the feeling I must write to you what I feel. I know you brethren will be inspired to do what is right. We believe that more and more our valley will become identified with the ‘Mormon Miracle Pageant.’ People will come again and again to renew their spirits and visitors from all over the world will find their way to our hillside. Don’t take that dream away from us.”
Less than a month later, Elder Petersen formed a new organization for the pageant. He and then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve were approved as chairman and vice chairman over an advisory committee of the pageant’s leadership. A budget of $15,000 from general church funds was approved for improvement of roads, publicity, arrangements for restroom facilities and the sale of programs. It was also determined that local priesthood leaders would encourage members to participate or volunteer with the pageant.
Fun facts, testimonies, miracles
As the pageant has evolved and grown over the years, some memorable things have occurred.
Steve Frischnecht related that people used to complain about sitting on wet seats after the sprinklers or rain left small puddles in the depression of the folding chairs. To remedy the problem, an Eagle Scout project was organized to use nails to punch holes in the chairs for the water to drain out.
“After several smashed and swollen thumbs,” Frischnecht said, “a couple of the boys had .22-caliber pistols and they just wanted to shoot the hole in the chair.”
As previously mentioned, the pageant operated in its early years thanks to local donations. Phyllis Carpenter said Nephite and angel costumes were primarily created from old bed sheets and dyed different colors.
The cast has always been full of untrained but talented performers, sometimes including whole families. These hard-working people often showed up for the performance after a hard day’s work. One year, Bonnie Olsen recalled that the actor portraying Samuel the Lamanite missed his cue to stand on the wall because he had dozed off.
“The poor young man had been working all day in the field and on the farm, and he was tired.”
Many actors have played the same role for many years. Richard Olsen played General Mormon for 28 years and felt a special connection to the ancient Book of Mormon prophet.
“He was a great man,” Olsen said. “One night when I went out there there was somebody with me.”
Another longtime cast member, Michael J. Jorgensen, and his brothers were noted for their various portrayals of the Prophet Joseph Smith. When Michael was 14, he played the role of young Joseph. At that time in his life, he was struggling to gain a testimony of the Prophet. One night as the actor pondered Joseph’s life and performed the scene of kneeling to pray in the Sacred Grove, the teenager felt the Holy Ghost bear witness to him of Joseph Smith’s important role in the Restoration of the gospel.
“I can still feel it when I talk about it,” Jorgensen said.
Over the years, those involved have said they witnessed miracles. Douglas Barton, who served as “Mr. Sound and Lighting” for much of the pageant’s history, said one year a thunderstorm knocked out the power and fried fuses just prior to the performance. They scrambled to check the soaked equipment, and Barton was concerned they would have problems, but they were out of time. He sent one young man up the hill to check the angel lights, just minutes before that scene. He reported the fuses were blown. A silent prayer was said, the switch was flipped and the lights came on. Later after the performance, Barton inspected the box and confirmed the fuses had been blown.
On with the show
Today, the lighting and sound crews consist of local volunteers and professionals from the LDS Church. When the Manti pageant is over, equipment is shipped to New York for the "Hill Cumorah Pageant."
Considering the incredible growth and massive undertaking the pageant has become, it’s impressive to realize how the Manti Stake organized and operated the entire production for more than two decades.
“It’s quite impressive,” said Merilyn Jorgensen. “We did it all. Everyone did more than double duty.”
Not only has the pageant been a fun activity for many individuals and families, it's also been a spiritual blessing in many ways. The majority of young people from the area who have participated in the production have gone on to serve missions, been married in the temple and remained faithful in the church, Jorgensen said.
"Kids couldn't wait to be in the pageant," she said. "Considering what it's done for the youth in this valley, it's been well worth the effort."
To learn more about the Mormon Miracle Pageant, visit mormonmiracle.org.
Email: email@example.com Twitter: tbtoone
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company