History of the Hill Cumorah Pageant
by Jerry Argetsinger
Almost every summer since 1937 the Church has presented a pageant at the Hill Cumorah. Missionaries originally presented these as a 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 1917 when a group of Missionaries traveled to the Joseph Smith Farm to celebrate Pioneer Day. Part of that celebration included the acting out of some scenes from the Book of Mormon and Church history. Over the next seventeen years the Cumorah Conference expanded to a three or four day event, including the missionaries to both the Eastern States and Canada. The program expanded to include sermons, athletic events, a Hill Cumorah Pigrimage, 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, Pliny T. Sexton. "Footprint 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 a part of the "Annual Palmyra Celebration" at the Smith Farm was presented July 23, 1934 with a cast of thirty.
The Church acquired the Hill Cumorah in the early 1930's and in July, 1935, on the occasion of the Dedicatory Excersises for the Angel Moroni Monument, the Palmyra Conference events were moved to the Hill. "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 which still marks the commencement of the pageant. The theme for the 1936 conference was, "America's Witness For Christ" and featured an historical pageant entitled, "Truth From the Earth" adapted from the works of O.F. Whitney and C.W. Dunn by Oliver R. Smith and Meryl Dunn.
Mission President, Donald B. Colton announced plans to make a pageant at the 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 pageants were presented. A church history play, The Builders by Oliver R. Smith, about the Mormon handcart pioneers was performed on Saturday July 24th. A Book of Mormon play by H. Wayne Driggs, taking its title from the previous year's conference, America's Witness For Christ, was performed on July 23rd and 25th.
This script, with occasional modifications, was presented annually for fifty years(excluding the War Years, 1943-47) and became known as the The Hill Cumorah Pageant. It's purpose was to depict the Book of Mormon as the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and as a testimony of Christ's divinity. Its structure was generally chronological, but utilized the pageant format of presenting general scenes on the theme. It portrayed 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. Harold I. Hansen was quickly named a co-director and eventually director of the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Brother Hansen was a Pageant Director for forty years, during which time he oversaw script revisions, installation of a stereophonic sound system, computerization of the stage lighting, a cast that grew to upwards of of 600 participants, and the run extended to seven performance nights. The most significant modification came in 1957 when Crawford Gates wrote a musical score for the Pageant which was recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Utah Symphony and then mixed with recorded vocal characterizations and sound effects. The master recording was used for thirty years.
After Brother Hansen was released in 1977, major changes were made in the way the pageant was produced. A Pageant Producer, Jack Dawson, was called, as well as a new director, Jack Sederholm. In 1979, when President Spencer W. Kimball remarked that, "This is the only mission in the church where we give the Elders a month off and bring out BYU co-eds to entertain them.", it marked the end of missionary participation in the cast and crew. After a brief phasing out of missionaries, the cast now consists entirely of church members, primarily families and single adults. A unique spiritual experience is now enjoyed that is much like a Youth Conference during rehearsal week, and like a Missionary Conference during production.
Lund Johnson served as the pageant's third director for the 1986 and '87 productions, adding a golden Palomino to the Moroni and the Title of Liberty scene and directing the fiftieth anniversary production. In 1987, the pageant was organized with a presidency, which now oversees all aspects of production following priesthood lines of authority and procedures.
By the mid-eighties, it was evident that a new pageant was needed for the audience of the "telivison age". On July 22, 1988, an all new Hill Cumorah Pageant was premiered. The script by Orson Scott Card retained the title and major theme of America's Witness For Christ. The new pageant features events selected from the Book of Mormon structured to coherently tell the story of the Nephites in a chronological sequence.
With the exception of angels' and Christ's words, the language of the pageant has been modernized and is spoken as dialogue. A new score was written by crawford gates which mixes the music to the dialogue and sound effects in a cinematic manner. The physical presentation of the pageant was also totally overhauled in 1988-89 under the direction of Charles Metten, with new staging constructed on a newly contoured and landscaped hill, state-of-the-art special effects, and newly designed costumes and properties, all of which added to the theatricality and aesthetic values of what has become America's largest and most spectacular outdoor theater presentation.
All of these changes were conciosly made in order to make the pageant understandable to the non-scripture reading, under thirty-five, non-Mormon. In 1990, Jerry Argetsinger was called to direct the pageant and given the charge of keeping the pageant vibrant and coordinating the production as it settles in for the long run. Thru his direction the Hill Cumorah Pageant was propelled into a major media event and gained increased recognition throughout the world. In 1998, Rodger D. Sorensen was called to be the Artistic Director.
The pageant's major theme of, "the reality of Christ's ministry, atonement, and resurrection" is boldly portrayed through His dealings with the people of the American continent. Strong secondary themes include the importance of baptism by immersion by one who has authority, God's willingness to answer prayer and forgive those who repent, and the imminent return of the Savior.
As a public relations tool, the pageant is credited with changing the attitude of the Cumorah area from antagonistic to positive. As a missionary tool, cast memebers circulate among the thousands of non-Mormons who attend each performance, before and after the presentaion, greeting them, answering questions about the pageant and Mormonism, and inviting them to request a visit from the missionaries by filling out a referral card. As a spiritually enriching activity for Mormons, participants value it as one of the finest events in which their families have been involved.