“Hill Cumorah Pageant Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary,” Ensign, July 1987, 80
America’s Witness for Christ, the annual pageant held at the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with this year’s presentation, scheduled July 24 through August 1. A reunion for past participants will be held concurrently.
As early as 1917, eleven years before the Church purchased the hill, small historical dramas, tableaus, and readings were staged in the Palmyra area by the Eastern States Mission. Sites for these presentations included the Sacred Grove, Grange Hall, and the meadow behind the Joseph Smith, Sr., farm. Brother Oliver R. Smith, who was later instrumental in preparing the first pageant presented at the Hill Cumorah, remembered “upright posts in the ground supporting wires on which sliding curtains or white drapes, which moved easily in the wind, separated the scenes.”
On 21 July 1935, a majestic forty-foot bronze and granite monument of Moroni was completed and placed on the summit of the Hill Cumorah. Thousands of pine seedlings were planted on the hill’s previously barren northern and western slopes. More than two thousand attended the dedication of the monument by President Heber J. Grant. Don B. Colton, then Eastern States Mission president, began to experience the proselyting potential of large gatherings at the hill. He set the wheels in motion for what the New York Times has since called “America’s most elaborate religious pageant.”
The following year, on Sunday evening, July 26, the first pageant was presented at the Hill Cumorah. The pageant, titled Truth From the Earth, drew a crowd of five thousand for its single-night performance.
A new script, titled America’s Witness for Christ, was written by H. Wayne Driggs for the pageant held in 1937. That title remains unchanged today.
Harold I. Hansen, one of the drama directors of the 1937 pageant and pageant director for the next forty years, said, “I sat in the audience that night and was amazed. We had immature young people acting with almost no training and very limited preparation. The rehearsals had been very disappointing. But that night the actors performed with a cohesion and wholeneë that hadn’t been there before. You could feel a power that moved them. We were all deeply touched by what happened there.”
For the first performance of America’s Witness for Christ fifty years ago, three elevated platforms were used as stages, and only the main characters had costumes. There was no sophisticated sound system. There was a full moon, but reports mention that it rained at least one of the three nights the pageant was performed, and that “thunder and lightening came on cue.” Within a few weeks the pageant committee began the now-traditional year-long preparations for the following year’s performance.
The pageant was repeated annually through 1941. Then came World War II, and the stages on the hillside lay dormant until the pageant was revived in 1948 after wartime travel and gasoline restrictions were lifted.
Over the years, the number of stages has increased from the original three to the twenty-five which today terrace the hill. The lighting and sound systems have been updated and refined. Busloads of unpaid pageant volunteers from the western United States traveled to New York for several years, until growing participation by Church members in the East made these efforts unnecessary.
Pageant performances start at 9:00 P.M., using the darkness of the night to make possible the spectacular lighting effects. Two million watts of electrical power illuminate the multiple stages, which cover an area larger than a football field. White-robed heralds silhouetted atop the Hill Cumorah raise their trumpets in the prelude scene, but instead of the “live” trumpeting once heard, the trumpet choir and all pageant sound are carried on five-track stereophonic tape developed especially for the pageant.
A complete wardrobe of costumes adds splendor and authenticity to the production. Reservoirs at the foot of the hill hold 175,000 gallons of water, which colored lights play upon to achieve the shimmering, translucent water curtain effect that adds drama to certain scenes.
Last year’s volunteer cast of 600, playing 1,700 separate parts, performed before 91,500 spectators. An estimated 75 percent of the audience were nonmembers. Fifteen hundred missionary referral cards were filled out.
“It’s really more of a missionary event than a pageant,” said pageant director Lund Johnson. “Because of the total commitment and missionary work we do as a cast, we touch both nonmembers and members alike.”
Correspondent: Sydney S. Aldous, of the Butler Sixteenth Ward, Salt Lake Wasatch Stake, is a member of the Hill Cumorah Pageant Fiftieth Anniversary Committee.