King of the Hill
Jesus reigns in spectacolor at Hill Cumorah’s annual Mormon Pageant.
By Mary Beth Crain
I should have been a Mormon. Not because I know anything about them other than they wear holy long underwear and have bred a strange race of beardless teenage “elders” who ride around on bicycles wearing suits and ties, but because I grew up in Rochester, NY, which is 15 miles up the road from Palmyra, the birthplace of Mormonism and that spectacle of spectacles, the Mormon Pageant.
As kids, my twin brother and I thought it was the Moron Pageant, and that the angel Moroni, whose giant golden statue presides over hallowed Hill Cumorah, was the Angel Moronic. We were understandably confused as to why the heavenly patron of this religion was very stupid, and why a bunch of retards would want to parade around on a stage every summer. My parents patiently explained to us the difference between “Mormon” and “moron” and we were thus enlightened, although I have to admit that every time those baby faced brainless elders appear at my door, this distinction becomes increasingly blurred.
But moronic or not, we really looked forward to the pageant, which was basically a grand excuse to load the car with blankets and a picnic dinner and hang out under the stars at Hill Cumorah, so way past our bedtimes that we’d sleep like corpses into next Tuesday, which was probably the high point of our parents’ lives. We may have been the only Jews there, who knows. But nobody checked your religion at the gate, and nobody tried to convert you. It was just plain summer night fun.
Summer evenings in Rochester still stand out in my memory as glorious escapes from the rigid reality of school, homework, short days, long nights, and early bedtimes. They meant driving down to Lake Ontario after dinner for Abbott’s Custard, or down to Carvel’s for dipped cones and malts; playing miniature golf ‘til 11:00 at night; sitting on the porch getting purple tongues from grape popsicles as the grown ups sat on rockers, gabbing and drinking lemonade; the Drive-In—oh, the Drive-In!—where we could legally wear our jammies in public, watch a movie from the car eating pizza and hot dogs by the light of the screen, and fall asleep on the back seat, almost as good as camping out…
And the Moron Pageant. Actually, to an eight-year-old, the Pageant was pretty much an extension of the Drive-In. While we didn’t sit in the car, it was still an equivalent outdoor entertainment experience, eating in our pajamas, snuggling in blankets on bleachers, and watching the show under the glittering stars and the beaming moon.
I remember very little about the content—only that it was about how Mormonism came to be, featured a ton of people and animals, and was illuminated by a breathtaking array of colored lights, very much like Niagara Falls. That was another favorite summer night excursion, an hour-and-a-half in the other direction. To this day, whenever I visit Rochester in the summer, I still make a point of going to Buffalo and across to Canada and the illuminated Falls, which are as breathtakingly beautiful the thousandth time as they are at first sight. The Mormon Pageant was a little like that—pink, white, yellow, blue and green lights dancing over the stage and dressing up the night like fireworks. It was definitely worth the rest of the deal, a long, incomprehensible Biblical saga that generally bored the living crap out of us.
Later in life, I did a little research and discovered just what the Pageant was all about. It all began in 1917, when a small group of missionaries from New York City convened for the Cumorah Conference at the Joseph Smith Farm, across the way from Hill Cumorah, to celebrate Pioneer Day, the day when Brigham Young first entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. In 1934, the conference relocated from the farm to Hill Cumorah, the site where Smith, aka the Father of Mormonism, supposedly received a set of sacred gold plates from the Angel Moroni in 1827, which he later translated and published as the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ.
Held in 1935 atop Hill Cumorah, the first Pageant was an enactment of the Mormon Testament with ten short story scenes encompassing events like “The Coming of the Prophet Lehi” (whom my brother and I dubbed “Prophet Nehi,” after the popular East Coast soft drink), “The Voyage to Ancient America,” “The Burning of Abinadi” (memorable for the fire and smoke exploding onstage) and ”The Resurrected Christ Appears to Ancient Americans,” (according to the Mormon Testament, Jesus miraculously materialized in America in 34 A.D.). It has been an internationally noted tradition ever since. Staged in the grand style of the medieval passion pageants of Europe, the cast of over 600, sporting lavish period attire (the Pageant boasts over 800 costumes), proceeds through the audience onto a towering 10-level stage, the site of virtuosic theatrical illusions that include earthquakes, lightning strikes, an erupting volcano and the immolation of a prophet.
If it sounds a little like the movies, it’s no accident. The Mormon Pageant is the largest outdoor theatrical production in the U.S., and the Hill Cumorah PR spinners love to tout its “Hollywood Special Effects” created by motion picture FX veteran Rick Josephson. If Jesus himself appeared on the Hill, his piddly little miracles would probably seem like amateur magic compared to the Pageants’ wondrous technological equivalents. Walking on water? Big deal. Raising the dead? Yawn. And as for those multiplying loaves and fishes, yuk. Hill Cumorah appeases the hungry masses with “burgers, hot dogs, sausage and onion pizza” and that famous Mormon delicacy, salt potatoes, alleviating the guilt of bad food indulgence with the soothing assurance that all proceeds support the local Lions and Rotary Clubs. Go ahead, super-size for the Lord.
In the last 50 years, the Pageant I remember has been kicked up a few mega-notches. Not only are the special effects even more spectacular, but celebrities have livened up the cast. In 1997, for instance, Mormon superstar Donny Osmond and his family came to Palmyra to appear in the Pageant, which only allows Mormons in the all-volunteer cast. In the modest part of the Prophet Samuel the Lamanite, Donny displayed true, if misguided, courage.
“I was standing high atop this wall and I told everyone below, I want to make this look real!” he recounted in an interview. “They threw the spears on cue and right at me! I ran like the dickens. Thankfully, I had on shoes with leather soles or I would have slipped. But, oh, man, one of the spears hit my right heel. If not for that shoe, I’d be in serious trouble right now. I mean, these are not prop spears. They are the real thing. With sharp points!”
I can see risking your life for your family, or your country, or your principles, but for the Mormon Pageant? Then again, actors, particularly not-too-bright ones, have been known to confuse their roles with reality.
Fortunately you don’t have to be a Mormon to enjoy the show, but you’d have to be a moron to swallow the whole story, which should be taken with a big dose of salt potatoes. History probably had no greater shyster/charlatan than Joseph Smith, who makes P.T. Barnum, J. Edgar Hoover and George W. Bush look like paragons of sincerity.
Throughout his life, Smith related numerous versions of his “vision” at Hill Cumorah, all of which were decidedly suspect. His “translations” of the gold plates, while inventive, are basically hilarious, evidence of a supremely fertile imagination. He subsequently “translated” other “ancient” documents that were proven to be forgeries. During his busy lifetime, Smith was arrested for fraud and disorderly conduct (he liked to drink, even though Mormons aren’t supposed to). An inveterate womanizer, Smith was married when he fell in love with a teenage servant girl, and promptly had a convenient revelation from the Lord telling him it was OK to have as many wives as he wanted, so long as they were virgins. Thus was the sacred rite of Mormon Polygamy born. In his short but prolific marital career, Smith was calculated to have amassed somewhere between 47 and 89 wives, but while polygamy was fun, it proved to be his ultimate undoing. He came to a violent end at the age of 38, when he was arrested in Nauvoo, Illinois, for his harem lifestyle and murdered by vigilantes (he managed to kill a few of them himself with his trusty six-shooter before he was gunned down).
None of the above, however, takes away from the sheer brilliance of the Pageant, which has made little old Palmyra the Universal Studios of upstate New York, and served to bring millions to the doorstep of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. So hitch up the horses, get in the wagon, and hustle on down to Hill Cumorah. And keep those salt potatoes a’comin’!
Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Agape: Far More Than a Smile.
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