Manti • As the warriors of the Nephite and Lamanite armies act out an ancient battle on the grounds of the Manti Temple, residents in this tiny central-Utah community are fighting emotions — feeling some joy, some relief and a lot of sorrow as they stage the farewell performances of the Mormon Miracle Pageant.
Seen by an estimated 4 million people, the final shows mark the end of an era for Manti (population 3,500), which has become synonymous with the eight-day event performed every year since 1967, explained pageant President Milton Olsen.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” he said during Wednesday’s dress rehearsal. “It will be amazing to put on these last performances, but we are sad to see it go.”
Last October, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it was ending its support of large-scale live-action pageants. While some locals hoped to continue the show away from the temple grounds, Olsen said church leaders in the area, which also includes the nearby communities of Gunnison and Ephraim, ultimately decided that 2019 would be the pageant’s last.
Performances got underway Thursday and will continue Friday and Saturday this week and June 18-22 at 9:30 p.m. at the historic Manti Temple, the pioneer-era edifice expected to undergo renovations soon.
More spectacle than theater, the pageant is narrated using a recorded soundtrack and acted out by men, women and children, dressed as prophets and pioneers, angels and warriors. It is performed on the grass-covered hill on the temple grounds, with the towering edifice as a backdrop.
Based on the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture about Christians in the ancient Americas, the pageant tells the story of the Latter-day Saints, from their beginnings in New York to their settlement of Utah.
Highlights include the depiction of Jesus Christ visiting the ancient Americas and the appearance of the Angel Moroni at the top of the temple spire.
The all-volunteer cast and crew, which usually runs about 900 people, has blossomed to more than 1,100 this year.
“It’s the largest cast we’ve had," said Olsen, adding that for the first time, "some of the principal roles have been double cast.”
‘What are we going to do?'
Besides the costumed characters, hundreds of volunteers work behind the scenes on costumes, makeup, lighting, sound, security, traffic control or setting up 15,000 folding chairs.
About 75,000 people attended the the 2018 performances; more visitors are expected during this year’s final run.
It’s been 22 years since Steve and Jenifer Kangas attended. “We came on our second date,” explained Jenifer, noting that it’s been so long “I forgot how beautiful [the temple] was."
When the Smithfield couple learned it would be the pageant’s last year, they “made it a priority” to attend. They snagged a front-row seat at Wednesday’s dress rehearsal, where the could spread a blanket on the grass for their two young daughters.
Visitors, like the Kangases, come from all over, filling motels and hotels and eating at restaurants or enjoying Sanpete County’s famous grilled turkey steaks — marinated in lemon-lime soda — and served each night before the show in the city armory.
Callie Mae Poulson of Vernal has been in the pageant 17 times. Her first appearance was at age 12.. This year she brought her husband, Cory, and their seven children to perform as a pioneer family.
“It’s such a beautiful, testimony-gaining experience," she said, which explains why she was “heartbroken” over the ending.
“I’ve always had this dream that I was going to move back to Ephraim, and we were going to let our grandkids come live with us every summer, and we were going to bring them here,” she said. “It’s like my dreams got crushed.”
While residents joke that next year they will be able to take a family vacation — or celebrate June anniversaries and birthdays on time — many wonder how this bucolic town will adapt.
“What are we going to do?” asked Merilyn Jorgensen, who sang in the choir at the first pageant in 1967 and now serves as its official historian. “It’s going to be an empty feeling. I don’t think it’s going to hit us until next summer when nothing happens.”
For the pageant’s 50th anniversary, Jorgensen created a 600-page book that includes photos, programs and personal stories about the history. While she’s glad the history has be recorded for posterity, she’s still “disappointed” at its demise.
“It’s kind of a shock,” she said. “It has been part of our lives for more than 50 years.”
‘We’re sold out'
Business owners wonder how it will affect their bottom line.
“It’s the best 10 days of our whole year,” said Dirk Correnti, owner of the Manti Country Village Motel and Dirk’s Farmhouse Restaurant. “We’re sold out completely.”
But, he added, it is just eight days. “It’s not going to put me out of business; it’s going to be a shift.”
City Manager Kent Barton said Manti’s coffers will lose the $25,000 to $30,000 it earned by sponsoring the turkey dinners. The profits were used to help pay for various needs around the city — from a new sound system in the library, to restrooms at the park and curtains for the theater.
Barton believes the city will be able to make up for the loss with the completion of a new sports complex. It will boast several ballfields and can accommodate tournaments and other events throughout the spring, summer and fall.
The city also hopes to promote its recreational amenities. It already hosts the Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink Reunion. Held the first weekend in June, it attracts thousands to the city. And the Arapeen Trail was recently named one of the best off-highway vehicle routes in the country.
Many understand why the church is eliminating pageants. The Salt Lake City-based faith said it wanted leaders and members to "focus on gospel learning in their homes and to participate in Sabbath worship and the church’s supporting programs for children, youth, individuals and families.”
Still, the Manti show’s ancillary benefits will be difficult to replace. Many families plan reunions or events in conjunction with the pageant; young children spend time with their parents learning the history of their faith; and teenagers stay busy practicing and performing.
That, of course, has been the wonder of the pageant all along.
“We’ve said if for years,” said Kenneth Olsen, who will portray General Mormon this year. "The miracle of the Mormon Miracle Pageant is that it gets put on every year.”
Until next year.