Hill Cumorah Pageant won’t return, LDS Church announces

Pandemic causes cancellation of what was supposed to be the event’s grand finale.

(Courtesy Rulon Simmons) Charles Bruce plays the role of Samuel the Lamanite in the Hill Cumorah Pageant in the 1990s.

The Hill Cumorah Pageant was scheduled to take its final bow this summer. As it turns out, the curtain came down on the long-running event for the last time almost two years ago.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Tuesday that, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the pageant will not be produced this year.

Or ever again.

Instead, the Palmyra, N.Y., spectacle will be celebrated with a broadcast of the 2019 pageant to “commemorate the contributions of tens of thousands of volunteer participants through the years,” according to a church news release. (It can be viewed beginning July 9 on broadcasts.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.)

First performed in 1937 as a missionary tool for the Utah-based faith, the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant drew crowds that numbered in the tens of thousands over a week’s worth of shows. Hundreds of cast members staged scenes from the Book of Mormon, the church’s signature scripture.

In 2018, church leaders announced that “larger productions, such as pageants, are discouraged,” later confirming that the Hill Cumorah Pageant would be ending. The 2020 event was canceled because of the coronavirus, and now the 2021 shows won’t go on either.

“It makes me sad, but I totally support the decision,” David Cook, a longtime church leader in Rochester who helped with the pageant for more than three decades, said Tuesday. “The fact is the pageant simply is not the draw it once was.”

Jerry Argetsinger recalled the show’s glory days.

As artistic director for the pageant in the 1990s, he saw attendance shoot up by 10% every year. It jumped by 20% in 1997, when Latter-day Saint pop star Donny Osmond left his starring role in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Toronto to join the cast of no-names in New York.

Playing Samuel the Lamanite, a Book of Mormon prophet, Osmond donned “a wig, but no beard,” he told Playbill at the time. “And, in a throwback to ‘Joseph,’ I’m in a loincloth. I just can’t seem to get away from loincloths.”

Osmond appeared in the pageant — for no pay like the rest of the volunteer performers — along with his wife and sons.

The pageant was a family affair for Argetsinger, too. His wife, Gail, for instance, created more than 3,400 costumes over a 20-year period for the performances.

“Our home is filled,” he said, “with memorabilia from the definitive religious outdoor drama in America.”

Utah has lost its piece of pageant history as well.

Manti’s popular Mormon Miracle Pageant gave its farewell performances in June 2019 after a run of more than half a century.

[Listen to a “Mormon Land” podcast with a long-serving artistic director of the Hill Cumorah pageant and a separate podcast featuring a historian for the Manti pageant.]

On Tuesday, the church also announced plans for three other pageants:

• The Nauvoo Pageant in Illinois will not be performed this year, but will return July 5-30, 2022.

• In Arizona, the Mesa Easter Pageant, which has not been performed since renovations on the Mesa Temple began in 2018, will resume when that work is completed.

• The British Pageant will return in 2022, although dates have not been announced.