When the spotlights go dark on the Mormon Miracle Pageant next June, they may never shine on that show again.
The long-term future of the pageant, staged every summer for more than half a century outside central Utah’s historic Manti Temple, is in doubt. While the show will go on in 2019, pageant President Milton Olsen assured Saturday, its fate after that remains undecided.
Meanwhile, the mother of all Mormon spectacle shows, the 81-year-old Hill Cumorah Pageant, which tells the story of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon, live from the cradle of the faith in upstate New York, will cease after the 2020 season.
The reason: The Utah-based church announced in a news release Saturday that talks are underway with local Latter-day Saint and community leaders to “appropriately end, modify or continue these productions.”
No specific pageants were mentioned. When asked about the Manti and Palmyra, N.Y., productions, church spokeswoman Irene Caso said in an email that there was no further information — even though those two pageants already have posted dates online for their performances next year.
“Discussions are still ongoing,” she wrote.
Olsen told The Salt Lake Tribune that the Manti show’s prospects for 2020 and beyond are up to the stake presidents, who oversee a number of Latter-day Saint congregations, in and around Sanpete and Sevier counties.
He added that those lay leaders have not yet made a decision on that question.
Area businesses no doubt would like to see the pageant continue, Olsen said, because it draws about 75,000 people every year and has been a summertime dramatic staple since its premiere in 1967.
However, Neil Pitts, president of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, told WROC-TV in Rochester, N.Y., that the 2020 Palmyra performances will be the last.
“We had a wonderful run,” Pitts told the station. “Our church has asked us to focus more on the family, and this is certainly in line with that desire. We have had a wonderful 81 years and will focus on making the next two years an amazing experience for our cast, crew and audience.”
The church’s release said that as the global faith continues to grow — topping 16 million members — local Latter-day Saint “leaders and members are encouraged 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.”
It also noted the church’s missionary efforts to spread its message throughout the world. These pageants and other Latter-day Saint performances are often pitched as ways to do just that.
The release said “local celebrations of culture and history may be appropriate” but added that “larger productions, such as pageants, are discouraged.”
Such shows — large and small — are common among Latter-day Saint congregations. Mesa, Ariz., for one, stages an annual Easter pageant outside its Latter-day Saint temple, which is undergoing renovation.
The church’s release concludes by saying that while some existing pageants may end, others may change or continue.
The Manti pageant, for instance, has announced its performances next year will take place June 13-15 and 18-22. (The play’s title, Mormon Miracle Pageant, does not appear to be an issue, since that easily could be changed and other pageants don’t include the word “Mormon.” The church is striving to drop that moniker as a nickname.)
In August, the Palmyra pageant posted that July 12-13 and 16-20 would be the dates for its 2019 run.
“It’s always been the flagship pageant,” said David Cook, a Latter-day Saint who lives in nearby Rochester and has seen many a Hill Cumorah Pageant. “Losing it would be a huge blow,” especially to civic service clubs in the region that set up booths during the run.
“It is their major fundraiser,” Cook said.
But Jerry Argetsinger, who directed the play in the 1990s, told The Tribune in July that the show has seen its attendance slide from more than 70,000 a year to about 25,000.
“It has been painful to watch the sad decay of the pageant over the past decade,” Argetsinger said Saturday. “We had hoped for a revitalization, a rebirth, but now those dreams are gone. We will mourn the Cumorah Pageant’s passing along with the thousands who participated through the years. The pageant brought thousands of members to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The church’s full statement
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing across the earth. As this occurs, local Church leaders and members are encouraged 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. The goal of every activity in the Church should be to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to share His gospel message throughout the world. Local celebrations of culture and history may be appropriate. Larger productions, such as pageants, are discouraged. As it relates to existing pageants, conversations with local Church and community leaders are underway to appropriately end, modify or continue these productions.”