Kirby: Time for big Mormon pageants, like those quirky little roadshows, to bow out

Robert Kirby

The Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti — an annual event for over half a century — will close its doors (or hillside, as it were) for good later this month.

Millions of people have seen the Manti spectacle and its sister show, the Hill Cumorah Pageant, in upstate New York. Originally created as a conversion tool, the charm has worn thin in later years.

The one back East began in 1937 on the very hill where Latter-day Saints believe Joseph Smith found and later returned the gold plates, which he translated into a book that now may need a new title, given that the word “Mormon” has also gone out of vogue.

I attended one of the pageants as a kid. Not sure which one. A mob of people runs about on a hillside before a heavenly appearance — that’s all my kid’s brain was able to retain.

If I’m right, it was probably the Cumorah pageant. We were in the area at the time, and I recall the Old Man threatening to lock me in the trunk of the car if I asked one more time, “Why don’t all those people just dig up the hill and find the gold plates?”

My parents both have diminished recall. Frankly, so do I. The hazy memory I have could have been channeling a Jethro Tull concert.

For much of my early life, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a thing with theater. Our cultural halls weren’t always used primarily for wedding receptions and basketball thuggery. Earlier buildings had a stage and curtains.

Wards were encouraged/ordered to develop what were called roadshows, small skits as a way of providing family entertainment. They were called roadshows because wards would trade off performing for one another.

The subject of these skits ranged from the gently humorous to the grim reinforcement of church doctrine.

I was a bit player in a few of these shows, including one in which a character told his parents that he wasn’t going on a mission and was subsequently struck by tinfoil lightning in sufficient strength to change his mind.

Then there was the roadshow in which the evils of rock ’n’ roll were illustrated by some of my friends dressed in rags and wigs. They pantomimed with fake guitars made from toilet seats and mop handles, while the drummer pounded garbage cans, all to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

The rest of us were strewn about the stage as if addled by drugs. The adults in the audience loved the message. I found it somewhat instructive later.

My last roadshow role occurred in 1973, while I was a missionary in Uruguay. The subject was a serious look at formal dancing. Boring.

For intermission, my district had put together a jazz number in which I played a high-jumping dwarf who could take off his hat with a foot. We were a riotous hit with the ward but hated by the other highbrow acts.

The need for live theater has lost ground in the church. For a short time, live roadshows were replaced with video recordings.

In 1985, I was asked to play “Nephite warrior No. 3” in a production of a chapter from the Book of Mormon. My internal agent advised me to turn down the role when the production coordinator offered me the job over the phone.

Her • “Well, would you at least pray about it, Brother Kirby.”

Me • “OK, just a sec. [Feigned mumbling.] Nope. Still a no-go.”

I realize that comes across as light-minded or even sacrilegious, but, in my defense, I came by a flair for the dramatic naturally.

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.