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Mormon Pageants Exit Stage Left

Photo of pageant participants.
Curtis Whitear for KUER
/
The Hilton family performed in the Hill Cumorah Pageant together during the summer of 2017.

Mormon pageants — big theatrical dramatizations of church history and scripture stories — have been part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for nearly 100 years. But a recent announcement from Church leaders said their days are numbered.

https://vimeo.com/298014416">A Mormon Pageant from https://vimeo.com/curtiswhitear">Curtis Whitear on Vimeo.

“Theatrical pageants are a very, very dated form,” said Megan Sanborn, a professor of theater who spoke with filmmaker Curtis Whitear for a recent RadioWest production.

These pageants are put on by volunteer actors across the country in places with large Mormon populations or ties to Church history.

One of the most famous is the Hill Cumorah Pageant in upstate New York that takes place every summer. It’s a reenactment of Joseph Smith discovering the gold plates that would later become the Book of Mormon.

The actors are decked out in full costumes — often culturally insensitive — as they act out scenes from the Book of Mormon with a Native American slant.

The music is loud, there are bright lights and even flames spewing from the ground at some points.

Sanborn said that back in the early 1900s, pageants like this were the exciting new thing in America. Although their popularity died out, Mormons have kept them alive. They serve, in part, as a spiritually uplifting experience for those volunteering, and as a way to spread the message. But Sanborn doesn’t see the latter happening anymore.

“If you’re not Mormon these are weird,” Sanborn said. “They don’t work anymore as proselytizing tools, I don’t think.”

It seems that Mormon leaders may agree.

The Church recently announced that these types of pageants will be phased out churchwide and that the last performance of the renowned Hill Cumorah Pageant will be the summer of 2020.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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