Mormon pageants are big business!


Hill Cumorah thrills more than audience

Mormon pageant deepens ties, faith of hundreds who take part

James Goodman
Staff writer

(July 13, 2006) MANCHESTER Jessica Black, a 20-year-old college student, flew here from Phoenix to have the Hill Cumorah experience.

Corbett Carrel, 18, drove from Doylestown, Pa. to rural Ontario County, where the Book of Mormon was said to be discovered.

Earl Hilton, 40, drove 13 hours with his family from Greensboro, N.C., to see the pageant that he helped with as a teenager.

The Hill Cumorah Pageant, which starts Friday, is a draw not only for the tens of thousands who watch this outdoor performance telling how the Mormon religion began but also for the more than 600 Mormons who volunteer for the cast.

The pageant is now in its 71st year and attracts people from almost every state. By the time of the last curtain call on July 22, 50,000 to 80,000 people are expected to have attended. Last year, 128 tour buses came from states such as Florida, Utah and California.

Many want to be at the site where more than 175 years ago Joseph Smith Jr. is said to have found and translated the Book of Mormon. Others of different faiths want to experience the free outdoor pageant, with its dazzling special effects and soundtrack.

The pageant, located a couple of miles north of Thruway Exit 43 and four miles south of Palmyra, consists of seven evening performances, each running about 75 minutes. The first is at 9 p.m. Friday. A dress rehearsal, open to the public, is scheduled for tonight.

"It's like having a family reunion and everyone is getting along," said Dan Cross, 41, who first attended as an 11-year-old from Delaware and is now back to perform with his family from Lucas, Texas.

Tourism officials from Ontario and Wayne counties say that the pageant is a big boost to the local economy, although there are no hard figures showing how much Hill Cumorah brings in tourist dollars.

"It's really a large impact for the region," said Christine Worth, director of tourism for Wayne County

Economic benefits

Hotel and motel rooms in the area are hard to come by, and visitors eager to learn about the Mormon history of western New York take side trips. Some store owners along Main Street in Palmyra tell how sales rise during festival week. Les Thomas, owner of the Candy Corner Fudge Square, said that sales, normally about $700 a week, rise to about $1,100 a week.

"It brings in a lot more traffic," added Bethany Haswell, owner of Kavanagh Books. The store has a bookcase of Mormon titles and finds a big demand for books about the Erie Canal.

Palmyra Mayor Vicky Daly noted that the canal is extremely important to Mormons because that was how the press that printed the Book of Mormon got to Palmyra and because Smith's father and brother each worked on the canal.

Jay M. Linford, a Mormon from Arizona, recently moved to Main Street with his family to open a print store, Experience Press. The store is on the same block as the Grandin Building, where the Book of Mormon was first printed.

Linford, too, hopes to benefit from the influx of tourists. His store's shelves are stocked with bound copies of the Book of Mormon.

Between the village and Hill Cumorah on Route 21, the Palmyra Inn opened last August. Tricia Cox, manager of the motel, said that the 60 rooms are expected to be filled for the pageant.

Five Rotary and Lions' clubs from the area, Daly noted, sell food at the pageant and make about $50,000 a year for community programs.

Practicing for the pageant

Zion's Camp, located near the foot of Hill Cumorah, has become the temporary home for as many as 300 of the participants, including Cross, his wife, Aimee, 40, and their three children. Outside the tent, a greeting sign bears the family name.

Aimee Cross made the drive from Texas with her children in 23 hours. Dan Cross, a vice president for a high-tech firm, Microtune Inc., joined them at the camp site last Friday.

Both parents had previously been at the pageant she came as a participant 21 years ago.

This time around, the entire Cross family must participate. The rules of the pageant require that if the parents participate as actors, so must their children.

At the casting Saturday, Dan Cross was selected to play the Angel Moroni, who leads Joseph Smith to the sacred writings. Aimee Cross will play a follower of Prophet Lehi who arrived in the New World somewhere in the Americas from Jerusalem. Two of their children will play adversaries of the prophets, while the third child will play a supporter.

"This helps us to personalize what we read about in the Book of Mormon," Dan Cross said.

At the casting, six directors, who work with theater companies around the country, are assisted by two choreographers and a battle master, who helps direct the two battles.

But unlike A Chorus Line, every one of the 623 Mormons selected for the pageant gets a part.

What the audience hears is a soundtrack with the voices of professional actors. The music is sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a youth choir, noted Toi Clawson, a spokeswoman for the pageant. The actors are trained to lip-sync and have been rehearsing daily since Sunday.

Next to the Clawson tent at Zion's Camp is the Hilton family's tent. Earl and Kari Hilton made the 13-hour drive with six of their seven children in a minivan. Their oldest son, Baydon, 17, was already here assembling the stages, just like his father did when he was a teenager.

Earl Hilton, who is an assistant vice chancellor at North Carolina A&T State University, was selected to play the role of Mormon, one of the prophets, while Kari Hilton will play two roles a worker carrying a basket celebrating the harvest in the New World and a warrior-dancer.

Even their 15-month-old daughter, Annika, will be on stage for the descension of Christ.

"We still have to keep an eye on her while we're practicing," Kari Hilton said.

Baydon is working the wires that hold the actor playing Christ.

Kari Hilton speaks of the experience in spiritual terms, but added, "It's a great family vacation."

Black, who received an associate's degree from Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, and will be continuing her studies at Brigham Young University-Idaho, will carry a banner in the play.

"I just want to have this experience," she said.

Carrel, who just graduated from high school, felt much the same. Once he turns 19 in December, he plans to spend a couple of years as a Mormon missionary.

"I just want to share the church with people," Carrel said.

True Christianity: For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24.