SALT LAKE CITY — The final decision to end four of seven large, Latter-day Saint pageants could spur massive crowds to attend the last performances of the faith-promoting events.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Wednesday that, beginning immediately, it has discontinued two biennial pageants in Utah — the Castle Valley Pageant, which had been held in even-numbered years, and "Martin Harris: The Man Who Knew," which was performed in Clarkston in odd-numbered years.
But two other pageants will take curtain calls before bowing out.
"The Mormon Miracle Pageant" in Manti will end after its June 2019 season. The final performances of the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, New York, will be held in July 2020.
And if pageant producers learned anything this year, it's that even a temporary end to a pageant can drive audience.
The Mesa Easter Pageant in Arizona is one of three pageants the church will continue to support, but it is on hiatus in 2019 and 2020 due to the renovation of the Mesa Temple.
"Attendance there essentially doubled last spring in the face of the pageant shutting down for two years," Manti Pageant president Milton Olsen said. "Does that mean our attendance will double for our final season in June? Probably. We're discussing how to plan for that."
Three pageant sites will continue to operate with varying levels of church support:
• Two pageants held outside the Nauvoo Illinois Temple will continue with support from church headquarters. The Nauvoo Pageant is about persecution of early Latter-day Saints who fled to the area. "Truth Will Prevail" is about early church members in the British Isles.
• The British Pageant in Chorley, England, will continue every four years under area leadership; the next performance is scheduled in 2021.
• The Mesa Easter Pageant will resume in 2021 under area leadership.
Church leaders announced in October that they were reconsidering the pageants and communicating with community leaders. The decision to scale back on pageants was made to simplify efforts, according to an update issued Wednesday.
Several of the pageants required more than 1,000 volunteers. In 2011, the director of the Hill Cumorah Pageant said it required more than 200,000 hours of volunteer service for cast and crew.
"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," Wednesday's statement said. "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."
Olsen said the 2018 Manti Pageant utilized about 700 volunteer cast members with a support crew of about 300.
Many people are sad about the end of the show that brought to life scenes from the Book of Mormon, early church history and the lives of pioneers who settled the Sanpete Valley. Olsen himself attended the first Manti Pageant in 1966 as a 6-year-old.
For the first three decades, local Manti congregations funded the event. When church leaders told pageant organizers last month that the local stakes again would need to fund it, they at first assumed they would.
Two major hurdles existed beyond funding. First, the pageant soundtrack needed an update.
"The soundtrack will be 50 years old next summer," Olsen said. "It was recorded at the end of the drama radio era. The elegant language used then doesn't connect with the Millennial generation the way it did with the original audience. Also, this generation has more entertainment options."
Attendance in Manti once exceeded 100,000 per year. It had plateaued recently at about 75,000.
The soundtrack question created the possibility of a new or significantly overhauled story. Church headquarters did indicate a willingness to help with the cost of an update, Olsen said.
Second, he said, the church's temple department requested the pageant be moved off the Manti Temple grounds.
Stake presidents and women leaders met to discuss the issues and decided the time was right to end the pageant after the 2019 season.
"As that decision was made," Olsen said, "there was almost a sigh of relief from those in the meeting."
The decision will open some free time in the summer for hundreds of teenagers, who make up 70 percent of the cast but had to commit to giving the entire month of June to the pageant, then stack youth conferences and camps into July before beginning sports and band and other practices in August as school approached.53 comments on this story
Local businesses will lose their eight biggest days of the year, Olsen said, but few relied solely on that income. Some local organizations that relied on funding from barbecue dinner sales will take a hit.
"In a small community, those are certainly significant dollars," Olsen said.
There also will be significant memories, the kind that will bring thousands back this summer to relive their experiences at the pageant with their children or grandchildren one final time.
"It's going to be the end of an era," Olsen said. "It was a significant part of my life and a great blessing in my life."