On warm July nights beneath the stars, the production unfolds on eight connected stages, with actors braving fireballs and artificial rain to perform scenes from the Book of Mormon, a sacred text.
Water cannons fire. Thunder booms through colossal speakers. A man portraying Jesus Christ descends from the heavens, hooked to a fly system 70 feet above the audience. It’s a hell of a show.
Billed as America’s longest-running outdoor religious drama, the Hill Cumorah Pageant is, in a manner, totally outrageous—an artistic binge with a cast of more than 700, some of who play multiple characters.
One actress, sharing memories on a blog commemorating the pageant’s 75th year, described her experience this way: “I was a Nephite Dancer and a Destruction Stunt Victim. I got to die in an incredibly dramatic way that included a giant fireball and leaping down a short flight of stairs and tumbling to the ground. It was great!”
But behind this spectacle, the show has deeper meaning. The Hill Cumorah, some 20 miles southeast of Rochester, is the birthplace of the Mormon religion. This is the spot where the prophet Joseph Smith is said to have received the words of the Book of Mormon from an angel in 1827. The shop that printed the first copies of the sacred tome is a five-minute drive away, in the town of Palmyra.
The pageant, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer, invites believers and nonbelievers alike to revisit these oft-forgotten events in Upstate New York history.
While the show draws a mostly Mormon crowd, everyone is welcome, said Christopher Bjorling, second counselor in the pageant presidency and one of the production’s organizers.
“We have friends bringing friends,” he said. “We have tour groups, tour buses.”
“You don’t need to know anything about Mormonism, about the pageant, to go and enjoy it,” said Jerry Argetsinger, a playwright and theater professional who directed the performance for eight years in the 1990s.
The show—which is parodied in scenes in Broadway’s Book of Mormon musical—embodies the strait-laced, can-do culture of the Mormon church: It’s extravagant, yet fervently spiritual, and run completely by volunteers.
On pageant nights, spectators amass by the thousands on the lawn below the hillside, flopping down on picnic blankets or taking a seat in steel-framed chairs.
Vendors sell burgers, hot dogs, chicken dinners, salads, salt potatoes and fruit. Lemonade is available. (No wine or beer—this is, after all, a Mormon party.)
For two hours before the performance, actors roam the grounds in wardrobe, greeting early arrivals. Missionaries circle as well, sharing information about the Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).
Then it’s time for the show.
“Even if you’re not a member of the faith and you don’t buy off on the religiosity of it, it is a grand show.” — Gail Argetsinger, former pageant costume designer
In its first year, 1937, missionaries staged the show with only headlights for illumination, said Argetsinger, who penned a history of the pageant for the Journal of Book of Mormon studies.
The article chronicles the production’s growth, recounting how it grew ever more flamboyant as legions of Mormon volunteers donated time and talent.
Famed Mormon composer Crawford Gates scored music, which was recorded by groups including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Other professionals within the church wrote the script, built sets and crafted publicity.
In 1991, the show became a community affair, with local groups like the Rotary and Lions clubs invited to sell snacks and meals to crowds to raise money.
The pageant in its current form owes much of its glitz and grandeur to the work of Argetsinger’s wife, Gail. A costume designer at SUNY Brockport, she was called upon by the church to outfit the cast in 1980.
The pageant tells a story that opens in 600 B.C., when God commands a prophet named Lehi to flee Jerusalem for a promised land, the Americas, where his people can lead a righteous life. Lehi’s sons make the voyage and establish two nations of people, the Nephites and Lamanites, who forget their roots and grow wicked with time.
To paint these scenes, Gail studied the dress of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, even traveling to Washington D.C. to browse the Smithosonian Museum’s private collections of feathered capes, Aymara weavings and other artifacts.
From her hands and her imagination, a world of characters bloomed—crowned kings, leather-clad armies, dancers draped in brass and gold.
“I had a group of friends who would come over to my house, and we would cut out the costumes and package them with explicit instructions, with all of the pieces and the details and doodads that got sewed on them and everything,” she recalls. “[These instructions] got shipped off to congregations throughout the Eastern United States.”
The wardrobe, like the play itself, was a jewel box of color. The details were whimsical, the vision grand. When a local family donated antlers, Gail converted the horns into headgear. Barbara Williams, a colleague, crafted wigs and beards by hand.
Though Gail concluded her pageant work in 1997, her designs, with all their flourishes, set the tone for future productions. In all, she created more than 3,000 costumes.
“It’s just a beautiful, spectacular show,” she said.
“It’s kind of like visiting St. Peter’s in Rome—it’s a sense of pilgrimage.” — Jerry Argetsinger, former pageant director
In contrast to the pageant, the Hill Cumorah is a humble monument.
A flight of concrete steps climbs to the top, leading visitors to a bronze statue of the angel Moroni, which crowns a pillar of snow-white granite.
One of the memorial’s most moving parts is the view—a sprawling panorama of fields and verdant forests.
From this quiet land, the Mormon church radiated outward, moving westward as it gained new converts.
The religion did not spread peacefully; as Mormons grew in number and political power, they became the target of raids by neighbors and vigilantes, and also inflicted attacks of their own. After Smith was killed by a mob in Illinois in 1844, a church leader named Brigham Young led the Mormons west to Utah.
The first group of believers reached the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, which Mormons celebrate as Pioneer Day.
The Hill Cumorah Pageant is one of many LDS festivities that occur around this time each year. The event is a homecoming of sorts for the thousands of Mormons who travel from afar to attend.
Bjorling and Stephen Free, a former pageant actor and past president of the Buffalo LDS stake, call a trip to the Hill Cumorah a historical experience for Mormons, akin to the way any American might journey to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell.
“It’s kind of like visiting St. Peter’s in Rome—it’s a sense of pilgrimage,” said Jerry Argetsinger. “You feel like you’ve been someplace special and have witnessed an exciting show.”
The spirituality that surrounds the pageant is one thing that has never changed, even as the script and score and special effects have evolved.
The entire cast comprises Mormon families who travel on their own dime to perform in the show. Casting and rehearsals begin just a week before opening night, but even with all that needs to be done, each day includes two devotionals, during which actors read scripture and sing hymns.
Many participants say their favorite part of the pageant is the scene when Jesus Christ, resurrected, visits the Nephites and Lamanites in 34 A.D.
“It just felt so real, like you were really there,” said Trish Alessi of West Seneca, who performed in 2005 with her husband and four daughters. “It was just so powerful.”
“The Book of Mormon is one of my favorite books in the world, said Gail Argetsinger, the costume designer. “It tells a fantastic story of conflict between good and evil people who are struggling to do the best they can, and who are looking forward to the coming of Christ.
“And then he visited them,” she continued, a note of reverence in her voice. “And I really believe that.”
Opening night this summer was July 13.
The show continues for most of the following week, and you’re invited.
Late each evening, the sky will darken. Lights will illuminate the Hill Cumorah. The audience, sprawled at the foot of the slope, will go quiet.
And, as it has each summer for nearly 75 years, the pageant will begin.
The Hill Cumorah Pageant is free and open to the public
Location: 603 State Route 21, Palmyra, N.Y. 14522
Time and dates: 9 p.m. on July 13, 14 and 17-21
Robert Salonga, a crime and public safety reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in the San Francisco Bay Area, edited this story. Thanks, also, to Cory Nealon for taking a look at the lead.