On July 23rd of 1967, a small crowd of about 2,000 people sat quietly chatting together in the early evening in the grandstands of the Sanpete County fairgrounds in Manti, Utah, and listened as rain fell on the metal roof above them. Two angry dark storm centers wheeled together overhead, and occasional flashes of lightning were answered with the sharp cracking and rolling of thunder. In the arena where broncos and bulls were ridden at fair time, the soft earth had been set with transplanted sagebrush, a grove of trees, and a wooden platform which served as a stage. The pioneer movement was represented by one handcart. Two Book of Mormon prophets, Mormon and Moroni, were seen on Temple Hill across the fences to the east, portrayed as a mortal on the west slope by Larry Stable, and as an angel on the temple annex by LeGrand Olson. Doug Barton had hung 100 watt light globes in gallon cans on steel posts to light the hill. Trees east of the fairgrounds had been trimmed to make the temple hill visible to the audience.
Directors for that first production were Helen and Morgan Dyreng, with Jane Braithwaite assisting. Communication between the set on the fairgrounds and those on temple hill was maintained by walkie talkie’s, hand-held by Lynn Nielsen and John Henry Nielsen. A twenty-five piece orchestra composed mostly of local musicians trained by Richard Nibley, would serve as accompaniment to the songs and incidental music used as background for the pageant. McLoyd Erickson, Evan Bean and Harry A. Dean were music directors, and Richard Nibley would play first violin using his imported instrument. A choir from Sanpete South Stake was seated on open bleachers. As they tried to protect their music from the light rain that was falling some wondered how much rain it would take to ruin a violin. One lone woman sat apart from the audience, oblivious to threatening storm, but reluctant to take shelter in the grandstand. When encouraged to come up into the protected seats she commented that this first night of the pageant was very crucial. ‘ ‘If it doesn’t go tonight,it will never go.” She chose to sit by herself in the rain.That woman was Grace Johnson. And although she felt that the initial presentation was vitally important, she could never have known the scope and grandeur that would come to the pageant, or the impact that it would have on the lives of people world-wide.
As time for the first presentation of the Mormon Miracle Pageant drew near, an air of expectancy was felt by those assembled. A roving dog trotted onto the stage area, and Grace, who was also known for her efforts in behalf of animals, and anxious that nothing disturb this fledgling production, called the dog to her and held it. As Stake President Vernon L. Kunz stood to give the opening prayer his supplication was simple and direct, and he prayed for the elements to be held in abeyance during the performance. Rain did stop falling as the pageant began and everyone was soon engrossed in the production as Duane and Martha Ryan stood at a portable lectern and read the words to the story written by Grace Johnson. Action suited to the spoken word took place in the setting before them. There was a boy kneeling in humble prayer in a grove, there was a hard cart and pioneers. There was dancing and laughter, heartache and dying, eviction from civilization, and triumph in the valleys of the mountains. Music from the chorus and orchestra supported the changing scenes, and lightning broke forth occasionally to emphasize the pathos of “twelve thousand homeless, under rain drenched skies.”Then as the pageant concluded, before everyone could get to their cars, the clouds broke apart, and rain not came down in torrents.
That first year was something those of us who were there will never forget. Even though it was modest by today’s standards, still that first performance was memorable, and many of us remember the warmth of the special spirit that has prevailed each year at the pageant. It is the spirit of peace and love and brotherhood to which people respond. The first stage was a raised platform directly in front of the grandstand at the Sanpete County Fairgrounds, draped with curtains borrowed from the Manti American Legion Hall. Plywood panels on the left of the stage hid the waiting cast from view of the audience. Both readers stood at one lectern. Make-shift spot lights in the grandstand focused on the stage, along with two Leiko lights from Snow College. Local square dance caller Merritt Bradley loaned his sound system. A “Ways and Means” committee was organized to raise funds for the pageant, with Claude Braithwaite as chairman. Donations of all kinds, including monetary gifts, supplies, materials and labor made those first years possible.
The second year the pageant was moved to a natural terrace on the south west slope of Temple Hill. Manti Temple President Bent Peterson agreed to have the pageant on the temple grounds with the understanding that no cars or vehicles could be brought into the area. All scenery and equipment had to be hand carried from trucks, backed up by the fence, to the stage area.The street immediately west of the temple grounds was blocked off for seating. Bleachers, moved from the fair grounds and additional chairs, brought by members of the audience, were placed in the street. The choir and orchestra were set up below the stage and again furnished background music as the scenes unfolded. Some of the scenes of the pageant took place on a wooden stage loaned by Snow College, and some on various areas higher on the temple hill. Two more locally built handcarts were used that year. The pageant was held in August in 1968, and it played for two nights. Threats of rain were still present, so the next year pageant dates were moved back to July to be nearer the anniversary of the arrival of the first pioneers in Utah.The move to the temple hill was a great step forward. However, tall trees partially blocked the spectators’ view, making it difficult to see the progression of the story. More than twice as many people saw the pageant the second year and there was a call for it to be repeated the next year. Permission was again given to use the temple hill, and the First Presidency of the LDS Church agreed to have a few trees removed to make the stage more visible to the audience. People were allowed to sit on the grass among the trees near the base of the hill, but equipment and staging still had to be carried in by hand. Even with additional seating, the crowds were so large that some in the streets had to stand.
Author Grace Johnson herself set the stage for the evolution of the Mormon Miracle from a one-woman show to the spectacle of drama, music and technical effects it became.”To fulfill itself, there must be in this pageant a free flow of ideas. It must improve from year to year. If there are better ways of telling the story, they should be used.”Some changes were forced by human circumstances. When the talented narrators of the first two seasons moved from the valley, replacements were sought. R. Clair Anderson called Francis Urry to narrate and asked him to recommend a female voice. He submitted the name of Macksene Rux. Mrs. Rux, who like Mr. Urry was an established artist in theatre and broadcast, had never been to Manti in her life. When contacted by telephone, she was initially reluctant to commit herself to the project. She later related that after hanging up the telephone she turned to her husband in disbelief at her own affirmative response. “Did I really say I’d do that?” She confesses that the only thing which kept her from immediately returning the call and declining the request was that she had forgotten the name of the man who called. For the two performances of the 1969 season, Macksene Rux and Francis Urry narrated the Mormon Miracle live in front of screens on either side of the stage. She never actually saw the performance. When she woke the following morning to return to Salt Lake City, her voice was gone. No cold, no soreness, but no voice. Stake President Vernon Kunz administered a blessing of health in which he was moved to say that she “had a mission to fulfill in Manti.”
In December of 1969, Macksene Rux became director of the pageant. Every summer from this time until 1988, Mrs. Rux took up a six-week residency in Manti. This was done at considerable personal sacrifice since she also had to consider the care of her husband, Andrew Rux, who had been confined to a wheelchair as the result of an accident. Mr. Rux was supportive of his wife and endeared himself to Manti residents and pageant staff by his unselfishness and patience. The first major undertaking by Mrs. Rux was to adapt the existing script into true pageant form. By June of 1970 she had completed that task, and had directed a professional sound tape to carry the voices, the music and sound effects of the pageant. The tape was produced at Bonneville International in Salt Lake City. Macksene Rux’ single mindedness and discipline served the pageant well for 20 years. She directed with enthusiasm and expected perfection. And her casts responded to that call. Vernon L. Kunz and his counselors, R. Clair Anderson and Milton G. Armstrong, were released. This group, along with committees and individuals from the communities of Ephraim, Manti and Sterling, had been primarily responsible for the pageant.
Rumors began to circulate that the Mormon Miracle Pageant might be taken from Manti to be presented somewhere else, with casting and all phases of the production to be professionally done. Those who knew of the rumors were concerned, and Mrs. Mabel Anderson, wife of Executive Committee Chairman R. Clair Anderson, wrote a letter on 10 March 1972, to Elder Mark E. Petersen in Salt Lake City, expressing her concern. It says in part: My husband told me something this morning that shook us to our very roots. And I can’t believe it might be true -that the most successful and beautiful thing we have ever done in our Stake, the pageant that has become such a labor of love from young to old could be taken from us. ..after shedding many tears I got the feeling I must write to you what I feel, and I know just speaking as a member of Sanpete South Stake that I express the feelings of nearly all, if they had the opportunity. I know you brethren will be inspired to do what is right and this letter may seem most presumptuous, yet -still, I feel that because you are “away” from our locale and might not understand all about our pageant and our feelings on the subject that you might not mind this “look” into our hearts, so I would surely appreciate it if you would read my plea: Mrs. Anderson continued with three full pages outlining the great dreams and hopes for the pageant, as well as the growth and development that came to those who were working with it. She concluded with the following: We believe that more and more our valley will become identified with The Mormon Miracle Pageant. That people will come again and again to renew their spirits and that visitors from allover the world will find their way to our hillside, that it will be the mecca for many a pilgrimage. We believe that each year will find more and more people taking the road leading to the pageant on the Temple Hill in Manti. Don’t take that dream away from us. Don’t take away the best thing our stake has tried to do, all working in unselfish devotion and dedication to The Miracle, getting involved in something beautiful that is OURS. On 11 March that same year, Grace Johnson wrote a letter to Elder Petersen, formally donating the use of the “Mormon Miracle’ , as she had written it to the LDS Church. She said: “The Mormon Miracle was freely given by the Lord and must be returned to Him just as freely for His blessing. The knowledge that I have done the right thing will give a peace of mind in my older years I couldn’t otherwise have known.”
In a Mormon Miracle planning meeting held at the Visitors’ Center on the Temple Hill in Manti 28 March 1972, under the Direction of Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Council of the Twelve, a new organization for the pageant was formed. Elder Peterson was unanimously approved as chairman and Elder Gordon B. Hinckley as vice chairman. Members of the Advisory Committee included Temple President Reuel E. Christensen, and Stake Presidents of the Region, Wilbur W. Cox, Ralph Blackham, Roger Allred, and Lamar Stewart, as well as Sister Grace Johnson. Macksene Rux was to continue as pageant director with Helen B. Dyreng and Jane Braithwaite as assistant directors. Eight additional committee members were R. Morgan Dyreng, Production Chairman; Larry Stahle; Elliott R. Braithwaite; Carol Braithwaite; Dorothy Gray; Leslie J. Anderson; Glen W. Lee; Vernon L. Kunz and Louis G. Trevort. President Wilbur W. Cox was designated as chairman of the Regional Advisory or Executive Committee. He has been followed by President Lee R. Barton and President Greg Maylett of the Manti Utah Stake. Elder Petersen promised favorable and immediate action on tree removal. Other business included a pageant budget of $15,000 from general church funds, improvement of roads, publicity, arrangements for restroom facilities, and the sale of programs. A final paragraph in those minutes states: “Priesthood leaders in the local stakes are to encourage their people to come the forepart of the week, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, reserving the week ends for those out of the immediate vicinity.” In keeping with the Church’s emphasis on Family Home Evening, Monday evening performances were discontinued.
In 1969, a twenty foot lower stage was constructed. Another lectern was built, and one was placed on either side of the stage. Grace Johnson gave her permission to add more Book of Mormon scenes to the pageant. New lighting and sound effects were furnished by BYU and Snow College; however, sound continued to be a problem. Cordless microphones were hung throughout the choir. Even with larger amplifiers, this did not fully solve the problem of evening winds blowing the sound away from the listening audience. The pageant played for two nights and drew crowds of about 5,000 people each night. That year, an alfalfa field and potato patch on the lower temple grounds were dug up and the ground leveled. Sprinklers were later installed and grass planted, and a few more trees removed. Grace Johnson, author of the Pageant, said, “We roll into the age of electronics,” as a new electronic sound track highlighted the pageant in 1970, insuring the sound against the vagaries of the weather. There were new challenges each year with the sound system being continually upgraded. Paintings used in pageant scenes, which included portable panels showing our world in its place in the universe, the rocks on the hill, a sacrificial altar, and temple used in the worship of a pagan god by a declining people, were directed by artists Osral Allred and Carl Purcell. Vernon Larson, LaRue Jennings, Ann Buchanan and other local artists assisted. The pagan altar and temple were designed and built on moveable wagons. (The world scene was replaced by a slide presentation in 1986.) LaRue and Ann found there were new painting and touch up jobs to be done each of the 17 years they served. Jim Aston painted the first signs used, and Lawrence Anderson of Gunnison constructed and painted most of the signs used in later years.
Pageant Chairman Morgan Dyreng remembers: “In the early history of the pageant we obtained chairs by borrowing them from wards and stakes from Richfield on the south to Spanish Fork on the north, with Brigham Young University always loaning us 1500 chairs. These people were very helpful and brought the chairs to us in trucks and also picked them up and took them home. Chairs were donated to the pageant by Promised Valley Outdoor Theatre when it was discontinued. Placement of chairs was under the direction of a committee headed by Girven Stott for many years. The last several years Steven Frischknecht has been chairman. Some scenery was given to the Pageant in 1970 by M. Russell Ballard from Valley Music Hall in Bountiful. Sets for the Nauvoo House, jail scene, bedroom and translation scenes were professionally designed and constructed by Fred Teichert and associates of Salt Lake City. Some who owned genuine buggy wheels sacrificed them for the pageant so that four more handcarts were added, giving a total of seven. That year the pageant played for 4 nights, with 35,000 people attending.
Again in 1972 major changes were made. Following the design of Church landscape architect, Irvin T. Nelson, a larger earthen stage was made and sod was laid on the stage area. Wings of the stage were extended to accommodate the larger cast.’ ‘One of the overwhelming things about the pageant is the wonderful cooperation we are receiving.” Mr. R. Clair Anderson, General Chairman, was quoted in the local papers of 13 July 1972. “Many, many people are coming forward and offering to assist in any way they can. The help is coming from far and near -in many ways -checks, labor, the use of equipment and facilities. We will never be able to thank personally the many people who are contributing to the success of this endeavor. “One of the more interesting things is the increasingly widespread attention the pageant is receiving.” Mr. Anderson commented, “Like the little ripples started when a pebble is tossed into a pond, the word about the pageant is reaching further and further. It is being spread by word of mouth, by announcements, by posters and articles and pictures and by radio and television newscasters. “As an example of the attention the pageant is receiving,” he said, “the Humble Oil Company has this year listed the Mormon Miracle Pageant in their publication, Happy Motoring, and in their magazine, Energy, as one of the outstanding outdoor theater attractions in America.”
The pageant has continued to receive national attention in a number of tourist publications including the American Bus Association, where it was listed as one of one hundred best productions to be seen in America. It has been included in the literature produced by the Institute of Outdoor Drama originating at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In December, The Institute of Outdoor Drama published attendance figures of 40 Outdoor Dramas for 1979. The Mormon Miracle Pageant had the highest average attendance per night. (Approximately 16,250), with a total attendance of approximately 130,000 for eight nights. Twelve dramas did not submit attendance figures for that year. Only two productions reported a higher total attendance. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival reported an attendance of 265,000 spread over 572 performances in three separate theaters; and The Great Passion Play reported 208,790 total attendance for 125 nights. With increased attendance, Elliott Braithwaite was called to be full time chairman of crowd management and Fred Carpenter and John Peacock were his assistants. They replaced Cal Nielsen, the local policeman. In recent years crowd management has been under the direction of Donald Olsen with Kenneth Jackson, Merrill Ogden, Alvin Green and Robert Stoddard as assistants. For the comfort of the large crowds, water fountains were manufactured by Walter Hansen and Sons, and placed near the pageant grounds. Portable restrooms in 40 ft. trailers were manufactured by L. & M. Trailer company in Ephraim, with Jay Cluff as engineer. These replaced chemical units that had proved unsatisfactory. Four trailers, each containing 15 units with flush toilet, individual booths, wash basins and power ventilators were built. Two inch lines brought water to these units, and sewage facilities were connected. A fifth unit was built for the 1991 season.
Two large light towers using good salvaged material were built in Salina in 1972. They were anchored in 6 foot deep 10 by 10 ft. holes with block concrete reinforcements. Miracles never ceased atop those 18 foot towers that beamed right on target on each dramatic scene of the Mormon Miracle Pageant. Wind, rain, threatening roll of thunder and imminent lightning did not deter David Cox or Douglas Barton and their crews of technicians from being at their nightly posts. In 1973 it was determined to extend the pageant for 8 nights in order to accommodate the large crowds who wanted to attend. For two years beginning in 1973, it was considered inappropriate to place a live ” Angel Moroni” on the west towers of the temple. The electronic tape was modified, a small “tower” was placed on the summit of the hill, and a new lighting effect was provided with 10,500 star-like lights being placed in 30 pine trees nearby. When the restriction prohibiting the use of the west tower of the Temple was withdrawn the small “Christmas lights” were no longer used. In 1980 the lighting system was improved again and in 1983 new light towers were built locally of angle iron to replace the old ones. With power booms to facilitate the lifting of heavy lights, they were designed so they could be raised and lowered without the use of a heavy crane. The new towers were designed by Loren (Mike) Worley, a Navy Engineer. Local contractors did the welding and electrical work. Much of the work was donated labor. Power lines for the pageant were put underground at this time also. Cliff Davis of Salt Lake City designed and constructed a new translation scene and donated it to the Pageant in 1987. A new bedroom scene was designed and built in 1990 by Jesse Birch and Tom Henretty. In 1978 Richard Olsen designed and built a large ramp leading from the upper stage to the stone stairway by the retaining wall south of the temple for Robert and Mary in the finale. Someone once said, “That must have been a lot of work to build the wall for the pageant.” Surely the Lord’s hand was in the making of a setting for the Mormon Miracle Pageant. The wide, sloping lawn under the shadow of the great temple offers peace and serenity, beauty and simplicity found in but few places on the earth.
The script for the Mormon Miracle Pageant came as an idea as the author, Grace Johnson, pondered man’s existence. “Why am I here? Where am I going? Is there a God? If a man die, shall he live again?” She answered her question because Jesus gave the answers in the Meridian of Time. Again when a boy (Joseph Smith) who went into the woods to pray. She wrote: “There ought to be a work portraying a picture of both Mormon theology and history in a single presentation. Not only fact but feeling. It’s so easy to become complacent and forget about the impact the ‘Mormon Story’ had on the settlement of America,” she said some years ago in an interview. “The story of the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or ‘Mormons’, with their constant movement westward, until they finally settled in what is now Utah, was a factor that completely changed the face of America.” They launched a thousand ships of immigration, flooding the New World with divergent cultures, bringing skills, trades and arts with them to meld a unique commonwealth as they worked together to make the barren desert blossom.”
She presented her lecture tour to service clubs in the eastern United States and thought she was probably the first Mormon woman to present the Mormon story from the lecture platform. Information of the success of the lecture tour reached L.D.S. Church Headquarters. Miss Johnson was requested to present her “Mormon Miracle” in the great Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, as part of the June Conference of the Church in 1947 which commemorated the centennial of the arrival of the first Mormon pioneers in Utah. From there, “The Mormon Miracle” was published by Deseret Book Company and was subsequently sponsored for a tour of L.D.S. Stakes 10 Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah, concluding with a presentation at the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City. Brigham Young University presented it in 1964 with a cast and narrators, and with music provided by a 75 voice choir. It was also presented as a baccalaureate service in the L.D.S. Church College of Hawaii. It might be said that the pageant is a product of many dreams and aspirations. It was quite a few years after Grace Johnson’s original lecture tour in New England, and after her historic presentation in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and subsequent lecture tour that Trevor and Clover Christensen, who were then working in an administrative capacity at the Church College of Hawaii, read Miss Johnson’s story of The Mormon Miracle as part of the graduation exercises.
On a later visit to Trevor’s mother, they again presented Grace’s Story in a South Ward Sacrament meeting in Ephraim. About the same time, a number of people in the area were discussing what could be done to hold a meaningful celebration on the 24th of July. It should be something that would help folks remember the events and great sacrifice that gave us life as we know it here in the mid-2Oth century. Some felt it might be fitting to return to the old time celebrations that would stir up a feeling of patriotism and love for the nation, as well as something that would help us to hold in sacred remembrance the sacrifices of those early pioneers who settled this valley, and the cause for which they came. It was felt that perhaps a day-long activity with a proper program, a parade, flag drills, racing and ball games would be symbolic of earlier celebrations. Maybe there could be a campfire in the evening, surrounded by square dancing and drama to help us remember who we are and why we are here. There was talk of having ice cold melon and other treats available. And then someone said, ‘ ‘Why not dramatize Grace Johnson’s Mormon Miracle?” It was as if many people were thinking along the same lines at the same time.