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The quiet country hillside between the tiny communities of Palmyra and Manchester came to life July 13 with the opening of the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant - the oldest and longest running outdoor drama in America.

Nearly 100,000 visitors were expected to see the production, which tells the story of the migration of ancient people from Jerusalem to the North American continent, and climaxes with a visit of the resurrected Savior.The seven-night pageant, in its 53rd year, included a volunteer cast of nearly 600 amateur actors and actresses from throughout the United States and Canada. Performances began at dusk Friday, July 13 and extended nightly except Sunday and Monday through July 21. The 75-minute production was performed before audiences as large as 20,000.

More than 1,000 volunteer Church members donate their time, pay their way and work hard during a week of practice and a week of production to make the show a success, said Darshan Dawson, press relations manager for the pageant.

"We spend months in planning and preparation, and then we only have a week with the entire cast to put it together," said Gerald Argetsiger, pageant director. "It's a challenge and a lot of hard work, but I look forward to it every year."

Brother Argetsiger, associate professor of dramatic literature at the National Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is the first local director in the pageant's history.

A resident of nearby Rochester, he served as first counselor in the pageant presidency until his call as director this year.

The pageant includes the music of Crawford Gates, pre-recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony.

This year's production completed the final phase of a three-phase plan to create an entirely new production. Changes, which began in 1988, include restaging, re-costuming and rescripting.

The Hill Cumorah Pageant is staged where young Joseph Smith received from the Angel Moroni the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

Costumes used in the production are hand-made from linen, wool, silk, leather and brass. Beards and wigs are hand-crafted with real hair.

Seven modular stages cover an area that is about half as large as a football field. A state-of-the-art lighting and sound system includes more than 500 lights on ten 50-foot towers and dozens of speakers.

"We try for artistic excellence in every sense of the word, with professional support that makes the amateur cast look good," Brother Argetsinger said.

"It's how everything comes together to make a statement that we really believe is important. It has to do with spiritual things, and it's been my experience that the spirit you feel up on the Hill during pageant season is unlike anything else, anywhere."