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Lord opened doors for pageant

CLARKSTON, Cache County — Denzel Clark remembers sitting with Valdo Benson on the Clarkston Cemetery hill, anxiously watching for headlights, hoping enough people would come to see the town's Martin Harris pageant to reward the townspeople for their mighty efforts.

When the cars came, one after another after another, it was very much like the famous scene from "Field of Dreams," Clark said.

In hindsight, he's not sure why he ever worried. The Lord has been watching out for the pageant since its inception.

Over the years, as Clark watched LDS Church general authorities and government leaders step in to get a memorial built to Martin Harris but also to see to it that an amphitheater was created for "The Man Who Knew" pageant, he became convinced that it was something the Lord wanted to see happen.

"Our Father in Heaven actually opened all the doors. I was just in a certain place at the right time," said Clark — the former pageant president who is often credited with "starting" the pageant.

Clark, a retired locomotive engineer, was the mayor of Clarkston in 1978 when the community pageant was introduced for Cache Valley area residents as a way to showcase Martin Harris' life and sacrifice. (Today the pageant is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

Harris, one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon who helped finance its first printing, has a number of direct descendants in the area. In fact, a representative of the family organization comes each night of the pageant to talk with visitors about their heritage.

"It is really a blessing to our family," said Steve Harris, a direct descendant. "Before they started the pageant, we knew very little about Martin. Most of what we know is from Rhett James' research."

Martin Harris and his story are Clarkston's claim to fame, evidenced by the pageant, the memorial and the passion of the community toward preserving his memory.

But Clark was the one who asked James to write a script, Duane Huff to direct and Benson to produce the pageant. Community members rallied around to be part of the show.

Since the city owned property adjacent to the town's cemetery, that became the pageant's home, dedicated by then-President Ezra Taft Benson.

"We had a committee without a chairman at first. It became a regional, then an area, then a full-church pageant. They needed a chairman and I was invited to be it," Clark said.

He was later officially called and set apart as the president of the pageant, where he served until 2001.

Along the way, he involved several notables, including University State University professors, former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, Utah Supreme Court Judge J. Allen Crockett, Elder L. Tom Perry, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin and President Benson. (President Benson is the brother of Valdo Benson.)

"It didn't really mature until after the flood of 1980," Clark said. He said the people were, at that time, worn out spiritually and physically, exhausted from trying to save their farms and livestock from rising water. The pageant gave them something to rally behind, a distraction and a purpose.

Matheson offered Utah National Guard assistance. Elder Perry became interested in the project after Clark met him at a local shopping mall and told him they really needed an amphitheater.

Nearly 30 LDS stakes donated money to the Harris memorial and Utah State University President Stanford Cazier helped the pageant producers secure scaffolding and other stage props.

For a time, the USU orchestra provided music for the show, but the rapid changes from hot to cold weather made it too difficult to keep instruments in tune, so that was disbanded.

Today, church sound trucks are dispatched every season to help make the technical production more consistently professional.

The three-hour show was pared back to an hour and 15 minutes. Several scenes, including a scene with a team of horses on stage, had to be cut.

"Oh, we miss the horses," Clark said.

Each year a wooden town is erected on the Martin Harris Memorial Stage, a set that so often has been threatened by severe winds that many pieces are anchored to the stage with ropes.

"One year, we had winds come through that tore up the set. People came from all over with their tractors and their cars to help," Clark said. "To tell you the truth, I happened to be out there one time when we had a missionary booth up there. It was beautiful. But there came this tremendous wind and clouds. The trees just bent over. I saw the booth rise up in the air and move 100-200 feet before it fell back to the ground. It demolished it."

Another time, President Benson was expected.

The storm clouds looked pretty threatening, and Valdo Benson called Clark to see if the show would be canceled.

Clark took a leap of faith and told his director and cast to go ahead.

"We held the pageant and there was lightning all around but the rain held until the show was over and President Benson was in his car," Clark said.

The 125 cast members rehearse from as early as January to August for the two-hour production.

The pageant is put on only in odd-numbered years now. The 2009 show plays through Aug. 21 starting at 8:15 p.m.

Call Don Jeppesen at 435-245-3501 or see www.martinharrispageant.org for information.