MANTI — With a few thousand spectators looking on, Jacque Sorenson stood under the bright spotlight on Temple Hill and gave the opening prayer before the last dress rehearsal performance of the Mormon Miracle Pageant Wednesday night.
As a member of the makeup crew, the longtime Manti resident who was born the same year the pageant started in 1967 preferred to stay behind the scenes, but stoically accepted the invitation to pray anyway.
Among her eloquent words, Sorenson expressed gratitude for the last season of the pageant, a thought she had explained a short time earlier in an interview with the Deseret News.
Sorenson's feelings summarized well what many involved with the pageant have felt since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided to not continue four of seven large pageants last December.
"It's been part of my life since I can remember, and of course, the soundtrack will forever live in my brain," Sorenson said. "There's a part of relief that hey, maybe we're going to take a family vacation. There's sadness, but there's also acceptance, like that was a good run. … A lot of people have invested lifetimes, but it was something meaningful, so we can let it go."
The Mormon Miracle Pageant, with its rich, half-century history of nightly outdoor performances on the south hillside of the Manti Utah Temple, opens its final season tonight and runs June 14 and 15, then continues from June 18-22. Performances start at 9:30 p.m. Admission is free.
The nearly two-hour Latter-day Saint production recounts the Restoration of the gospel, featuring the life and experiences of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon — complete with Nephite-Lamanite battles and Jesus Christ's appearance in America — and the westward journey of the pioneers.
Although attendance has dipped from more than 110,000 to 75,000 in the last decade or so, Pageant organizers anticipate huge crowds for the final season. This year boasts the largest cast in the pageant's history at more than 1,100, with young people making up the vast majority, said Milton Olsen, the pageant's president.
How the pageant has spiritually influenced thousands of youth cast members is part of its legacy and one of the true miracles of the Mormon Miracle Pageant, Olsen said.
"Our youth are having missionary experiences and experiences with the Spirit," Olsen said. "That's really the most important miracle of all, that it touches hearts and lives in that way, besides those who come to view it."
Many years ago, Olsen was one of those youth. Not only has the president been around the pageant most of his life, but he comes from a four-generation pageant family. At age 15, he played one of his favorite roles as young Joseph Smith. He was selected because the director liked his blond, almost bleached, white hair. The experience cemented his testimony of the Prophet, he said.
Olsen recalled how the church introduced a new policy for cultural celebrations at the end of 2018. The church left the fate of the pageant to Manti area stake presidents who considered options "to appropriately end, modify or continue" the pageant.
"It came to pass, it served a purpose, and now it's time to move on," Olsen said. "I think next year we're going to kind of breathe a sigh of relief. But by the next year, I think we'll really start to say, man, we miss the what the pageant brought. It's going to be interesting to see what that brings. The final performance is going to be an interesting night."
A variety of cast, crew and community members shared their thoughts and favorite memories as they prepared for the final dress rehearsal on the eve of the final season.
Ken Olsen, 73, was the first to portray General Mormon on Temple Hill for several years, and this year he will be the last. His father, Richard Olsen, also played the same character for 34 years. His family has also been heavily involved with the pageant over the years.
During one memorable performance, when the lights shined high on the temple wall, the young man playing Samuel the Lamanite didn't show. He had been working for a local farmer all day, fell asleep and missed his cue. But the show went on.
"He felt so bad, it was terrible," Ken Olsen said. "The next year they asked me to do it and they had temple security back there with me to make sure I didn't fall asleep."
One miracle sometimes overlooked was how the pageant organizers figured out how to accommodate parking and provide food for the thousands of people who started showing up each year. It took a couple of years to figure it out, but local authorities worked with the pageant organizers to identify places for parking and how to direct flow so it people could get out faster. Two small hamburger stands were quickly replaced by a large barbecue turkey operation in the parking lot behind the Manti Tabernacle, Olsen said.
"I've said for years now the miracle of the Mormon Miracle Pageant has been that it gets pulled off every year," Ken Olsen said.
One community member who has appreciated the pageant over the years is Chris McIff, owner of The Manti House Inn Bed and Breakfast, across the street from Temple Hill. He and his family have been running the B&B for 19 years. June is one of their biggest months of the year, and patrons book rooms as early as January and February.
"It's a huge part of everything we do. You gear up every year for it and it brings in a lot of money to the city," McIff said. "So it's going to be sad to see it go."
When asked how the pageant's departure might affect his business, McIff said he would miss the pageant's "free advertising," but didn't seem overly concerned.
Jane Braithwaite, 89, served as assistant director of the pageant in the early years and still holds cherished, vivid memories. She said the pageant served as a spiritual awakening for many generations in the area.
"It has really changed our lives. How could we be so blessed as to witness all these marvelous things? I have seen so many miracles," she said before quoting verbatim 2 Nephi 27:23, in which the Lord proclaims he is a God of miracles yesterday, today and forever. "And see, that just fits the pageant, doesn't it?"
Braithwaite went on to say she's excited for the final season of the pageant but has also shed a few tears.
"It's been great but I feel like the past is prologued," she said.
One couple dressed up as Nephites, Ben and Alyssa David, came all the way from Germany to be part of the cast. As part of their experience, Alyssa David is writing a bachelor's thesis studying different aspects of the theater. The Davids have loved their experience.
"Just being with the young people we've got to have so much fun," Alyssa David said. "It inspires me."
Less than two hours before showtime, Lannette Nielson was sitting at a sewing machine making a last-minute adjustment to the Savior's white robe. It was one of 1,500 homemade costumes for the pageant, ranging from pioneer clothes to Lamanite warrior garb. What will become of all these costumes? It's still being decided, but some may be donated to drama departments at schools like BYU and BYU-Idaho. They might just park the trailer in front of her house, Nielson said with a tired smile.
"I'm hoping they keep some of them for youth conferences. They like to borrow some of the characters like Captain Moroni or Joseph Smith," she said. "So for these conferences, Relief Society or Primary programs. To me, that's valuable."
Two teens who stood out in their costumes were 6-foot-6 Cameron Crockett, 17, and Rawlee Mickelson, 16, who play Lamanite royalty, King and Queen Lamoni. They were most excited about being "cast missionaries." Before each performance, the cast goes into the crowd dressed in full costume to interact with the audience and share their faith.
"I'm going to stand out like a thorn. I'm about 8 feet tall with this headdress on," Crocket said. "It's an opportunity to share the gospel."
Douglas Barton, known to some as "Mr. Lighting and Sound," oversaw the last technical preparations by driving a golf cart while his sons took their positions in the spotlight towers.
A past pageant president, Barton was with the pageant when it started. He recalled how flies and mosquitoes flying around the lights would get caught and smashed on to the soundtrack reel tape. Crew members would have to clean them off, sometimes in the middle of the show.
One Friday night, the pageant had a huge crowd. A visiting General Authority Seventy was there on his first assignment. Less than 30 minutes before the show started, the computers controlling the lighting system failed to boot up. A call to tech support yielded no help. "They had never seen this happen before," Barton said. "Keep trying."
The crew said a prayer in the booth. The General Authority Seventy became aware of the problem and in his opening prayer, minutes before the show started, he petitioned the Lord to bless the technical aspects of the pageant that they will all function properly.
"When he said amen, both computers booted up," Barton said. "He and the Lord saved our necks. It reminds you you're not in control, you know?"
While waiting for the show to begin, Patti Long and her adult daughter Terry Hampton sat on the old pageant folding chairs playing a round of gin rummy. They hadn't been to the pageant in decades and decided to come to the dress rehearsal to avoid the larger crowds.
Hampton remembered coming 20 years ago and watching a meteor shower in the sky while the pageant was going.
"It was so cool. I just had to come back one more time," Hampton said.
Her mother has always been impressed with how the amateur cast and crew has always produced such a professional looking show. They will miss the pageant.
"We're sad to see it go," Long said. "But we can understand the reasoning behind it."