In 1967, at the “ripe old age” of 6, Milt Olsen attended the very first Mormon Miracle Pageant in the small central Utah town of Manti.
This month, as president of that pageant, he’ll preside over its last.
After 52 years of performances each summer, the Mormon Miracle Pageant — which tells the story of the original settlers to this area from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the stories contained in the faith’s scripture, “The Book of Mormon” — is being discontinued.
“It’s kind of one of those bittersweet things we get to do sometimes,” Olsen said. “But it’s been a fun ride.”
Every summer since 1967, church members in this Sanpete County community have put on the pageant. That first year, Olsen’s father was in the choir, and Olsen’s mother gathered up the kids and “drug us along” to watch the performance.
“I just have a couple of fleeting memories of that first pageant,” Olsen recalled on Tuesday by telephone from St. Louis, where he was on a business trip before flying home later in the day for dress rehearsals. “One, it rained, and it was at the county fairgrounds, so it made a lot of mud — which appealed to a 6-year-old.”
The other thing Olsen remembers was the story of a 14-year-old boy, Joseph Smith, who went into a grove of trees to pray and would eventually go on to organize the LDS Church.
“That line, and that picture on the stage of that boy in the grove, stuck with me,” Olsen said. “It’s one of my favorite memories of the pageant.”
The following year, the pageant moved across the street from the fairgrounds to just outside the church’s Manti Utah Temple. Olsen calls it one of those “nose-of-the-camel-in-the-tent” stories. Organizers got permission to use a flat spot on the west side of the temple grounds for the stage, as long as the audience was seated in the street just off church property.
“But by the third year it had moved to the south side of the hill, and everybody was on the temple grounds,” Olsen said.
In the ensuing five decades, the Mormon Miracle Pageant grew to hosting more than 15,000 people some nights, attracting upwards of 100,000 visitors each summer for the free production.
Olsen says his mother got quite involved in the pageant in those early years — she was the first makeup artist for the event — and the whole family participated in the production throughout his growing-up years.
After high school, Olsen moved away from Manti for a couple of decades, but he’s been back in the tiny community since 1999. And he, his wife and their eight children have been involved with the pageant ever since. Two years ago, Olsen took over as president of the pageant.
Although the church took control of the pageant 20-some-odd years ago, the community has continued to provide the all-volunteer army — roughly 1,000 cast members, 300 prop and technical crew members, and another 900 to assist with traffic control, ushering duties, meals, emergency medical services and maintenance — it takes to put on a spectacle of this magnitude.
In 2018, the church told local leaders it wouldn’t be supporting the pageant anymore from its headquarters in Salt Lake City.
“They gave local leaders the option to end, modify or continue the pageant,” Olsen said.
They decided to end it.
“I think the feeling was that the pageant was no longer meeting the specific spiritual needs of the local people who put it on or the people who came to see it,” Olsen said. “The metric they referred to was if you look at attendance over the first 35 years of the pageant, yearly it was in the 110,000 to 120,000 range. But over the last 10 years we’ve seen that steadily decline to about 75,000 people.”
Olsen said he thinks society has changed, and there are just too many other options for entertainment these days. He doesn’t think a live pageant resonates with people the way it once did.
Olsen said reaction to the news from locals has run the gamut.
“Sadness, disappointment — to relief,” he said. “There’s some of that ‘I finally get to do something else with my summer,’ too.”
Olsen suspects attendance will rally this year — now that they’ve announced this is the final year he’s seen a renewed interest in the pageant.
“We’ve set up every chair we could get our hands on, and we’re looking for more,” Olsen said. “This year we’ve put up 15,000 chairs, and we’re looking for a thousand more.”
Organizers concede there may be a small dip in the economy, but Olsen thinks businesses will be OK.
“We’ve got some hotels and motels, and three eating establishments, but it’s only eight nights,” he said. “Does eight days make or break a business plan? I don’t think it will.
“But then, I don’t own one of those businesses,” Olsen added.
The real loss, Olsen says, is the coming together of a community to accomplish something much bigger. Without the pageant, the locals won’t unite in a common goal the way they have for 52 summers.
Olsen thinks, eventually, something will come along to replace the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti.
“Nature abhors a vacuum. And there’s going to be a vacuum,” he said. “I suspect two or three years down the road something will come along, although I don’t know what it will look like and it will not be on the temple grounds.”
Personally, Olsen says the thing he’ll miss most about the yearly pageant is the interaction he’s had with his family as they’ve been a part of its preparation and execution.
“To have us all on the same page doing the same thing to the same end has been a great blessing to our family,” he said.
Over the years, three generations of Olsens have participated in the pageant, and this year a fourth is being added to that legacy. Three of the Olsens’ children are married with children, and living in the area, so 11 grandchildren will be a part of these final eight performances.
Olsen said the theme of this final year’s Mormon Miracle Pageant — fittingly, he believes — is “Come and See.”
“That’s a simple invitation,” he concluded. “Come and see, and invite someone who would benefit from the opportunity to come and see.”