The first Mormon Miracle Pageant (MMP) performance took place on July 23, 1967, when 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, 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 broncs and bulls are 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, which were hand-held by Lynn Nielsen and John Henry Nielsen.
A 25-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. Ted Olsen ran up temple hill to blow his trumpet as Moroni made an appearance. Unfortunately, that part of the program was later cut.
A choir from the Sanpete South Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 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 the 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 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 years later.
As time for the first presentation of the MMP drew near, an air of expectancy was felt by those assembled. A roving dog trotted onto the stage area, and Johnson, 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 Church Stake President Vernon L. Kunz stood to give the opening prayer, his supplication was simple, 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 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 handcart 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 “12,000 homeless, under rain drenched skies.” Then as the pageant concluded, before everyone could get to their cars, the clouds broke apart and rain came down in torrents.
That first year was something those who were there will never forget. Even though it was modest by today’s standards, still that first performance was memorable and many remember the warmth of the special spirit that has prevailed each year at the pageant. It is the spirit of peace, love and brotherhood to which people respond.
The first stage was a raised platform directly in front of the grandstand at the old 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 southwest 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 fairgrounds 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 of 1968, and 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 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 viewed 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 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.
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 pageant continued to improve each year and became one of the largest and most attended pageants in the U.S. Even with additional seating, the crowds were so large that some in the streets had to stand.
Author Grace Johnson, 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.
Rux, who like Urry was an established artist in theatre and broadcast, had never been to Manti. When contacted by telephone, she was initially reluctant to commit herself to the project.
She later said 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 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, Rux and Urry narrated the MMP live in front of screens on either side of a stage. Fast forward to June 2016, when The MMP celebrated 50 years of continued performances. For 50 years the people of the Sanpete Valley have come together to serve in the Pageant.
The people have given freely of their time, talent, and other resources to make the Pageant enjoyable for those who come to view the miracles displayed on Temple Hill. Their volunteer service is what has made the Pageant possible each year.
Year after year, for over 50 years this service has continued. Most people thought it would be impossible to create such an event in a small community like Manti. Then many said it would only last a few years, yet it grew and grew as more people gave of their time to serve in the Pageant.
At one time there was an announcement that the 25th year was to be the last year of the MMP, but then 25 more years came and went. The Pageant meets the definition of a miracle because it can’t be explained by “natural or scientific law”.
Imagine 14,000 chairs neatly in place in less than two hours! Imagine a cast of over 900 coming together to present history. It really defies logic. It is a miracle!
It has been announced that this year, 2019, marks the final presentations of the Mormon Miracle Pageant. The 53rd season and final performances of the MMP will run June 13-15 and 18-22. Gates open at 6:30 p.m., performances begin at 9:30 p.m. Admission is free.
A big wish of appreciation goes out to all those who have served and contributed in countless capacities to make a dream come true for the many founding fathers and mothers of the Mormon Miracle Pageant.