Mesa Easter Pageant notes 60th anniversary

On a cool Easter morning in 1938, the youth of the Mutual Improvement Association from the Maricopa Stake presented a sunrise service on the grounds of the Arizona Temple as part of their hosting the annual M Men and Gleaner Girls state convention.

Few could have known then that what began near the pond, where the temple's image shows in perfect reflection, would someday grow into a beloved Easter tradition known throughout the world.This year the Mesa Easter Pageant commemorated its 60th anniversary with six performances, April 4, 7-11, and drew more than 120,000 people from across the U.S. and around the world.

"What's happening is that people are so impressed by the pageant's excellence that they communicate to their friends that they need to come and see it," said Douglas Holladay, pageant chairman. "It is becoming known throughout the world because, by accident or design, many people come to this major metropolitan area and see the pageant and then go home and tell others. The word of mouth just spreads and spreads."

The pageant today, which includes a cast of 400 and features ballet, music and drama to tell the story of Christ, is a sharp contrast to its humble beginnings.

In its infancy, the sunrise service was a choir presentation with narration highlighting the life of Christ. For 30 years it was an annual event that drew local families to the grounds of the temple to celebrate Easter Sunday.

In the late 1960s, the event expanded to include a series of still tableaus in which costumed cast members posed as living statues while a narrator read the story of Christ's life. These changes took place under the direction of the late Irwin Phelps, who wrote the original script.

Brother Phelps laid the groundwork and molded the Easter presentation over the next two decades into what would become one of the largest Easter pageants in the world.

Assistant Director Jaynie Payne, who has been involved with the pageant for 30 years, recalled that during the early years of the pageant, the stage sat atop cotton trailers and the curtains were raised by stage helpers who tied ropes around their waists and jumped off the back.

Over the years the production grew and took on more pageantry. The sunrise service eventually moved to evenings during the week prior to Easter and to its current stage, which is 40 feet high and 200 feet long. Computers now run state-of-the-art sound and light systems.

Opening night is presented entirely in Spanish, with the remaining five nights in English. The soundtrack features original music and orchestrations by composers Wanda West Palmer, Robert C. Bowden and Russell Wilson. The London Symphony Orchestra, the Mormon Symphony and the University of Utah Chamber Singers perform recorded music.

Members of the cast, dressed in colorful costumes, re-enact scenes from the life of Christ from His humble birth to His glorious resurrection. In a spectacular finale this year, Matt Hale, portraying Christ, was raised 20 feet from the top of the stage, more than 60 feet above the audience.

Although the pageant has undergone changes through the years, those involved behind the scenes say the motivation is always the same - "to tell the Easter story and to bring others to Christ."

And for many people who come to see it, as well as those who make it all possible, the pageant continues to touch hearts and strengthen testimonies.

"It is a very powerful presentation," said Tom Bottomley of Mesa, who saw the pageant this year with his family. "I definitely felt the Spirit. I think the audience felt it, too, because everyone was very quiet and reverent.

"I want my children to be involved in these spiritual, uplifting experiences," the father of five said. "These are the things they'll remember forever and it will shape their testimonies.

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