Judging from the opening nights, this year's Hill Cumorah Pageant was set to be a tremendous success. With an estimated audience of 30,000 people, 560 missionary referrals, and 60 tour buses, the pageant's first two nights, July 11 and 12 got off to a good start. An estimated 61 percent of the audience are not members of the Church.
(Except for Sunday and Monday nights, the pageant runs through July 19.)Even "Press Day" on Wednesday, July 9, drew an unprecedented response from the media. Attending were representatives from eight television stations, nine radio stations, and reporters from all the major cities as well as many of the small villages of upstate New York. The pageant always receives great media coverage, but this year media response was enhanced by the announcement carried by the Associated Press, CNN, Good Morning America and all the local media that Donny Osmond, who has been breaking box office records in Toronto as the star of "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," would be trying out for a part.
Director Jerry Argetsinger said to the media: "This is not the Hill Cumorah Pageant starring Donny Osmond." And the performer, one of the Church's most visible members, confirmed the statement by telling the press, "The star here is the Hill Cumorah Pageant."
The great surprise to the media was that the famed performer had to try out for a part just as did everyone else in the cast. "There were two others trying out for the part of Samuel the Lamanite, and they were good," he said. There were 640 chosen to be in the pageant out of 1,800 applications.
Brother Osmond told the media that he had not renewed his contract to play "Joseph" in Toronto because he wanted to be with his family. "This was a family vacation decision," he said. "My oldest son will be going on a mission soon, and we wanted this special time together at the pageant. I want to take a backseat to my family here. The family institution in is in jeopardy today, and more attention needs to be given to it."
He said that his family had visited the pageant two years ago and it was then they realized that this would be a faith-promoting experience for the entire family.
Because of all the expansive news coverage, a great deal of excitement has been generated for the pageant in upstate New York. There are 8,500 seats on the pageant grounds and room for an additional 6,000. People were arriving as early as noon opening day.
The annual pageant is celebrating its 60th year. Attending the pageant was an 87-year-old veteran of the first pageant in 1937, Walter Dibb, now of Holladay (Utah) 4th Ward. He played the part of Alma.
It has been estimated that 25,000 people have performed in the pageant since its opening. People from throughout the world come to act and watch performances each year. The Palmyra Courier and Journal reported: "Our little village is known throughout the world because of the religious significance of the events that occurred here."
Two years ago the Hill Cumorah pageant was likened to the famed Oberammergau in Germany by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. The article said: "Staging the Hill Cumorah Pageant on this holy site, with the statue of Moroni glittering atop the hill, roughly equals staging Oberammergau at Lourdes."
Director Argetsinger said: "If this were professional theater, it would take six weeks to cast 640 people. We do it on Saturday morning and we're in rehearsal by afternoon and have a full run through in costume by Wednesday, and on Friday night the pageant goes on."
"It's a miracle," said reporter Doris Wolfe of the Democrat and Chronicle. "I work in theater. I know what it takes. It's an incredible feat."
This will be the last year for Brother Argetsinger as pageant director. He has been director for eight years. He and his wife, Gail, costume designer, have been with the pageant for 20 years. "The Hill Cumorah Pageant has been our family project all these years," he said. It has lived in our home. Our two boys have grown up with it. It will be difficult to leave."
Sister Argetsinger estimates that she has made 3,000 new costumes in the past eight years. She has designed costumes this year for Jewish Community Center and other productions and, a few years ago, was nominated for the prestigious "Dora" award for costume design in Canada.
Brother Argetsinger is a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and will be directing "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" at Big Stone Gap in Appalachia this summer. Roger Sorenson, a teacher of theater arts at BYU, will succeed Brother Argetsinger as Hill Cumorah Pageant director. He also has been at the pageant for 20 years and has worked as assistant director to Brother Argetsinger.
Rick Josephsen, special effects director for the pageant and a Hollywood special effects director, has made some major changes in the design of the Tree of Life scene. "I want it to be more symbolic of the light the Savior gave to the world. He is special effects director on the sets of television's "Touched by an Angel" and "Promised Land," both of which are filmed in Utah, primarily in Salt Lake City.
The visit of Donny Osmond and his family to the pageant this year has made a tremendous impact on the community. "Every family should have an opportunity to do this at least once," he said of attending and participating in the pageant. "The blessings are immeasurable. "