MANCHESTER — For over seven decades, the two-week period each July when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hosts its annual Hill Cumorah Pageant is billed as one of the largest theater productions in the world.
More than 760 volunteers participate, with many coming from the Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse areas — and, they come at their own expense. Within hours of arriving, they are cast into 1,200 roles. The cast is supported by a volunteer staff of 150.
After just six days of rigorous rehearsals, the show opens.
Pageant organizers are expecting such large crowds for this year’s pageant they added an extra performance night and 3,000 spare chairs. That’s not the only difference for the 82nd show, which opens tonight. It will feature the largest cast ever assembled, with dramatic scene changes ushered in by a new director.
The church announced last October the pageant will cease production after the 2020 season. Time commitments, cost, security and impact to church sites were among the factors cited in the decision to end its flagship event.
The church acknowledges that the decision impacts the economy of the region, most certainly in Wayne and Ontario counties. Participants and spectators eat at restaurants, buy gas, groceries and other goods, and stay in the region’s lodging facilities.
Palmyra Mayor David Husk, while acknowledging his nearby village has benefited as much as any municipality, said the departure of the pageant will not result in the demise of the place he governs.
“I’m not going to downplay the economic impact it will have,” Husk said. “However, with all the historic sites (in the area), I’m sure the visitors are going to continue to come to our village. It’s the birthplace of their religion.”
“We always realize that this is a big deal,” added Christine Worth, Wayne County director of tourism. “It’s not just Wayne County, but the whole region that benefits.
“We’re rolling out the red carpet, and we’re ready to welcome the pageant goers. We’re ready to support the pageant for the next couple years, and to show off our area. Our communities are always excited to prepare for this.”
The seating area will be equipped with 8,000 chairs this year.
“I hear from so many people who’ve said they’ve always wanted to go but never have,” said Neil Pitts, pageant president. “There is no other experience like this in the Rochester region. We only have two years left, so you will want to come see it.”
In addition to rehearsals, the cast squeezes in more than 1,800 hours of volunteer service in Wayne, Ontario and Monroe counties.
The pageant promises a theatrical representation of scenes from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and performances by the all-volunteer cast.