Costumes and Small Miracles

My experiences as costume designer for the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

When I was called in 1980 as costume designer for the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, New York, the opportunity awed me. But I had no idea at the time how it would build my faith.

It was a challenge, even with my professional training and experience in costume design, because of the size of the production. I could not have done it without the help of members throughout the eastern third of the United States. Many of them are Relief Society sisters called to the task through the help of the Relief Society General Presidency. To date, they have helped construct over 750 complex costumes in our effort to refurbish the costuming for the pageant. These were sewn with fabrics and materials and in styles with which most of the women were unfamiliar. But our success rate at getting back correctly completed costumes has been higher than 99 percent, a tribute to the many local coordinators—from Georgia and Florida to Indiana and New Hampshire—who had to find people to sew costumes from prepared kits.

While the success of this project has been satisfying, the spiritual rewards have been even greater. In addition to the many members whose work supports the project, I have seen a number of non-LDS benefactors moved to help the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Many times I have recorded in my journal instances in which it seemed clear the hand of the Lord was with us. I’m grateful for these blessings and miracles, for they are beyond price.

The Trim

In 1980, my crew of volunteers worked for weeks preparing the first costume kits to be sent out. We cut out, labeled, and measured all the pieces, trim, and materials needed to complete each “crowd” costume. It was a lengthy procedure, since each one consisted of tunic, hat, cape or robe, and jewelry.

That year we made two hundred such costumes in seventeen different styles, each costume with its unique combination of fabric and trim. Since the crew was inexperienced, it took several weeks to train them and refine the system. Naturally, we were way behind schedule.

The last thing to go into the kits were strips of lamé (metallic fabric) cut on the bias (diagonally) to be used as trim. For a week, workers had been measuring and cutting these strips in various widths and rolling them into packages in exact lengths necessary for particular costumes. It was a job nobody wanted, because the fabric slithered around on the table while we were trying to cut it. It was hard to be accurate, and accuracy was very important.

One night after everyone had gone home, I took inventory and made a horrifying discovery: We had used more than three-fourths of the lamé, but only half the kits were complete. At that rate, we would be left with fifty barren-looking costumes. I was in a panic. The fabric wasn’t available locally. I had bought it in New York City, and it would take another week to get more. As it was, the people sewing the costumes barely had enough time to complete them and ship them back before the pageant, so a week’s delay was out of the question. Besides, we were out of money.

How could I have made this miscalculation? I had planned so carefully … but I had forgotten to allow for a difference in measurements when cutting fabric on the bias. Now the whole project was going to fail, and it was all my fault!

In desperation, I knelt down and prayed with all my heart, pleading with Heavenly Father for help. I told him that I had done all I thought possible and had made a mistake—a big one. Given our time and money limitations, there was nothing else that we could do. I prayed, “If it is thy will that the costumes be completed on time, then please extend these materials so there will be enough.” A wonderful, warm feeling came over me, and I knew everything would be all right.

The next morning, my assistant, Marilyn Brown, told me that she had also noticed the shortage of lamé the night before and had decided not to tell me until morning, when I was rested and in better condition to cope with the situation. I hugged her and told her I’d had a talk with God and he had given me the assurance that he would take care of us.

“Oh, I’m so relieved,” said Marilyn, a woman of abundant faith. “Don’t worry about the lamé. I’ll see that it gets cut.”

I gratefully left the task in Marilyn’s hands. I was afraid to go near that table all day, because I was afraid my faith would waver. Late in the afternoon, Marilyn came to me with tears in her eyes. “We’re done,” she said. “We’re all finished.”

“Was there enough lamé?” I asked.

She nodded. “Here’s all that’s left over.” She placed in the palm of my hand the tiny scraps remaining from seven twenty-five yard bolts of fabric. There was nothing extra, but we didn’t need “extra.” Our Father in Heaven had answered our prayers.

Costuming the One Hundred

When the Savior preached to the five thousand on the shores of Galilee, he fed them physically as well as spiritually. He commanded that the little loaves and fishes given by a lad (see John 6:9) be extended to feed the entire assemblage.

My experiences with the trim bore testimony to me of the power of this kind of blessing. But there were many other times when materials were extended to meet our needs. One example was with the children’s costumes in 1981.

We were well into production when I received a call from Lynn Fluckiger, associate producer. “We have many more children this year than ever before,” he explained. “The most we’ve ever had is 25. This year we have 120. Can we costume them?”

“Sure. Can you get me more money?” I asked.


“Oh, well,” I found myself saying recklessly, “I can do it anyway.”

After I hung up I wondered what insanity had caused me to make that statement. But I went ahead and inventoried all the fabric and scraps and decided we might be able to do it with some careful cutting. I made swatch charts for each child’s costume, indicating the fabric and size for each item. Then the problems began. Several times as we were cutting the patterns out, we discovered the piece of fabric was not as big as it looked when I made the charts.

“We don’t have enough for a size ten,” the cutter told me the first time. “How about a size three?”

I was busy and couldn’t break away. “Skip that one for now. Just put it back on the shelf, and we’ll look at it later,” I replied.

Later, we laid the fabric out on the cutting table. The size ten pattern fit easily.

“But I tried so hard,” the cutter protested. “There wasn’t this much fabric before!”

“I believe you,” I told her. “Sometimes around here the materials just grow on the shelves.”

At least a dozen times while we packaged the children’s costume kits, the sisters would come running in from the cutting room. “It happened again! The fabric grew on the shelves!” Once I poked my head in the cutting room and overheard a sister as she bundled a scrap of fabric and put it back on the shelf. “We’ll have to come back to that one,” she explained to the sister next to her. “That piece needs more time to grow.” What faith! How fortunate I was to have volunteers like these!

Of course, these blessings came at the Lord’s direction, not mine. He always provided for us, but he did not necessarily give us everything we asked for in the way we asked for it.

One summer I changed the design of the Lamanite dancer headdresses to make them more exciting. I had already bought materials based on the old design, however, so I knew we would need more of a particular fabric. Since it was not available locally, and I felt I didn’t have the time to go to New York City to find it, I decided to ask again for some divine help. With Adele Gilmore, my assistant that day, I knelt down and prayed that we would have enough materials.

We began cutting pieces from the bolt, sure that our prayer had been answered. But we ran out!

I was surprised, and maybe a little peeved. I went into the other room and had a private prayer. This time the Spirit whispered to me, “You know how to get more of that fabric yourself.”

The truth was that there were still two months before the pageant and there was still money in the budget. I just did not want to be bothered. And I did not want to do mail-order business with the proprietor of the shop where I had bought the fabric. He was very old, and had difficulty remembering. The last time I had been in his store the price of the fabric had changed—upward—four times. I explained all this to Heavenly Father, but again came the impression, “You have the resources to do it yourself. Do it.”

So I made the phone call, and the proprietor quoted me a price lower than any of his previous figures! He promised to send me the material as soon as my check arrived. Three days later the package arrived. He had not even waited for my check.

I was thoroughly humbled. I guess I needed to be reminded that the Lord, in his wisdom, knows what course is best.

The Seeds We Sow

One experience pointed out how the actions of one righteous person can be a powerful influence for good, even after many years.

When I decided to make the armor for the pageant’s “Moroni and the Title of Liberty” scene out of leather, I visited several dealers in New York City. One place, in a rough section of Manhattan, had exactly what I was looking for.

The store was run by a blunt but friendly man who introduced himself as “Sam.” My husband, Jerry, and I explained what we were looking for and that we represented the Hill Cumorah Pageant, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sam lit up like a candle. “The Mormons! Well, come right in, make yourselves at home.”

Jerry and I looked at each other. Usually our introduction drew no response except, “So? You got cash?” This leather dealer was actually glad to see us!

He gave us advice on selecting hides and how to cut them to best advantage. Then, as we worked, Sam began to talk about his experience with Latter-day Saints.

When he had joined the United States Air Force at the outbreak of World War II, his basic training had been at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. It was his first time out of New York City. Like many good Jewish boys, he had been raised in fear of the gentiles. He had never seen a Latter-day Saint. But as he got to know the many LDS airmen in his group, he learned to love them. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been treated better by anyone,” he said. “But the reason I’ll always love the Mormons is for something that happened later in the war.”

In 1942 Sam was flying bombing missions over North Africa. His commanding officer, Major Hawkins, was a Latter-day Saint from Salt Lake City.

As Passover approached, Sam and the other Jews in camp discussed how they would celebrate it under combat conditions. To start with, there was no unleavened bread. They thought they would have to use soda crackers.

On the night before the Passover celebration, when Major Hawkins returned from a combat mission about midnight, he went to Sam’s tent and awakened him. “Sam,” he whispered, “I just heard you boys have no unleavened bread for Passover.”

“That’s right,” Sam told him.

“Well, come on,” said the major, pulling Sam to his feet. “There’s still time. I’ll fly you to Tel Aviv to get some.” So Sam and the major squeezed piggyback into the cockpit of a small plane and flew all the way to Palestine.

“I still can’t believe it,” Sam told us. “I asked myself what kind of a man would understand the importance of our sacred rituals. This was the middle of a war, and we didn’t exactly own the skies at that point. He risked his life to get us that unleavened bread. The Mormons are something special, all right!”

Sam gave us a good price break on the leather. And it was all because forty years before a righteous man had lived the teachings of the gospel.

When we went back to his store the next year, Sam was unable to give us the same price break on his leather. I told him it was quite all right. We greatly appreciated his generosity the first time, but to expect such a deal the second time would be taking advantage of him. We expected to pay a fair price.

He smiled. “A Mormon would understand that.” Then he told us the whole story of his war experience again. “The Latter-day Saints are something special,” he kept repeating. “I really love them.”

Thank you, Major Hawkins, wherever you are!

Wigs and Beards

Publicity photographs from 1980 and 1981 showed off the magnificence and detail of the costumes, but they also showed some glaring flaws. One was that the crepe hair beards and wigs that were barely passable at a great distance were positively disgusting on camera.

To a public used to the superior costuming of television and movies, photographs of actors wearing our hairpieces made the entire production appear to be rank amateur. So I took the matter to the Lord; I began fasting and praying for a way to get cinema-quality beards and wigs.

That was no small order. Such hairpieces are made by hand. Workers hook human hairs, one at a time, into fine net. This process, called “ventilating” a wig, is incredibly tedious and requires a great deal of skill. I did not have the time or ability to do it, or to train others to do it. Besides, it would require a whole crew of trained, skilled wigmakers working full time to produce the thirty-odd beards and forty-odd wigs needed for the show.

Could we simply buy the wigs and beards we needed? I contacted the major wigmakers in New York City. The prices for quality hairpieces ran from $600 to $1,000 each; and since the hair is very fragile, it requires skilled maintenance, cleaning, and repair after each wearing.

So I asked the Lord for a miracle and a wigmaker. He responded in the best possible way.

It was while I visited with one of the best-known wigmakers in New York City that our solution came. After showing my husband and me the hairpieces in progress in his studio, the man began asking questions about our production. He had never heard of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, but he liked the Latter-day Saints. His best buddies in the military had been LDS.

“I know enough about Mormons to know that they believe in self-sufficiency,” he said. “Now, I could sell you all of these hair goods, but even with a price break it would be a huge sum for your organization. And that doesn’t even consider the maintenance and replacements that would amount to thousands every year.”

My heart was sinking fast.

Then he said, “I can train someone for you. Send me the person who is going to take care of the wigs and beards. I’ll train her here in my shop; then you won’t be dependent on someone else.”

I couldn’t believe my ears! I thanked him profusely and asked what he would charge for the training.

“Oh, nothing at all,” he said. “My pleasure. Happy to help the Latter-day Saints.”

I asked him if he regularly trained people like this.

“Oh, no,” he said. “This time I just felt like it.”

A familiar burning feeling in my chest let me know just why he felt like it. Our prayers were answered; the way was opened.

The obvious person to send was Barbara Williams, our pageant costume director. Though apprehensive, Barbara was excited at the prospect, and mastered the tedious, exacting manipulations of the ventilating needle with astonishing speed. The wigmaker later told her that of the fourteen people he tried to train that year, she was one of only two who had mastered the work.

He helped Barbara order supplies, contacted his suppliers, and, if he didn’t like the price they charged, sold her materials from his own stock. He also donated several hundred dollars worth of hair and equipment. Even so, he had some strong doubts that she could train a crew and make all those hair pieces in two short months.

But again the Lord provided. Barbara found four teenagers and two women in her own ward who wanted to work on the project. They were also blessed with the ability to learn the skills much faster than normal. In the end, the wigmaker’s studio made five wigs (we did owe him some business, after all) and Barbara and her crew made twenty-eight wigs and thirty-one beards—on time!

[photos] Photography by Michael Schoenfeldt

Gail Argetsinger, costume designer for the Hill Cumorah Pageant and mother of one, serves as the Cultural Refinement teacher in her Rochester, New York, ward.