“I’ve been a non-Mormon for 80 years. But tonight I was thankful that I’ve never been anti-Mormon.” The letter was from a man who had just seen the Oakland Temple Pageant, a pageant that spreads its spirit through cast and audience like sunshine coming over a mountaintop. In three acts, more than 1,000 people bring to light the story of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the restoration of the gospel.
The curtain opens and the pageant begins: Entering stage left is David Paulsen, who plays Joseph at 14. He speaks: “Why all this confusion? Which church is right?” He seeks for the answer from his parents and from preachers of all faiths. Then he goes to the Sacred Grove to pray.
“I think the most spiritual part in the whole pageant to me is when I’m in the grove,” David said. “I just get tingles up and down my spine because I know what I’m saying is true. It’s one of the neatest experiences I’ve ever had. It’s helped me make up my mind to want to go on a mission and then get married in the temple.”
The devotion of the Prophet as a young man (played by 17-year-old Jim Parker) unfolds as the Book of Mormon is translated and the priesthood is restored. “I come on just after the people have been persecuting younger Joseph. Before that I stand there backstage and watch when he’s praying in the Sacred Grove. I try to imagine, in part at least, what it was like for the Prophet.
“Then later on, Joseph and Oliver receive the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist. The touch of his hand on my head makes me think about the restoration of the priesthood every single performance. It’s given me an awareness I didn’t have before.”
When Walter Thomsen found out he would be playing John the Baptist in the 1976 production, he decided to study about John’s life. “Our director had asked us to really get to know the characters we were playing. All I knew of John the Baptist was the fact that he came bounding out of the wilderness preaching repentance. He baptized the Savior, and he appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the latter days. That’s about all I really knew about him. After studying about John this year, he’s come to mean a lot to me. Can you imagine being the forerunner of the Savior, of coming to this world and preparing the world for the coming of Christ, and then actually being with him while he was here on the earth—preaching and conversing with him?
“I found out what the Savior meant when he said: ‘Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’” (Matt. 11:11.)
Joseph’s life is filled with glorious visitations from messengers sent from heaven. But he is also persecuted unjustly and jailed falsely many times. His friends sometimes doubt him, but the faithful never falter. His brother Hyrum is among the most faithful. In Carthage Jail, Joseph and Hyrum are murdered—as close in death as they were in life.
“Joseph knew he was going to die. He knew it,” Jim Parker testified. “When he bears his testimony, even in the face of death, that he really did see the vision and the gold plates were delivered to him, that’s special to me because that’s what our church is based on—revelation.”
Roy King, who played Joseph as an adult, remembered one night during the scene in Carthage Jail: “It was during the martyrdom scene. One woman in the audience was so moved by what was happening that she jumped up out of her seat and cried out, ‘Oh, no!’ People get very caught up in that scene. They remember that Joseph said he was going like a lamb to the slaughter.”
The Saints are without the Prophet Joseph. Persecution intensifies. Mobs begin to burn Nauvoo. The whole auditorium glows red, and there is a wind rippling through the backdrop curtains that makes the stage look like flames enveloping the city beautiful.
“Our place is not in Nauvoo. There’s another place for us.”
The Saints begin the trek, moving across the stage in deliberate and solemn strides. They leave a lush green city with sturdy brick homes and fine furniture that they had labored hard to obtain to face the rigors of weather and walking day after day after day. The physical strain and, in some cases, deprivation takes many lives. It is so with little Bess Wooley. The child is with her parents as they cross the American prairie, and one day she dies in the arms of her father.
That scene was very difficult for Ann Russon, who was assigned to be the assistant director. She was always close at hand for any errand or emergency job—except for that scene. She would leave her post and find some private place to be.
Ann’s younger sister, Robin Russon, played Bess Wooley. “It’s just too close to home,” Ann said. “My heart hurts for the pioneers who lost their little children or anyone. I cry every time I think of losing my Robin.”
The stage chorus closes the scene singing one of the original songs, “Spring Leaves.”
Brigham Young is called to serve as the Lord’s shepherd in leading His sheep across the plains. Brigham organizes, encourages, chastises, and guides the thousands of outcasts and secures them finally in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
President Young, the pillowed, portly gent with flashing blue eyes, played by Jim Eastham, fell one night during the performance and hurt his foot. But he got right up and finished the part. “It’s not that bad,” he said as he went to the first-aid station backstage to get it wrapped. The next day he had it X-rayed and found it was broken, but he was on stage that night giving Brigham-counsel and Brigham-organization to the trek west.
As the Saints arrive in the Salt Lake Valley, they begin to find happiness in the fertile and untouched basin. They plant crops. They sing songs and dance. They have found a home where none will come to hurt or make afraid. Or have they?
The chipper of crickets comes from above and behind the audience, and then the pioneers on stage begin to stomp wildly, threshing their arms and feet to kill the two-inch black insects. Louder and louder the sounds come until the Saints fall on their knees and pray for deliverance. Finally the calling of sea gulls fills the air—relief is near and the balcony chorus changes the shushing and finger clicking of cricket sounds to a song of thanksgiving.
In the beginning of the third act the stage is splashed with red, white, and blue. The youths on stage are questioning: “Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?” They are pulled and tossed back and forth between the philosophies of men. What are the answers? The thundering answer comes as the 400-voice balcony chorus sings:
The whole feeling and testimony of the third act is summed up by Josiah Lodge (played by Ray Enjaian): “These are some of the questions of youth in every day—but they’re not getting responses from the world. The response they want is right here—it’s right here when the balcony chorus sings ‘Who Am I?’”
The finale ends with an exhortation to test the validity of the gospel. Dressed in robes of white and representing Moroni, John Witchurch enters stage right behind the full-stage scrim and in a resounding tenor voice sings, “I Would Exhort You” in remembrance of Moroni 10:4. [Moro. 10:4]
The Oakland Temple pageant is especially for and by the youth of the Church. It was originally written by Ira Young and Whitney Grew, who were asked by their bishop to do the show in 1954 as a three-night youth production. Later, in 1964, they were asked to cut it to a two-hour pageant especially for the Oakland Temple dedication. The entire time they worked on the script and music they were inspired by the place of youth in the latter days. The song “We Are the Vision” captures their feelings:
There were nonmembers in the pageant, too. Grandma Wooley (Lulu Zeitz) said she thoroughly enjoyed her part in the Mormon play. And many of the balcony chorus were nonmembers too. Even member youth felt influenced by the drama and testified that they were borderline cases in their activity in the Church until they got involved in the pageant.
“It’s impossible not to go around and just feel the spirit,” one girl said as she ran to the costume change room between scenes. Because of its missionary effect on both the audience and the cast, priesthood leaders have sanctioned the pageant and given approval for it to be performed every year for two weeks prior to the 24th of July in the large interstake center on the Oakland Temple grounds.
Because of the unusually large structure of the interstake center, the stakes in the Oakland-Hayward area were able to try some different techniques with staging and sound effects. For instance, the 933-voice chorus split into two parts and filled the balcony in two one-week shifts. When they sang, the sound rang over the audience from behind and came down to meet the musicians in the orchestra pit to make a reverberating hall of music.
Behind the auditorium was a doubly large cultural hall, with offices and rooms off to one side. Shirley Rudd found herself cornered back in those inner reaches of the huge building. She was the one who changed all the bouncy, modern, wedge haircuts to 19th century pioneer bobs at the nap of the neck.
“At first I had to do 40 or 50 hairdos—that was during dress rehearsal. Then most of the kids got the idea and started doing their own hair. By closing night, I just did a few repair jobs, helped some of the guys change from young, black-haired dancers to powdered-haired grandpas for different scenes, and that was it.”
It wasn’t easy to coordinate over 60 production crew members, 39 dancers, 41 stage chorus members, 50 orchestra members, 933 balcony chorus members, 80 actors, and one small, black terrier. A myriad of details were involved. But with the approximately 1,200 people involved, the detail that mattered most was the growth of each individual testimony.
During the testimony meeting held just prior to the last performance, one young woman stood up and said, “The pageant is important, but it’s afterwards that’s more important. Will you still feel inside the strength that you feel during this meeting? I pray that in your life and in my life we can analyze what we’re doing, that we will be able to continue to know that Jesus is the Christ, and that we will feel this testimony in our lives after the pageant is over. Then we’ll hold true to the faith no matter what happens.”