The Arizona Temple grounds rang with the high-tech sound of a trumpet fanfare as the second-oldest Church-sponsored pageant began its second half-century.
The 51st production of "Jesus the Christ" was performed March 21-25 on the north lawn of the temple grounds here. A record 17,100 people saw the March 24 rendition of the drama, and total attendance reached a five-performance record of 65,600. The 1986 all-time record attendance of more than 77,000 was achieved with a six-night run.While topping attendance records is gratifying, said officials, it is not the reason behind the pageant, although drawing large audiences may help achieve the real goal.
"The purpose of the pageant," said pageant chairman W. Dea Montague, "is to help us learn of and share the literal resurrection of Christ, to build our faith in Jesus Christ, and to share it with the community. For the many who participate, it's a blessing in their lives, and hopefully, for those who come and watch, it's a blessing to them."
Eight thousand folding chairs borrowed from 16 stakes in the Phoenix metropolitan area were provided for viewers. The seats almost filled the huge sunken lawn to the north of the visitors center. A space in front of the chairs was left open for viewers who preferred to spread out blankets.
Last year's 50th anniversary brought several changes to the pageant, such as a re-recorded sound track, additional music, new scenes, and new sets. Director Harold "Chip" Boynton Jr. also made minor adjustments to the sound track to allow for extra pauses.
This year's cast was the largest since the drama began. During scenes featuring the multitude that followed the Savior, a total of 250 persons filled the three-story, 160-foot-wide stage. With 30 more cast members than last year, the massive platform was reinforced to accommodate the added numbers.
"We had about 390 people audition this year for the cast; about 230-250 have been auditioning in the past," said Jaynie Bassett, executive secretary of the pageant. "We've had a lot of families come out this year." Sister Bassett, who has worked with the pageant for 18 years, has also been an assistant director since 1986.
Wilson and Sarah Conover of Mesa are among the experienced participants in the pageant. Along with various combinations of their eight children they have performed in five pageants. This year, the Conovers and seven of their children played shepherds, which the family has done for four years.
"It's really a worthwhile experience," Conover added. "This year more than ever I got a real confirmation, through little things in my everyday life, that what we're doing is right. The sacrifice is worth it."
Many of the new cast members were teenagers and young adults. He related that two or three years ago, his oldest daughter took her younger sister to perform in the pageant, and not long ago when the older girl married, the younger sister wrote a letter telling her what a great experience it was to be together in the pageant, that it was a highlight of her memory of her sister.
For high school senior Tyfani Davis, viewing the pageant in the past inspired her to audition this year. "I've been going ever since I was 4 years old," Tyfani said. "I've always wanted to be an angel, but I didn't make it. Instead, I'm a multitude woman in the Cleansing of the Temple, the Triumphal Entry and Teaching of the Principles."
Angel Cox is another high school senior who played a part in the pageant. She also wanted to be an angel because her name is Angel. "But I didn't make it. I'm a multitude person, and it's fun. It's a real spiritual experience, especially when you're out there and Jesus comes up and touches you. Even though it's not Jesus, you can still feel the spirit there. It feels like you're really looking up to the Savior."
Timothy Smith portrayed one of the angels who strode around on the highest level of the stage 30 feet above the ground as the pageant commenced with a flourish of trumpets. "Being an angel up on top touched me the most spiritually," he said. "It makes you feel kind of proud."
Director Boynton observed that it is difficult to gauge the young cast members' depth of feeling for being in the pageant. "Sometimes we think it's not having any effect at all," he said. "But then you get an opportunity to speak with them a bit, and you find out that inwardly it has a very, very powerful spiritual effect. I think in most cases it's providing them with a really good spiritual experience."
Jaynie Bassett added, "If the pageant touches one person and helps that person to think about the Savior and to be able to live closer to Him, then that's what it's all about. All the efforts are worth it. That's our main goal, that someone will be touched, and lives will be changed."