Dr. Jack Paul Sederholm has been called by the First Presidency to direct the Hill Cumorah Pageant, “America’s Witness for Christ.” Brother Sederholm has assisted Dr. Harold I. Hansen for the last twelve of Hansen’s forty years as pageant director.
A great article sharing some of the history of the Hill Cumorah Pageant
Palmyra: A Look at 40 Years of Pageant
By Gerald Argetsinger
The new director will continue to serve as chairman of the Communication Arts Department at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Speech and Dramatic Arts from BYU, and in 1976 directed the “This Land of Liberty” pageant for the Potomac and Capitol regions of the Church in Washington, D.C.
With one stage, a hundred actors, and two readers, the Hill Cumorah Pageant in 1937, then only one year old, seemed like a large enough undertaking. Harold I. Hansen was a missionary at the time, “drafted” into directing the production because no one else had his experience in theatre. Now, forty years later, as he retires from his position as pageant director, the show is almost unrecognizable: an incredible twenty-five stages with six hundred actors; a five-track stereo sound system with original music by Crawford Gates; and perhaps the world’s finest outdoor lighting system.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors have seen the pageant during Hansen’s forty years as director. In a recent interview he reminisced about the early years. When he entered the mission field in July 1937 he was told that all the missionaries in his mission were going to take part in a pageant at the Hill Cumorah. They would invite people to come during the proselyting day, and spend their nights in rehearsal.
“When I arrived,” explained Brother Hansen, “they had a script, but no one had addressed themselves to the problems of production.” How would they light the stage? Where would the actors be? How would the audiences hear what was being said?
“The mission president tried to get me interested in the script,” Hansen continued, “because of my background in theatre. But I didn’t know anything about pageantry. Besides, I came on my mission to tract and to do the other things that missionaries do!”
But he was persuaded to direct one short scene. It took him only fifteen minutes to stage it and when the elders in charge of the pageant saw it, they handed him the script and told him thathe was directing the pageant. And he has continued for forty years, as a Church calling, until his recent release.
Brother Hansen notes that the biggest change in the production over the years has been in the attitude of the nonmembers in the area. In 1937 there was some open prejudice against the missionaries and the pageant. Now the attitude toward the Church and the pageant is very positive. Just before the 1977 opening the local Rotary Club gave Brother Hansen an award for outstanding service to the region. President Ezra Taft Benson of the Council of the Twelve accepted the club’s invitation to address them and present the award to Brother Hansen.
Local residents have been kind to the pageant participants, too. Once in the early years of production there was an overabundance of rain—but people still flocked to see the show. The parking lots became mires, and Hansen recalls, “I could actually see the cars sinking into the mud. All I could think about was the terrible mess we would have when it came time for the audience to go home.”
But ten minutes before the end of the pageant, Brother Hansen began to hear the sputter of engines—local farmers were chugging into the parking lots with tractors. They pulled every car out and put them on the highway without accepting a cent in payment. “Kindnesses like that can never be forgotten or repaid,” says Brother Hansen.
Another year, a drought had dried up all the wells and springs that the pageant used to supply water for the water curtain effects. Farmers in the area were even hauling water for their cattle. Yet just before the pageant opened, without any advance notice, the farmers appeared with wagonloads of water and filled the pageant holding tanks. The who went on—with the water curtains.
Harold I. Hansen, a faculty member and former drama department chairman at BYU, looks forward to returning to the pageant as an audience member in coming years to enjoy its growth. For he does believe that the pageant must continue to change. “I can’t imagine anything worse,” he says emphatically, “than if I came back and it looked the same as when I left.”
Though Hansen has accomplished many other things in his long professional life, the Hill Cumorah Pageant has been a major influence on his life and the life of his family. “It has dominated our whole home for all these years. If I hadn’t believed in it, I would never have done it. But I did believe in it, and I kept at it until the Brethren said, ‘You are released.’”
Now there are several pageants in many different places in the Church—but all owe a great debt to Harold Hansen’s exemplary production at the Hill Cumorah.