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The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs (Carroll County) is an outdoor drama depicting the last week in the life of Jesus Christ. There was a “soft” media opening on July 14, 1968, followed the next night with the first public performance. More than 7.5 million people from all over the world—an average of 100,000 a year—have attended this tourist attraction, the outdoor play with the largest attendance in the United States. The production includes animals, period costumes, a life-sized city street scene, numerous special effects, original music, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, and more than 200 cast members.
The Great Passion Play is one of the Five Sacred Projects of the Elna M. Smith Foundation, created by Gerald L. K. Smith and Elna M. Smith. The others include the Christ of the Ozarks statue, the Sacred Arts Center, the Bible Museum, and the New Holy Land, all located on land surrounding the Great Passion Play amphitheater.
Gerald L. K. Smith was a controversial politician in the 1930s and 1940s who was affiliated with Louisiana’s Huey Long and with an anti–United Nations movement following World War II. He also was known for his far-right activism and his anti-Semitism. That controversy followed him to Eureka Springs and was the basis for some criticism of the play after it opened.
After Smith retired in the 1960s, he and his wife vowed to leave a lasting legacy. They bought a historic house in Eureka Springs, a property known as Penn Castle, in 1964, and made the city one of their homes.
Smith envisioned building a magnificent statue of Christ, high above the city, and bought land atop Magnetic Mountain, east of the historic downtown. He raised more than one million dollars from his friends and contacts. The statue was dedicated on June 25, 1966. While inspecting the progress of the statue, he noticed the natural amphitheater nearby and envisioned a passion-play-type outdoor drama, along the lines of the world-famous Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany. Construction began during the summer of 1967.
Bulldozers carved a 3,500-seat amphitheater out of the mountain, overlooking a 400-foot-wide “stage.” Later, the seating was increased to 4,100 seats and the width to more than 500 feet. The set area depicts a street in Jerusalem, on which there are numerous life-size structures such as houses, stores, a temple, Pontius Pilate’s porch, King Herod’s porch, and a marketplace. Behind the city and up the hill are other structures for key scenes—the tomb, Golgotha, the Emmaus house, and the ascension tower to raise a Christ figure forty feet in the air near the end of the play. At the end of every performance, a cross is raised as a symbol of victory. Fire By Night Productions filmed Michael W. Smith’s motion picture Secret Ambition on the set in 1991.
Besides the Smiths, key people credited with the success of launching the two-hour drama are Charles F. Robertson, the original director of the Smith Foundation, and Robert Hyde, the original producer and director, who also supervised the writing of the script, designed the original set, ordered costumes, made props, and recorded the soundtrack. He also played the Christ figure from 1968 to 1979.
The Great Passion Play is performed several times a week each year, beginning its season in May and concluding in October (weather and Daylight Saving Time affect starting times). The Great Passion Play is a 501(c)(3) non-denominational Christian ministry. With regular changes and additions to the attractions on top of Magnetic Mountain such as a buffet restaurant and a dinner theater, the Elna M. Smith Foundation promotes the village as “The New Great Passion Play—More Than a Play.”
It was reported in December 2012 that the play would not go on for a 2013 season due to low attendance and financial problems, but in January 2013, it was announced that funds raised by a gospel radio ministry from Oklahoma would pay the interest on the mortgage to allow the show to open for the next season. A reduction in the number of performances each season also alleviated some financial problems.
For additional information:The Great Passion Play. http://www.greatpassionplay.com/ (accessed September 6, 2018).
Kovalcik, Timothy M. The Great Passion Play. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.
Yarbrough, Caleb. “Passion Play: Honoring Past, Pressing Forward.” Arkansas Baptist News, September 6, 2018, pp. 3, 9.
Dennis SchickNorth Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 9/6/2018
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