The Hill Cumorah Pageant will end after next year, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
PALMYRA — Palmyra leaders and businesses declared they would take a hit but would survive the cancellation of the area's iconic Hill Cumorah Pageant.
"Will it affect our economy?" asked David Husk, mayor of the Village of Palmyra. "I'm not going to downplay it. Sure. It's going to hurt. But we'll make the best of it."
The pageant, a celebration of faith that portrays events of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, was first put on in 1937 on the Manchester hillside where Mormon tradition holds that church founder Joseph Smith received the golden plates that became the foundation of the religion.
Over decades, it grew into a lavish celebration with a cast of more than 750 volunteers that, in July of 2018, brought an audience of 25,000.
"I was just enthralled. I thought it was amazing," recalled Maria Winden of Provo, Utah who saw the pageant as a teenager and visited the site on Monday.
Over the weekend, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the Hill Cumorah Pageant would be discontinued after its 2020 season, while other Mormon pageants would be scaled back.
Instead, the church said in a statement, "Members are encouraged to focus on gospel learning in their homes and to participate in Sabbath worship and the church's supporting programs for children, youth, individuals and families."
Managers of the Hill Cumorah property and its visitors' center on Route 21 indicated the church also sought to better preserve the historic site and planned to let it revert to more of a natural state in coming years.
In a statement, pageant President Neil Pitts supported the decision saying, "We had a wonderful run…and will focus on making the next two years an amazing experience for our cast, crew and audience."
"It made me sad. It did," Maria Winden sighed, while her husband Duane, who had seen other Mormon pageants but not Hill Cumorah, announced his plans to witness it while he still could. "I'd like to see this one before it closes so will try to do that," he said.
The news was jarring at the Best Western Palmyra Inn and Suites on Canandaigua Road just north of the Hill Cumorah Visitor Center, a frequent lodging choice for pageant cast members and audiences from across the country, and internationally too.
Sales manager Michele Albrecht, herself a Mormon, said the influx of customers often created a festive air in the hotel.
"They're excited to see it," she explained. "Some of them have seen it year after year. And then some of them haven't seen it. It's the very first time and all they want to do is get there as soon as possible and just take it all in."
The recurring busloads of pageant pilgrims had become so familiar at the Acropolis restaurant in Palmyra that owner Marsha Simcox began to recognize some of them, even know them by name.
"You meet different people from all over," Simcox said. "I have young people coming through like teenagers. There are buses from Las Vegas. This one lady, she's been coming here every year. And then there's Mr. Godfrey …"
Albrecht looked dimly on the loss of business from pageant guests but predicted the loss would be limited as tourists visiting other sites in the Finger Lakes, including other Mormon sites, would keep coming, especially those currently displaced by pageant guests.
"The business that we get during those couple of weeks does help carry us through out the year," granted Best Western general manager Siearah O'Brien. "But I do truly believe will be able to compensate what we lose with new [guests] that we've been turning away."
Husk agreed, insisting that the area had plenty to offer, in Mormon attractions alone, to keep guests coming.
"The temple's out there too," he said, "and the sacred Grove. The Smith Farm. The buildings down here [in downtown Palmyra]. We get visitors throughout the year."
Simcox, while she faced the loss of not just restaurant guests but also a catering business to the pageant, proclaimed herself unfazed too.
"I am not worried," she said with a laugh. "I figure God will get us through everything. People will come and go. That's how it is."