The Black Hills Passion Play is No More

Well, hopes of creating one family memory this summer have been dashed. It’s looking like this summer’s family vacation will find us heading to western South Dakota, and I was really hoping that our plans would be able to include a visit to the Passion Play in Spearfish, South Dakota. It’s one of my own earliest family vacation memories, I was looking forward to providing that experience to our kids as well. But it’s not to be.

I searched the Internet, and my searches hit dead ends. Uh Oh. Is it not in production any longer? My next step: an e-mail to someone at

Hello, We are just starting to plan our summer vacation and I looked for info on the Passion Play. I remember going to that production when I was a kid, I was hoping to find info about it online, but I’m not finding anything. Is the Passion Play still in production?

The reply (in part):

Thank you for contacting Visit Spearfish, Inc. with your visitor inquiry. We regret to inform you that the Black Hills Passion Play retired August 31, 2008.

Bummer. I was really looking forward to sharing that experience.

Well, now the best I can do is use the Internet to take a stroll down memory lane. In doing so, I uncovered at least part of “the rest of the story” that I would have never known as a kid. Here are some of the interesting things I found:


The Black Hills Passion Play was performed every summer for almost seventy years in Spearfish, South Dakota; this production was an American version of the Lünen Passion Play that was brought over in 1932 by immigrants who claimed that it had been produced since 1242.[7] The production was Americanized by seventh-generation Passion Player Josef Meier, who toured it around the country before bringing it to Spearfish in the 1930s; until its last performance on August 31, 2008, the show was produced under the auspices of Meier’s daughter Johanna, a world-famous opera singer who had her debut in the play at the age of five weeks.

An article from Time magazine, published during World War II, gives an interesting historical perspective on the production:,9171,777543,00.html

And here’s a wonderful writeup of the play’s history and purpose: This article revives some of my more vivid memories of the Passion Play:

With Lookout Mountain as a backdrop, the play’s magnificent three-block-long stage readily transports viewers back to the days of Christ. All the characters and animals of ancient Jerusalem are here: donkeys, water girls filling jugs, flocks of sheep, Roman soldiers on white horses, unscrupulous merchants, and cages of doves.

Portrayed by an interdenominational cast of more than 150 people, the play’s imagery is both simple and profound. As the Last Supper fades to black, the Lord’s chalice begins to glow, the symbol of his blood illuminating the very essence of Christianity. Each of the 22 scenes — triumphal entry to Resurrection — unfolds into the next, with no intermissions or set changes.

When the Christus is carried into the tomb, the shrouded body imparts a personal revelation for many playgoers. “The Bible was no longer words; it became flesh for me,” one viewer said.

I had really hoped to personally experience this production one more time as an adult, to fully appreciate it from both an artistic and spiritual perspective. Time moves on, but it’s a disappointment to me that this is one event that will no longer be experienced.

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22 Responses to The Black Hills Passion Play is No More

  1. Dennis Cogan says:

    Hi Dave…Having lived in Snow Falls, or Sioux Falls as it’s known to some, when I was 8 – 10 years old, I remember fondly going to the Passion Play in Spearfish! Don’t have any vivid memories of the trip…just remember that it was very kewl!

    Now we take our own kids to the largest, and we think the best, Passion Play in the MidWest/MidSouth nearby here in beautiful Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

    Their site The Great Passion Play does *not* do it justice as it’s extremely well produced, cast and executed…complete with an “after dark” real life Acension of our Risen Lord via “invisible” steel cables into the sky and hillside behind the stage…truly stunning and spine-tingling!

    More than just a play, they have a very historically accurate biblical-times museum, a miniture 3D recreation of the City of Jerusalem that’s over 7,000 SF in size and many other amazing inside museum quality items.

    If you ever have a reason (or need an excuse) to “come south”…it’s an adventure of a lifetime!

    Warmest Ozark Mountain Regards,

    Dennis Cogan
    NW Arkansas

  2. davehultin says:

    Dennis, I didn’t know you were close to our neck of the woods at one time! Our first family trip with the camper was to Sioux Falls … we had hoped to see the hot air balloon race but the weather cancelled the race. However, we took the opportunity to discover more of Sioux Falls and really had a fun time there!

    Thanks for the tip on the Passion Play in your region. The distance we travel increases in proportion to the age of our kids. I don’t think we’re in range this year, but perhaps a summer or two will get the camper pointing that way. We’ll seriously consider it … thanks for sharing the link!


  3. Julie says:

    I am so bummed! I am planning our family trip and this was #1 on my list to see (yes even beating out the presidents’ heads in rock)! I too remember seeing this play as a child, one of my fondest memories and was hoping to share this with my four kids. Guess I will head to Arkansas! Thanks for your post, it has helped me with my trip plans!

    Julie :)

  4. Everett Robert says:

    Hey stumbled across your webpage in a search myself on the Black Hills Passion Play. I too remember it as a child on our one and only trip to the Black Hills of S.D. and I think was one of the reasons I was always pushing to go back. Sad to hear it’s no longer there.

  5. Cindy Bendy says:

    Wow, I too wanted to go. Seems it would be better if they would have continued with the passion play.

  6. Heather Stewart says:

    There is also a Passion Play in Canada in Drumheller, Alberta. I remember going to the Black Hills Passion Play as a child as well … since this one is in the Canadian Badlands, hopefully it will be similar.

    • JJ says:

      As someone who has been to the Canadian Badlands Passion Play numerous times, it is definitely worth checking out. The cast averages between 150-200+ people each year. The set is 55 acres wide including parking, but the hills surrounding the valley the play is set in are constantly being used during the performances. Cast often are climbing the backs of the hills to get to the top for an entrance that you never expected. The beauty of this desert landscape only adds to the quality of the play. In 2013 the American Bus Association called them “One of the Top 100 Events in North America” (if that helps my American neighbours trust it (; ). Literally every performance that I have attended (20+ times as guest, and volunteer) has had a bus tour at it, if not multiple. This is a link to a 1 minute promo video created by the assistant director and the actor who has played Jesus for the last two years (they have a joint videography company, and so they do promotion for the play). The past few years and the 2015 season are based on the Gospel of John, and plans are in motion for the 2016 season to have a script based on the Gospel of Luke. That tells me, they plan to be around for at least a couple more years for us all to enjoy.

      I was researching North American Passion Plays when I stumbled on this page, Black Hills sounds like it was a part of a lot of peoples upbringing; the Canadian Badlands Passion Play was a part of mine.

  7. Carol Evan Saunders says:

    Sorry this is so, after the fact. I played the Magdeline in the Black Hills Passion Play for seven years. I just found your post. We had a small professional cast and then locals as the crowds. It was great to be part of the company. But, attendance dropped steadily throughout the later years- from audiences of over 5000 down to audiences of around 500. It no longer was possible to produce the show. The upkeep on such a large production is overwhelming- care of the camels-horses-donkeys sheep-doves, along with the salary for the professional cast and upkeep of the 3 block long facility. If you have any questions, I would be glad to try and answer them. I have fond memories of working as an actress in the performances. email is

    • davehultin says:

      Carol … almost a year later and I’m finally taking time to reply to your comment. I feel guilty for not doing so earlier. In any case a past audience member I wanted to thank you for your past contributions from the other side of the stage. Our family has been on a bit of a Bible kick lately, watching Miracle Maker last week (an Easter tradition at our house), The Gospel of John shortly after, and now onto The Bible that was just on the History channel. (We didn’t watch it on TV, we ended up getting the discs instead.)

      I speculate that is, perhaps, part of what lead to the decline in audience numbers. There are any number of well-produced video versions of The Passion (not to mention all the other entertainment options) that I suppose it’s difficult to compete.

      I don’t have any questions for you at the moment … just a deep respect for your willingness to be part of the telling of the greatest story in history!

  8. Will E. says:

    Wow. I never knew how other people viewed my town in relation to the Passion Play…. I’m a 13 year old living in Spearfish, and just today, I got the idea to go see what has become of the long-abandoned structures inside the passion play property. I’m very sad to report that the whole place is coming apart at the seams…. There is broken glass all over, the sets are falling into ruin, and no one know what is happening. I know there is nothing I can do, but i am deeply saddened that such a beautiful place has ended up in such a terrible condition.

    • davehultin says:

      I am also saddened by your report of the current state of the Passion Play grounds, but at the same time I am touched that you took the time to explore this important piece of history. Who knows, perhaps some day you and others like you could rekindle the production of the Passion Play!

  9. Demi says:

    My grand father played the judas In the lake wales passion play. If anyone knows any thing about him (trying to learn about family) pleas message me at Ravermelody(at)

  10. Jim L says:

    I remember many trips to the Black Hills Passion Play in Lake Wales, FL over the years. Last week on a trip to Winter Haven, we took a detour down Passion Play Road and passed the site stopping briefly to remember those special times. Nothing left for anyone to know what was there in the past and what special memories we have of those days. It was a beautiful outdoor setting among the Florida orange groves and the wonderful story of our Lord and Savior was presented there.

  11. Doranna Cooper says:

    I brought a bus load of senior citizens in the lat 80’s. I remember one of the sales pitches was there were no mosquitoes in Spearfish and it was true. After coming form Yellowstone Natl’ Park. this was quite a relief. One of our members had just returned from the Passion Play in Germany and said that the Spearfish Passion Play was far superior and much more enjoyable since it was much shorter also.
    Doranna Cooper

  12. Richard says:

    We also went there whn we grew up. Have lts of memories . Was planning to go back .

  13. Linda says:

    I am so sad to learn that the Passion Play is no longer in Spearfish. I just went online to get tickets for tonight not knowing they had ended the performance. We are here for a family reunion and decided to stay a few extra days and one of the things we wanted to do was see the Passion Play. My husband and I were here in 1972 on our honeymoon and saw it at that time. We nearly froze watching because we went in shorts and tank tops. It was so hot that day but it surely did cool off that evening. It was fantastic and was looking forward to reliving a memory except would have taken coats and a blanket. Sad that it no longer exists, it was a beautiful play.

  14. Elaine says:

    The Passion Play was a very good learning experience for me. I lived in Lake Wales, Fl when I was growing up. As a teenager I played in the Passion Play for several years. I can still picture all the people and especially Joseph Meier. He was a wonderful person.

  15. The Passion Play is no more. That’s terribly disappointing, I’m an 81 year old man who first say the Black Hills Passion Play as a grade school kid in Oakland, CA. It was the touring production held in the Municipal Auditorium across from Lake Merritt.
    My one distinct memory is the trial scene, with Jesus kneeling, surrounded by a group of soldiers all with their spears pointed at the Christ. The lighting and pattern made by the circle of spears has stayed in my mind.
    The image of Josef Meier’s Jesus has always been my impression of the Christ. Incidentally, his daughter Johanna Meier was my favorite Isolde was my favorite of the many I’ve seen. Wish I had an address for her, I’d love to contact her.

    Paul M. Miller, Oak Harbor, WA

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    An exceellent read. I’ll certainly be back.

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