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 VisitSpearfish.com:

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:

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passion_play

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: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,777543,00.html

And here’s a wonderful writeup of the play’s history and purpose: http://www.catholicdigest.com/articles/travel/no_sub_ministry/2009/03-31/passion-for-the-passion. 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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34 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

    • tree9616 says:

      It’s too bad this no longer exists … the Passion Play. I remember seeing it on a summer vacation to SD in 1957. Our “vacations” were usually when Dad got transferred to another post with the Army. This one though was when he had a brief period of not being in the Army. I was only about 6 yrs. old. This isn’t just a “child’s imagination,” but when we saw the Passion Play, there was a lthunderstorm in the distance going on when “Jesus” was hung on the cross. Awesomeness !!! … esp. for a young impressionable kid.

      • Gene Wagnerv says:

        played a High Priest in play.. playe a High Priest that year while finishing my degree there @ Black Hills State( I’m from Dearborn,Mi)

  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!

    Dave

  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.

    http://www.canadianpassionplay.com

    • 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.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eeBTlZSJZE 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.

      • davehultin says:

        JJ, thanks for sharing the info. The video is very well-done, and it certainly looks like the production itself is equally well-done. Maybe I can get a head-start on planning next year’s summer vacation!

  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 cevan@rap.mid.net

    • 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)gmail.com

  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 .
    Richard

  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.
    Linda

  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

  16. Rick says:

    I lived in Spearfish in 1963, am here today. Went looking for our old house and the Passion Play, no luck on either but I found this blog this evening on an Internet search. I think I found the old building up at the top of the hill but it does not look any thing like it did in 1963. Gee what should I expect, that was 51 years ago!!

  17. Pingback: The End | Dave Hultin

  18. Does anyone know if the Black hills Passion Play was ever recorded, if so where can I buy a copy..Have wonderful memories of going there, so sad it is no more…

  19. Stephen K. Pugh says:

    Not To my knowledge and I was sound tech for the Black Hills Passion Play in Lake Wales and some summers in Spearfish for 24 years. I knew the play so Mr. Meier used to arrange for me to fly up to Spearfish for 2 to 3 weeks while the sound tech that lived there would take a brief vacation. He was a professor at The Black hills State College and Summer was his free time.
    Mr. Meier was a wonderful man and It was a great experience working with him and the cast and being a part of the production. The Play had left Lake Wales for good before the three hurricanes rolled through here in 2004 and Hurricane Charlie destroyed for the most part the temple and Pilates house, along with the organ house that contained the Keyboard and light dimmers. Center stage was still standing though but the property went back to The Grove owners and they bulldozed the entire concrete amphitheater and Built some migrant worker homes there in the area where the box office had stood. It grieves me to go by there knowing what was but I am glad to know that there are a number of places in this country that still carry on the mission of bringing the most significant event in history to life for folks to experience.

  20. Melodie Rollins says:

    Come to Alberta Canada! The Canadian Badlands Passion Play in Drumheller is by all accounts even better.

  21. Richard Kaufmann says:

    Hello David
    I was so happy to see a recent response to your web as July 22, 2015. I woke this morning with determination of looking for Johanna Meier. In doing so I came to your web. I am 92 years of age and first viewed the Black Hills Passion Play at about 7 or 8 years old when it was on tour in Detroit Mi. There after I again became interested with it when a friend and I went to work in the harvest fields which brought us to Spearfish where we became acquainted with the Cutter family who were employed with the BHPP and personal friends of the Meier family. Mrs. Cutter was probably the ticket sales Mgr. when you attended the play. My friend and I attended the production while working for the Cutter’s at their farm. In those years the Cutters also owned the only hotel in Spearfish. After WW2 I went back to work for the Cutters at which time the Meiers welcomed me into their family affairs to the degree that I was called upon to take Johanna to the movies, she was eight or nine, when her parents had other plans. Perhaps my last time with the Meier family was in 1948 when I married a Spearfish girl and did not get back to Spearfish except to visit her family. That is until Johanna came to Detroit as a featured singer with the New York Opera. I was very happy to take some friends and share some time with her after the performance. The next day I was asked to take her to the airport for a flight to Cleveland. I drove her to Cleveland instead to have a longer visit.. I must get back to my research of Johanna. If you have any awareness of her I would be very pleased to know. My email contact is included below

  22. Leonard Glinski says:

    That’s so sad to hear. I was able to see it in 1974, and was looking forward to see it again in May and June of this year. Will it be shown somewhere else? It was really good.

  23. Gregg says:

    If this train is still going, check out The Promise play in Glen Rose, TX. Excellent alternative if your in the Lone Star State. Generally plays weekends in September and October only. Blessings!

  24. George Darling says:

    So sad. I attended around 1960 with a school group from Ft Pierce. Also just learned that Chalet Suzanne closed. Last ate there around 1974 while living in Lakeland.

  25. George Darling says:

    I am referring to Lake Wales, FL.

  26. Gene Wagnerv says:

    Went to Black Hills State( also inSpearfish,So Dakota) played one of High Priest’s on several occasions. Beautiful Play!!

    • Gene Wagnerv says:

      graduated from Black Hills State ..summer of 1957…Wonderful memories of that area( & ERA)..It seems to me that three block area might be very valuable today for development.Next 2 yrs spent in Army(in Germany) 2 years later took my wife & 1yr old on Black Hills trip.. visited Grounds early in day & Jiseph Meier was there.. We had a great 20 min. conversation & he graciously invited us to be his guest that evening.. I have nothing but extremely fond memories of Spearfish & the magnificent Black Hills. Had attended Fl.State Univ & Notre Dame..Was blessed to have landed in So DAk. ( through a great friend from Rapid City whom I met @ Notre Dame) I had run out of $s.. had to drop school till fall of 1954.. Dennis Fitzgerald…. later became aMarine fighter pilot 3 duties in Vietnam War off U.S carriers(Full Colonel & Commander of the famous “ Black Sheep” squadron in a fantastic military career)….

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