History of the Marion Easter Pageant

The Beginning – 1937:

As told by Richard M. Davis M.D., March, 18,1999

This must be Easter Pageant time. That sure brings back memories. I was a Junior in High school in 1937 when Ruth Hood and 3 members of her Church’s youth group asked Mother to help them with an Easter pageant at their Church. Mother with her professional career of directing church choirs and musical background knowing church music including Oratorios, decided that why not include all of the churches and faiths to put on an Easter pageant that the entire Marion Community could have as a Civic project She knew that the Sweetsers had donated an Organ to the city that was a part of the Coliseum, so that was where she would have the Pageant.

She could combine all of the church choirs, orchestras, add the city’s professional musicians, both instrumental and vocal and do very difficult Oratorio music as well as hymns and familiar music of all faiths. She also envisioned it to not only being Ecumenical, but she gave a very prominent part to the Black community by using their combined church choirs as a part of the cast at the very beginning walking them through the streets of Jerusalem as Pilgrims to the chorus location and then including them then as a part of the mass Choir. She used the Catholic Nuns to train a group of Catholic youths to form a moving cross with which to open the Pageant. They moved across the floor and sat in the bleachers at the North West corner next to the floor.

In order to achieve complete cooperation, she convinced her Ministerial Committee consisting of all of Marion’s Ministers that there would be no spoken word and the story of Christ’s last week would all be done in Pantomime action on the floor and special Tableau on the stage. She would use music chosen to fit each sequence of the activities to tell the story as the pageant developed it in action. It was their special assignment to choose one of their own members to play the part of the Christus. She chose the Disciples with their approval.

She opened the Pageant office in February in some business space donated near the city square By coordinating Volunteers, she did the costuming, built sets, cast the various parts, set up rehearsals using the various churches for rehearsal sites. I remember she, with the help of our wonderful housekeeper, Dorothea Culbertson, who was extremely well versed in the Bible and Hymns, created the action and hour long music score to select music to tell the story of the planned activity of the Pageant. Dorothea was her first assistant always, even dressing in costume at the time of the Pageant, so she could move all over during the pageant action to help move things along wherever it was needed during the performance if necessary. Mother directed the choir and orchestra while watching all of the performance and delegating Dorothea to needed areas. In the beginning, Ruth Hood and her group were in charge of recruiting the various Church youth groups to help in all of these areas.

The week before Easter she moved it all to the Coliseum. The fire department hung lights, scenery, and all of the high work. The Carpenter’s Union built props, enlarged the stage and built steps. The police ran errands and cut red tape wherever it occurred. Off duty and on duty policemen were always a part of those doing other jobs at the Coliseum during that week usually guarding everything day and night to prevent vandalism or anything else that might disrupt the performance. The Electrical Union did all of the wiring and lighting. The lumber yards and others donated the materials needed. The various Church volunteers provided the catering for food, so everybody could stay and get the work done. The entire community had a part. This was not all done the first year, but all of the main parts were there in place. Over the next 2 years, she perfected and fine tuned it. Over the next 20 years or more, I forget when she retired, it changed very little. In order to maintain interest, each year she would add some other music, repair costumes, and repair or build new props.

One year, she decided that the choir and orchestra were professional enough that she could do an entire Oratorio with the choir and orchestra as a special concert alone at the Coliseum several nights before they moved from their downtown offices into the Coliseum. At that time, Father was a Trustee of Indiana University and was involved in upgrading and reorganizing the small Music school. They had just hired a new Dean, Dr. Wilfred Baine, a well known choral director and Dean of music at a school in Texas. President Wells had appointed Mother to that committee to select a new Dean. He had been in Bloomington for about a year, and Mother decided to invite him to Marion as guest conductor of the Pageant Choir and orchestra for this concert. The Oratorio required 4 solo singers, 2 women and 2 men. She invited Dean Baine to bring four of his graduate students to give them experience. She had experts singing the parts and the advertisement for the Concert could be more than just the Pageant Choir having Indiana University as a part of the Program. Dean Baine, over the next few years, developed the IU School of Music into an Internationally known School even better than the Julliard School of Music in New York and others in this country.

During WW2 it was not done. All of the props and costumes were stored. After the war, just before they were going to get everything out for that year, there was a fire and over half of everything was destroyed. She called out the troops and by Easter morning everything was back to normal and the show went on as usual. A little bit better, because there was a lot that was new. On Friday evening before Easter, she had the only dress rehearsal. After the second year, she had the Pageant participants invite their families to the dress rehearsal. This provided a select audience and provided a time for all who had helped to see it, because many could not get in on Easter morning. The crowd always started lining up during the night to be in line when the doors opened at 6:00 AM. The Coliseum was always packed to capacity for that dress rehearsal.

I remember there was quite a discussion in the Minister’s committee the second year, because several thought there should be an admission fee or at least a place where people could leave an offering. This was voted down, because it was feared that it would take away from each Church’s regular offerings at their service. Mother opposed that plan anyway, because she wanted it to be a community project free for one and all.

Over the years, the Christus part changed some, but they usually gave it to the one who was the best actor. A lot of the Ministers did not want to do it for reasons of their own. The Disciples and Roman Officials changed very little for all of the years that Mother did it. The person in the position of creating the Lightening and Thunder at the time of the Crucifixion, that was carefully timed to the music and demanded a person who knew the music and could be completely trusted to prevent complete disaster if not done properly, was always the same person every year that she did it. It was Father. She did not trust anyone else.

The choir and orchestra started rehearsing the first of February.. Because there was no church big enough, this was held on Sunday afternoon, at the Marion Normal College auditorium. These sessions would continue right up to the time they moved to the Coliseum. The group would not always be the same people every Sunday, but everyone had the rehearsal that they felt they needed. Many came each time, because they enjoyed singing. Most had their own scores, because it was essentially the same over the years. If something new was added, they would get that at a rehearsal.

The men’s group always did extra time, because in some of the Oratorios, they had solo parts. She placed the men who were capable of carrying the group carefully in their seating arrangement, so those not so expert would be sitting next to someone who was and could follow along easily. Keeping this group on Key was the greatest problem. several of her most important key men were in the Pilgrim chorus coming across the floor to the Choir site. She arranged the seating of the entire chorus so that these men could quickly get into their assigned seats in the men’s group without disturbing the others who were all singing continuously as the Pilgrims arrived. The rest of the Pilgrims could sit in the lower seats, but they were carefully arranged in their walking order so that when they reached the Chorus they would be sitting in their correct voice section of the chorus. There was no detail overlooked. The choir was located in the North East side of the Coliseum and always went from the floor up to the very top of the building. The Coliseum had 6000 seats and that side had a chorus of 1000 seated with the orchestra in front on the floor area.

I was in the orchestra as usual for the last Pageant that she did, She had over a 1000 in the choir. The orchestra was about 25 plus 2 grand pianos and Organ. I forget how many in he cast, but it was hundreds not counting all of the support systems. WLW Radio station in Cincinnati broadcast it live for years. Indiana University came up and did a color film plus Audio of the last one Mother Cordially did. I hope the Pageant Board has that film. It probably needs some restoring by now.

Everyone has their favorite story about what happened to them during the preparation time and at the Easter morning performance. The makeup folks would have trouble with the actors who wanted their beards to look just right. One of the Tableaus was Divinci’s Last Supper picture. When the curtain rose the picture was there with everyone in place. As the music told the story the actors would act out the part. One time when Judas rose to go over to the Christus, his robe got tangled up in the table cover and those Disciples next to him held the table cover tight so all of the goblets and things would not fall over. Only they and mother knew that it had happened until they told about it after rehearsal.

Another time, the angel had her wings slip on dress rehearsal night and one of the Mary’s moved up and held them in place. No one ever noticed thinking it was part of the play. The prop people were devastated and spent part of the night after the rehearsal fixing the wings and rehearsing getting her in place without troubles happening again. Everyone in charge of a unit felt responsible and even tried to keep their same assignment over the years. One of Mother’s problems every year was to keep peace and still have understudies for every key place to have continuity if someone moved away or did not show up for other personal reasons.

As the years passed some who had portrayed a child in the Jerusalem streets, became older and were a part of the teenage dancing girls. There were some who then had their own children playing the parts they had done at the same age. One of the high school boys, who was a beggar in Jerusalem, once told me many years later, that mother kept him in sac cloth and sandals even after he had gone away to college and came home for Easter break, because she told him he did not need to rehearse and could come to town just before the dress rehearsal and play the part like a Pro. It would be interesting some time for someone to collect these stories by talking to people who have been a part of this community project over the years. It would make fascinating reading especially to several generations now who have participated in this annual Marion Event.

Mother never would allow any publicity to mention her name. She felt that it was a Community Project in which everyone participated and that no one person should take any personal credit over anybody else. At her memorial service in 1984, Dick Simons gave part of the Eulogy and said that the Community owed Mother gratitude as the Founder of the Marion Easter Pageant. She created it by writing, producing, and directing what became a Community Historical Event that had been a part of the community every Easter since 1937. It involved everyone regardless of background or Religious Faith. Dick knew her well and this time it was appropriate to acknowledge her contribution to the community of Marion. She would have been pleased.


Richard M. Davis