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What prompts LDS families to save money-sometimes for a full year-and sacrifice two to three weeks in the summer to travel to Nauvoo and swelter in the sun and humidity or get drenched by rain to participate in the Nauvoo Pageant?
“The Nauvoo Pageant is an opportunity in the church to serve a mission as a family,” said Elizabeth Gudmundson. “Every family member is set apart as special representatives of the Church.” Alan and Elizabeth Gudmundson from Cedar City, Utah, and two of their children have participated in the Pageant for four years. In 2004, Elizabeth read about the new Nauvoo Pageant, and she felt an “incredible desire” to apply. So she sent in the paperwork and waited for a response. When the family learned they had been accepted for the 2005 Pageant, they all exclaimed, “We made it!” Yet, they had no idea what they would be doing. Elizabeth said, “Little did I realize how this would change my family and my future.”
The Gudmundson Family
As a member of the first Pageant cast, Elizabeth remembered “many exerting practices, coupled with temperatures of 100 degrees and extreme humidity that lasted late into the night. We rehearsed the story of Nauvoo, how the saints had sacrificed building the temple, only to be driven west.” Their daughter Vanesa, who was thirteen at the time, said that the dances had not yet been choreographed, and, as a result, cast members re-learned the dances five times in five days.
Vanesa sensed the presence of the early saints, and she knew “they desired their story be told to help others come unto Christ. We couldn’t have done it without them that first year.” Vanesa understood Parley P. Pratt’s introductory remarks to the audience each night of the Pageant: “When you’re here we’re here because we’re in you. Some of what you are now is because of what we are, what we became-here in this place, in this beautiful city called Nauvoo.”
One night after a performance, nine-year-old Joseph said to his mom, “They [the early saints] didn’t have any machines to help them build the temple. It would have been really hard to work in the heat. They had to grow their food. Then they had to leave the temple.” After sharing his insights, he said, “Mom, I knew this before because you told me, but now I understand.”
Elizabeth recalled how David Warner directed the cast by being positive and building confidence. “That first year I came out of a shell and gained confidence that I hadn’t felt before. I learned that as long as I was seeking and following the spirit, I didn’t need to be concerned so much as to what others were thinking of me.” Elizabeth learned to love others, lift them, and view them more as the Savior does.
During his first Pageant experience, Joseph watched the bagpipers play every day, and he told his dad he wanted to learn to play. Two years ago, he began taking bagpipe lessons. This summer, thirteen-year-old Joseph fulfilled his dream by becoming a Pageant bagpiper.
“What mother doesn’t want her children to work hard, gain greater perspective, learn interpersonal skills, share beliefs, and build positive, lasting friendships?” Elizabeth Gudmundson said.
One Nauvoo friendship led to the marriage of Vanesa Gudmundson and Jaron Packer. During the 2009 Pageant, Vanesa, Jaron, and their son joined the Gudmundson family cast. Jaron described his first Pageant experience: “I feel at home because the early saints are with us. It’s not a pageant like other church pageants. It invites those saints to be with us. This pageant connects our day with their day and testifies of the truth before we came. It testifies spirit to spirit with those who attend the Pageant.”
What about sacrifices of time, money, work, and home responsibilities? “Because of what we receive by being in the Pageant, there’s no sacrifice,” Alan Gudmundson said. “It’s an investment in our children’s testimonies.”
The McKee Family
Bill and RaNae McKee from Chubbuck, Idaho, and six of their ten children traveled over 22 hours to participate in the 2008 and 2009 Nauvoo Pageant family casts. They left two stores and a two-acre petting zoo with over 200 animals in the hands of their employees. Bill is also a professional counselor, and his clients asked why he would leave home for three weeks to voluntarily participate in a pageant. He said, “This experience is one of a kind and simply unites our family in a way that no other has done.” The McKee family saved their money all year to participate. “The Lord always gives you back more than you can ever give Him,” Bill said.
In 2006, the McKees fulfilled a family dream of touring church historical sights. They made a one-day stop in Nauvoo and discovered the Pageant’s pre-show. “It was as if we had stepped back into the 1800’s with gunny sack races, stick pull, handcart races, log sawing, quilting, puppet shows, round dances, stick ball and a dozen other activities,” Bill said. When bagpipers led a parade of children and adults to the outdoor pageant site, the McKees joined the parade. They sat on pageant seats “spellbound as this beautiful story of Nauvoo opened” and “witnessed one of the most heartwarming productions of our lives.” At the end of the Pageant, “all eight of our children begged us to please stay one more day so that we could have the experience all over again.”
The McKees applied for the 2008 Pageant, but were not accepted. Then in May, they received a phone call asking if they could take the place of a family who could not come. Brother McKee said, “Miracles began to happen right away as there was no housing available in Nauvoo.” At work the next day, one of the therapists said,” My father owns some property in Nauvoo. I bet he could help you.” The McKee family rented a home from him for their Pageant stay.
Arriving in Nauvoo, the McKees met “talented directors who informed us that we were not coming here to put on a production. We were here to invite all to come unto Christ.” Bill McKee added, “The miracle in that statement is that we as a family have come closer to Christ because of this experience.” Over 200 people from around the world joined together-directors, core and family casts, and technical, costume, family support, and stage crews. Director Ray Robinson used positive affirmations and the scriptures to instruct every step on stage, while his wife directed dance rehearsals with a three-month-old baby strapped to her.
Family participants “moved with joy” and sang and danced even if their talents lay elsewhere. The McKee family learned what the early saints must have felt when they came to Nauvoo “with one purpose in mind-they loved the Lord. They all worked together to build a city where everyone was included.”
The Pageant experience “is not without its challenges,” Bill McKee admitted. “We rehearsed long hours each day” and performed “in the hot sun, drizzling rain, and some short nights, but the blessings are far greater.” During the exodus scene, seven-year-old Destini looked up at the temple with tears in her eyes. “Daddy,” she said, “it takes me a while to stop my tears when we have to leave the temple behind.” Bill affirmed his daughter’s feelings. The Pageant “has given us a first-hand experience as to what it felt like to build Nauvoo as we participate in building Nauvoo on stage. We are not acting on stage. We are those people.”
This year when the McKee’s Pageant experience ended, family members planned to leave at 4:00 a.m. until they discovered that their car battery was dead. “It took us two hours to finally get the car started,” Bill McKee said. “We found out later that day that had we left at 4:00 a.m., we would have driven right into a tornado and baseball-size hail.” He acknowledged this as one of the Lord’s tender mercies to them.
Behind-the-scene Costume Volunteers
The Nauvoo Pageant cannot go on without behind-the-scene volunteers: costuming, security, work crew, family support, and food services. During the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Nadine Low helped with costumes while her husband and children performed on stage. This year after Collette Levitt and her family were not accepted for the family cast, she learned that Pageant volunteers were needed. So she reapplied, and the family found itself in Nauvoo. Collette assisted with costuming while her husband and three daughters helped with pre-show activities and projects, such as building stilts, putting up fences, and sorting fabric for pre-show rag rugs. Both families are from Alberta, Canada.
Being a professional seamstress, Nadine Low taught other volunteers how to alter costumes. She also made new vests, ties, and dresses. Collette and other volunteers assisted with tearing out seams, ironing, and performing costume alterations and repairs. Each Monday during the Pageant season when a new family cast arrived, these volunteers measured and fit costumes on cast members. Each evening of the Pageant, they helped cast members backstage with costume changes and repairs. On Saturday, they prepared for an all night “Laundry Party.” After the performance, they checked in costumes and washed and dried clothes all night in preparation for the arrival of a new family cast on Monday morning.
Collette Levitt remarked about her Pageant service experience, “I feel like I’ve done something very worthwhile.” Nadine Low added, “At home, work is work. Here, the spirit of Nauvoo energizes you and helps you. I feel a sisterhood in the costume shop. The ladies work really hard, and we feel a common bond.” Nadine’s husband, who this year performed on stage with his daughter, summarized the importance of behind-the-scene volunteers: “On stage we’re just in front of everything else that happens with the Pageant.”
Why do LDS families feel prompted to apply to participate in the Nauvoo Pageant?
Cory and Dana Brandt wrote, “Two years ago in 2007, my parents planned a great trip for our family to spend a week in Nauvoo. We had a wonderful time. We loved the programs, the restored homes, the pioneer activities and all that Nauvoo had to offer. But more than anything we were deeply touched by the spirit of Nauvoo and the spirit of the Pageant. We knew then that we had to return. We had to return for my great-great grandmother who clung to her Mother’s skirt as they were driven into the frozen Mississippi, only to bury her dead mother in Winter Quarters before leaving for the trek to the Salt Lake Valley. We had to return for those family members who were buried in the old Nauvoo Pioneer Cemetery. And we had to return for our children that they might always remember that the blood of ‘believers’ run through their veins.”
Barbara Renouf, wife of Nauvoo Pageant President Jack Renouf, said, “This Pageant is not as much about the past as it is about the future. For this work will need to be cherished by the younger generation and what better way to become acquainted with the great founders of the Church, Joseph and Hyrum, Brigham, Heber C., and John? They literally come alive on stage.”
A final participant added, “Our greatest hope is that our children will love Nauvoo with a fervent testimony to the life and mission of the Prophet Joseph and increased appreciation for the faithful footsteps of their pioneer fathers. We hope and pray that we will carry the spirit of Nauvoo forever in our hearts.”
Participating in the Nauvoo Pageant as volunteers or family cast members is an investment in family unity and testimony.
For Nauvoo Pageant application information, see www.nauvoopageant.org or call (217) 453-2429.
The Nauvoo Pageant has just completed their 2009 show times. Plan to attend next year.