Easter Brings Memories of Passion Play in Lake Wales
Last updated 4/1/2021 at 10:36am
Easter Week always brings fond memories of the three months each winter that the Lake Wales community came together to participate as "extras" to help dramatically depict the last seven days of Jesus Christ on Earth.
I don't remember exactly how many years I participated in the Black Hills Passion Play winter productions – so many Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays and a few Wednesday matinees. But even more than 45 years later the memories are vivid. My hometown was part of something very special.
Producer and director Josef Meier, who into his 80s himself played the role of Jesus, brought the production in 1953 to an amphitheater built in a Hunt Brothers orange grove south of town. Its summer home was in the Black Hills near Spearfish, South Dakota, where Meier opened the production in 1939. His wife, Clare played Mother Mary until she turned the role over to her daughter, Johanna.
Packed buses (and private vehicles) carrying an estimated 35,000 visitors each year came to the 3,500 seat outdoor Central Florida venue, where live camels, sheep, donkeys and horses paraded across the stage along with 25 professional actors and up to 250 volunteers. The "extras" were affectionately called "supers," a shortened version of the word supernumerary. (Until my Passion Play experience I didn't realize camels were stinky and liked to spit.)
As teenage girls we lined up, finding a partner about the same height, hoping to be chosen for the temple scene, where we performed a ritualistic ceremony around a smoking vessel, wearing white robes and channeling vestal virgins. Ironically these same girls later in the play served as King Herod's harem watching as Jesus was brought before the King, given a robe and mocked before being sent back to Pontius Pilate for sentencing.
Being short and relatively flat-chested offered one advantage – the only costumes that fit and parts we could play were "cup" and "lyre." While the taller girls stood at attention holding crossed fans or actually fanning the king, the shorter ones like me sat beside the throne, passing King Herod his cup or stroking a fake lyre while Salome danced. (That was especially fun the year one of my close friends, Carol Clemons, got to play Salome.) The brightly colored satin costumes consisted of a long skirt and a bra-like top, baring our arms and midriffs, sometimes on bitterly cold evenings.
My junior year in high school brought the opportunity to play another role, one of the two attendants who followed Mother Mary. Two short, older ladies usually played these roles, but I got to fill in on occasion. We comforted the Blessed Mother as she beheld her son on the cross and then stood reverently by as the night sky flashed and thunder roared until Jesus cried out to God and took his last breath.
Some of my high school classmates played Roman guards, riding beautiful horses across the sandy stage. Others were shepherds, and everyone got to participate in the two large, crowd scenes.
For Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, we raised palm fronds and shouted joyfully, "Hail, Hosanna, Hail." Our goal was to run all the way across the stage before the scene shifted so we could turn and follow the donkey and not have to walk backwards. Just an hour or so later, this same crowd turned into an angry mob, screaming "Crucify him, to death with him, nail him to the cross" and calling for Pontius Pilate to "Free Barabbas," a notorious criminal.
This second part became painful to participate in the year after I walked the aisle of the local Baptist Church and promised my heart and life to Jesus. Tears filled my eyes as calling for my Savior's death took on new and powerful meaning.
My friends and I tried to arrive early so we could reserve our favorite cotton robes and striped headpieces with matching fabric belts. Between the two major crowd scenes was a time for doughnuts, cokes and coffee, our only compensation. Adults constantly hushed the young ones so our backstage chatter didn't disturb the audience. We also got very quiet when Josef Meier crossed backstage.
Ask people who grew up or spent time in Lake Wales during the 35 years prior to the production shutting down in 1988 and you likely will hear some great Passion Play stories. I remember a really memorable kiss while sitting on a picnic bench waiting for my ride. And my high school graduation was held at the amphitheater.
Even now, every time I hear the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah I still feel the electricity knowing the tomb was empty and Christ had risen from the dead and it soon would be time to go home.
I am so grateful to have grown up in Lake Wales during a time that the entire community came together for a greater cause, to share a story that could change lives.
PS – I was 20 years old when I took my first airplane trip – from Orlando to New York City to Paris. Waiting for departure my breathing quickened and I was filled with a gripping fear. Then I looked up and saw Josef Meier and his wife Clare coming down the aisle. The peace of Christ fell over me, and I knew everything would be just fine. That's one more happy Passion Play memory.