REX NELSON: The holy rollers

Posted: September 1, 2018 at 3:39 a.m.

It's a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Eureka Springs, and I'm in the cluttered office that belongs to Jesus. Actually, I'm in the office of Kent Butler, the marketing director for The Great Passion Play. Butler is one of two actors who portray Jesus in the play, and he's set to be in that role at the evening performance.

I'm not here to talk about the play, though. I want to hear about Butler's efforts to bring more young people to the Passion Play grounds, which cover 667 wooded acres. Butler, whose father has pastored a church in nearby Berryville since 1980, first appeared as an actor in the Great Passion Play when he was a teenager. His wife, whose parents are teachers in Eureka Springs, can top that. She has been one of the actors since age 5.

In Wednesday's column, I outlined the efforts of an Oklahoma radio station owner and pastor named Randall Christy, who took over the production in 2013. The Great Passion Play, which begin in 1968, drew almost 300,000 people in 1992. By 1997, that number had dropped to 165,000 and continued to go down from there. Before Christy came to the rescue, it was announced that the 2013 season wouldn't take place. Christy says the outdoor drama has operated in the black the past six seasons with increased attendance each year.

Butler is determined to keep the momentum going by bringing in a younger demographic. He plans to do it through a combination of mountain biking and hiking trails. You don't think of mountain biking and The Great Passion Play as having anything in common, but that's no longer the case.

Gerald L.K. Smith, the far-right-wing activist and anti-Semitic speaker who once was associated with Huey P. Long, bought a home in Eureka Springs in 1964 and created a nonprofit foundation named after his wife, Elna M. Smith. He raised more than $1 million across the country so he could build the Christ of the Ozarks statue on Magnetic Mountain. Ground was broken for the statue on June 11, 1965. The seven-story structure was dedicated on June 25, 1966.

"One day in 1966, while inspecting progress on the statue, Smith noticed that the nearby hillside formed a natural amphitheater," Dennis Schick writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "This led to the idea and construction of the foundation's second major project, The Great Passion Play. The first performance, by invitation only, was on July 14, 1968, with the first public performance the next day. The 4,100-seat amphitheater has hosted more than 7.5 million people who have watched 200 cast members depict on a 500-foot-wide stage the last week in the life of Jesus Christ. It is the largest outdoor drama in the country."

Bulldozers carved the amphitheater out of the mountain, but most of the rest of the acreage remains pristine. Under Christy's watch, existing structures have improved considerably. Church-related organizations donate time to work on the grounds. Christian youth groups stay for a week at a time during the summer. Butler says that at least 1,000 volunteers have applied more than 400 gallons of paint since 2013. He says that those youth groups "started building hiking and nature trails through the Holy Land tour area in the summer of 2016, and it really started to snowball from there. After hiking the trails with members of the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists organization in the fall of 2016, we realized that hiking was just the beginning."

Butler knew that mountain biking was taking off across Arkansas thanks in part to the strong financial support of the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville. The first mountain bike trail to be completed on the Passion Play grounds is a 4.3-mile trail dubbed Genesis since it's friendly for beginners. The trail is open to the public each day from sunrise until an hour after sunset. Next to be completed was an intermediate trail called Holy Roller.

A well-known designer of mountain biking trails, Tony Boone, is leading the project. Boone established the first mountain bike patrol in Colorado in 1989 and has been a member of the Professional Trail Builders Association since 1995. Boone, who is based in Colorado, has been working in Eureka Springs with a Wyoming-based company known as Jagged Axe Trail Designs. He describes Holy Roller as "a rowdy slice of heaven." There eventually will be almost 20 miles of mountain biking trails on the property.

"The folks at The Great Passion Play have been so helpful and kind," Boone says. "Our team feels strongly that the property is being reborn."

The rain stops, and Butler takes me on a tour in a golf cart. He talks not only about the trails but also about things such as efforts to trim brush in order to improve the view from the Christ of the Ozarks statue, new special effects at The Great Passion Play, the use of the area to shoot films and other projects.

"I don't believe that the heyday of The Great Passion Play is in the past," Butler says. "But I realize that we can't continue doing the same things we were doing 20 years ago. They once had 120 performances a year of the play. That's too many. We now do 70 to 80 performances each season while adding additional things for people to do. We're getting the word out that we still have a future. You no longer hear people saying, 'Well, this will be the last year for the Passion Play.' We're very much alive. People are even starting to realize that there are things to do here in the months when there aren't performances of The Great Passion Play."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 09/01/2018