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It's a busy day for Randall Christy. The executive director of The Great Passion Play at Eureka Springs is watching the weather. It has rained all morning, and the final Tuesday night performance of the month is scheduled to begin at 8:30. Christy is hopeful the weather will clear since several large buses already are on the grounds. He will get his wish. The rain will stop, and the show will go on for one of the world's biggest outdoor dramas.

Since The Great Passion Play began in July 1968, it's estimated that more than 7 million people have passed through the gates. It appeared that the production was on its last legs in 2012 due to falling attendance and unpaid bills. In fact, it was announced in December of that year that the 2013 season wouldn't take place. In January 2013, Christy rode to the rescue. He's the pastor of Union Valley Baptist Church, which is seven miles from Ada, Okla. Christy began work at age 18 at Ada's radio station, KADA. He now owns almost 20 stations that play gospel music. The signals from those stations cover most of Oklahoma and parts of north Texas, southwest Arkansas and southern Kansas.

Christy, 54, had attended the Passion Play for years. He views it as a mission. There were those in Eureka Springs who doubted his staying power, but this is the sixth season under Christy's direction. He says attendance has increased each year. Whether they agree with Christy's evangelistic message or not, business leaders in this part of north Arkansas will tell you that it's important to the economy that the Passion Play do well.

"I usually handle the introductions each evening and ask people to hold up their hands if they're seeing the Passion Play for the first time," Christy says. "Consistently, at least half of those in the crowd hold up their hands. I consider that a good sign. There's nothing else quite like this in the world. If Christians across this country had known back in 2012 that it was about to go under, they would have rallied and raised the money. For the past six years, it has been my job to make sure they know how important this place is. We're doing things the right way. That's why you see church groups showing up again. It's why the tour buses are starting to come back. Watching the Passion Play has far more of an impact than reading a book or watching a film."

During the season, which runs from May through October, Christy splits his time between Oklahoma and Arkansas. He has five children and eight grandchildren and is looking forward to what's ahead. He says he has whittled the debt from $2.5 million to $2.2 million and is operating in the black for a sixth consecutive season. Christy is hopeful that the support of churches and individuals will allow him to erase the debt and add attractions. He plans to move a cyclorama on the life of Jesus Christ, known as The Painted Word, from Georgia to Eureka Springs. The cyclorama is 11 feet tall and 1,000 feet long. It took artist Jackson Bailey seven years to paint on a linen canvas.

Christy will keep The Painted Word in storage until he can raise the money to build a facility to house it. He wants the cyclorama to encircle the lobby of an indoor theater that hosts film showings and live presentations. Christy also hopes to update the museums on the grounds. He mentions the $500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which was opened in November by Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby. The evangelical Green family funded that project.

"I look at what the Green family has done in Washington and realize that we need to do similar things here in the heartland so we can serve those who can't travel to the East Coast," Christy says. "I love this part of Arkansas and am committed to making this place all it can be. We're trying to create a two-day experience for people. Outdoor theater isn't the draw it used to be, but this one has stood the test of time. I believe it has a bright future. Our problem is that a lot of people think the Passion Play closed down. We need to be able to triple our advertising budget so we can get the word out that we're still here."

The Arkansas business community once had what can best be described as a complicated relationship with The Great Passion Play. Business leaders liked the thousands of tourists it brought to the state, but were wary of its founder, Gerald L.K. Smith.

Smith, who died in 1976 and was buried at the foot of the Christ of the Ozarks statue in Eureka Springs, had a history of vile statements. Glen Jeansonne and Michael Gauger write in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: "In the early 1930s, Smith began to express anti-Semitic and fascist sentiments and considered joining the Silver Shirts, a pro-Nazi group led by William Dudley Pelley. Instead, Smith became national organizer for Huey P. Long's Share-Our-Wealth Society, a group promoting the wealth redistribution plan that Long planned to use as the centerpiece for a 1936 presidential bid. The work made Smith discover his talent for moving the masses through public speaking. ... Long was assassinated in September 1935."

H.L. Mencken once described Smith as "the gutsiest and goriest, loudest and lustiest, the deadliest and damndest orator ever heard on this or any other earth ... the champion boob buster of all epochs."

Now a far gentler and more soft-spoken orator, Randall Christy, seeks to restore The Great Passion Play to the attraction that once filled motels all up and down U.S. 62.

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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 08/29/2018

Print Headline: Restoring the passion

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