Eleven years after its near-death experience, the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs has retired the debts that nearly killed it.
The tourist attraction, which owed as much as $2.7 million in 2013, announced this month, after wrapping up this year's season, that it has paid off its mortgage.
With that $11,000 monthly burden lifted, operations director Kent Butler says the focus is now on the future.
"We've got a lot of positive traction. We've got some big dreams," he said. "Our goal is to make the Passion Play the most technologically advanced outdoor venue in the world."
Donors and volunteers are stepping up, and people have been flocking to the performances, he said.
"Despite there being a global pandemic, we're still at a high tide mark for average attendance per performance," Butler said.
Carroll County civic boosters are pleased to see the play thriving again.
"The Passion Play's a great asset to Eureka Springs, it sure is," said Devin Henderson, marketing coordinator for the local chamber of commerce.
Randall Christy, an Oklahoma pastor, religious broadcaster and the passion play's executive director, believes the performances are a powerful tool for evangelism.
On Sundays, he preaches at Union Valley Church in Ada, 85 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, then heads up to Eureka Springs, roughly five hours away.
The journey is worth it, he says, to help preserve the show.
In addition to roughly 150 human actors, the Passion Play also features horses and donkeys, sheep and goats, camels and llamas -- and doves.
The 2024 season begins during Holy Week, with performances on Good Friday and Easter Saturday and a sunrise service Easter Sunday.
Visitors can also watch the show the evening before or a few hours after the April 8 total solar eclipse, which will pass just to the east of Eureka Springs.
Other than one weekend in mid-August, the Passion Play will be staged every Friday and Saturday between May 24 and Nov. 2, with Tuesday performances nearly every week in June, July, September and October.
In the meantime, people can visit the Passion Play's Bible and sacred art museums, see the sights (including an Empty Tomb and a miniature Sea of Galilee) or take a virtual reality tour of the Holy Land.
20 MILES OF TRAILS
There are also 20 miles of trails to walk, climb or pedal.
During the Christmas season this year, there'll be a drive-through lights display to enjoy each evening.
A German town named Oberammergau has been staging passion plays, periodically, since the 17th century. An American version, launched by German immigrants, was staged annually in Spearfish, S.D., from the late 1930s until 2008.
Gerald L.K. Smith, former head of the America First Political Party and a vocal opponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jews, Blacks, integration and immigrants, helped build the Christ of the Ozarks statue in 1966 and launch the Passion Play two years later.
He died in 1976.
The Elna M. Smith Foundation, which was named after his wife, owned and ran the property for decades, but struggled as attendance dwindled.
DEATH KNELL RINGING
By the time Christy got involved, the tourist attraction's obituary had already appeared in several Arkansas news outlets.
Reports of its demise were not greatly exaggerated.
"When I came in November of 2012, it was closed," Christy recalled Tuesday. "The gates were locked. They had already sold the animals and let all the staff go."
The lights that illuminate the nearby Christ of the Ozarks statue had gone dark.
The bankers were preparing for what one called an "amicable foreclosure."
Christy, who is also president of the Gospel Station Network, urged his radio listeners to help save the play. In 10 days, $75,000 was raised, enough to pay interest on the debt and keep the bank at bay.
An anonymous donor gave enough money to light the statue back up, and Christy shifted his attention to reversing the Passion Play's fortunes.
Since then, donors have stepped up. Christy estimates 3,000 people have made contributions.
CHANGED ITS NAME
With Christy at the helm, the Elna M. Smith Foundation reported $3.16 million in revenue in 2021. Earlier this year, the organization changed its name to the Great Passion Play Inc. to better reflect its focus and "to eliminate confusion," Butler said.
The Southern Baptist congregation Christy leads has been supportive of his efforts over the past decade, he said, viewing it as an opportunity to spread the Gospel.
"Our church is all about missions. We have missions where we help the homeless, feed the hungry. We build houses overseas for widows and orphans. We put on evangelical missions in nine different countries, and this is our mission to the USA," he said.
In order to save the show, the organization scaled back its calendar somewhat, Butler said.
"The Institute of Outdoor Theatre looked at our books, our budget, and then our attendance and they recommended us reducing the performance run from 120 shows to about 70 to 80 shows," Butler said. "That is the single most significant thing operationswise that we've done. That really improved the bottom line."
In addition to fixing the finances, the organization has also been improving its technology.
"We've replaced all of the very archaic lighting that they used to have. It's state-of-the-art lights now," he said. "We now have lights that can literally make it appear like there are stars in the sky. It's a tremendous effect," he said.
The focus, now, is on modernizing the sound system, he said.
After that, "we're looking to redo the entire musical score," he said.
A symphony in Budapest, Hungary, has been tapped to record it in 2025, he said.