On July 23rd of 1967, a small crowd of about 2,000 people sat quietly chatting together in the early evening in the grandstands of the Sanpete County fairgrounds in Manti, Utah, and listened as rain fell on the metal roof above them. Two angry dark storm centers wheeled together overhead, and occasional flashes of lightning were answered with the sharp cracking and rolling of thunder. In the arena where broncos and bulls were ridden at fair time, the soft earth had been set with transplanted sagebrush, a grove of trees, and a wooden platform which served as a stage. The pioneer movement was represented by one handcart. Two Book of Mormon prophets, Mormon and Moroni, were seen on Temple Hill across the fences to the east, portrayed as a mortal on the west slope by Larry Stable, and as an angel on the temple annex by LeGrand Olson. Doug Barton had hung 100 watt light globes in gallon cans on steel posts to light the hill. Trees east of the fairgrounds had been trimmed to make the temple hill visible to the audience.
Directors for that first production were Helen and Morgan Dyreng, with Jane Braithwaite assisting. Communication between the set on the fairgrounds and those on temple hill was maintained by walkie talkie's, hand-held by Lynn Nielsen and John Henry Nielsen. A twenty-five piece orchestra composed mostly of local musicians trained by Richard Nibley, would serve as accompaniment to the songs and incidental music used as background for the pageant. McLoyd Erickson, Evan Bean and Harry A. Dean were music directors, and Richard Nibley would play first violin using his imported instrument. A choir from Sanpete South Stake was seated on open bleachers. As they tried to protect their music from the light rain that was falling some wondered how much rain it would take to ruin a violin. One lone woman sat apart from the audience, oblivious to threatening storm, but reluctant to take shelter in the grandstand. When encouraged to come up into the protected seats she commented that this first night of the pageant was very crucial. ' 'If it doesn't go tonight,it will never go." She chose to sit by herself in the rain.That woman was Grace Johnson. And although she felt that the initial presentation was vitally important, she could never have known the scope and grandeur that would come to the pageant, or the impact that it would have on the lives of people world-wide.
As time for the first presentation of the Mormon Miracle Pageant drew near, an air of expectancy was felt by those assembled. A roving dog trotted onto the stage area, and Grace, who was also known for her efforts in behalf of animals, and anxious that nothing disturb this fledgling production, called the dog to her and held it. As Stake President Vernon L. Kunz stood to give the opening prayer his supplication was simple and direct, and he prayed for the elements to be held in abeyance during the performance. Rain did stop falling as the pageant began and everyone was soon engrossed in the production as Duane and Martha Ryan stood at a portable lectern and read the words to the story written by Grace Johnson. Action suited to the spoken word took place in the setting before them. There was a boy kneeling in humble prayer in a grove, there was a hard cart and pioneers. There was dancing and laughter, heartache and dying, eviction from civilization, and triumph in the valleys of the mountains. Music from the chorus and orchestra supported the changing scenes, and lightning broke forth occasionally to emphasize the pathos of "twelve thousand homeless, under rain drenched skies."Then as the pageant concluded, before everyone could get to their cars, the clouds broke apart, and rain not came down in torrents.
That first year was something those of us who were there will never forget. Even though it was modest by today's standards, still that first performance was memorable, and many of us remember the warmth of the special spirit that has prevailed each year at the pageant. It is the spirit of peace and love and brotherhood to which people respond. The first stage was a raised platform directly in front of the grandstand at the Sanpete County Fairgrounds, draped with curtains borrowed from the Manti American Legion Hall. Plywood panels on the left of the stage hid the waiting cast from view of the audience. Both readers stood at one lectern. Make-shift spot lights in the grandstand focused on the stage, along with two Leiko lights from Snow College. Local square dance caller Merritt Bradley loaned his sound system. A "Ways and Means" committee was organized to raise funds for the pageant, with Claude Braithwaite as chairman. Donations of all kinds, including monetary gifts, supplies, materials and labor made those first years possible.
The second year the pageant was moved to a natural terrace on the south west slope of Temple Hill. Manti Temple President Bent Peterson agreed to have the pageant on the temple grounds with the understanding that no cars or vehicles could be brought into the area. All scenery and equipment had to be hand carried from trucks, backed up by the fence, to the stage area.The street immediately west of the temple grounds was blocked off for seating. Bleachers, moved from the fair grounds and additional chairs, brought by members of the audience, were placed in the street. The choir and orchestra were set up below the stage and again furnished background music as the scenes unfolded. Some of the scenes of the pageant took place on a wooden stage loaned by Snow College, and some on various areas higher on the temple hill. Two more locally built handcarts were used that year. The pageant was held in August in 1968, and it played for two nights. Threats of rain were still present, so the next year pageant dates were moved back to July to be nearer the anniversary of the arrival of the first pioneers in Utah.The move to the temple hill was a great step forward. However, tall trees partially blocked the spectators' view, making it difficult to see the progression of the story. More than twice as many people saw the pageant the second year and there was a call for it to be repeated the next year. Permission was again given to use the temple hill, and the First Presidency of the LDS Church agreed to have a few trees removed to make the stage more visible to the audience. People were allowed to sit on the grass among the trees near the base of the hill, but equipment and staging still had to be carried in by hand. Even with additional seating, the crowds were so large that some in the streets had to stand.