Once-popular Arkansas Passion Play of Jesus' life closes

Thu Dec 6, 2012 2:29pm EST
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By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - For decades, visitors from around the world descended on the small Ozark mountain hamlet of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to see The Great Passion Play, the tale of Jesus Christ's last week on earth.

The flashy play with a cast of hundreds, including live animals, was performed for 45 seasons in the shadow of the seven-story Christ of the Ozarks statue on Magnetic Mountain.

But no more. The lights are out on the statue, and it and a 700-acre campus are up for sale.

The Elna M. Smith Foundation, which owns the site, has announced it is unable to continue producing the play, which ran from May to October each year. The foundation has also shut the doors on exhibits including its famous Bible collection.

"Our hope and prayer is that The Great Passion Play will continue in some way to tell ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told,'" Keith Butler, chairman of the foundation's board of directors, said in a statement.

But for Eureka Springs, a Victorian tourist town of 2,074 people, the closure is a major blow.

"There's no question the loss of The Great Passion Play will hurt businesses in Eureka Springs," said Joe David Rice, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

"Although the play's visitation has dropped significantly over the years, its visitors bought meals, rented rooms and made important contributions to the local economy," Rice said.   Continued...

The Christ of the Ozarks statue is seen in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in this undated handout photo courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. REUTERS/Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism/Handout