MINDEN – Angels and prophets walked out of the Kearney County Courthouse and into an overcast, silent Saturday-after-Thanksgiving night.
They were greeted on the courthouse square by a crowd gathered for the start of a nearly 80-year-old holiday tradition: Minden’s “Light of the World” pageant.
The annual shows, which tell the birth of Jesus, have continued largely uninterrupted since 1946, minus a few notable exceptions.
Performances aren’t always flawless. There’s been a few fires – literally. Missteps have led to injuries that sidelined cast members. Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. On Saturday, the rumble of a passing freight train a few blocks away offered an unscripted effect.
Crowds have thinned since the days when the pageant would draw more than 10,000 people, but it continues to bring hundreds into downtown Minden, a community of 3,000 known as Nebraska’s Christmas City.
Thanks to its longevity, the pageant has become a family tradition for people like Ben Morey.
A former pageant stable boy, Roman soldier and director, Morey is the second of four generations to have a hand in Christmas City’s holiday spectacle. He still feels a profound sense of “serving a higher purpose” when he hears “Hallelujah Chorus,” the tune to the show’s finale.
Mary, Joseph, shepherds and Roman soldiers assemble around the sets, “Hallelujah Chorus” plays and a sudden burst of Christmas lights sets the courthouse aglow.
“I hope it gives people a 30-minute break from today’s staggering news from around the world,” Morey said.
The first downtown Christmas lights were hung in 1915, nine years after courthouse construction was completed.
In 1946 a local Methodist minister asked Clayton Morey, Ben’s dad and the high school drama teacher at the time, to write a Christmas play to accompany the annual lights.
The Bible verse-based narration for the first pageant performance on Dec. 8, 1946, was spoken through a microphone, accompanied by music on a record player.
The turnout of an estimated 12,000 people and 1,700 cars was credited to “a tiny little ad in the Omaha World-Herald.”
Over the decades, the pageant has made full use of the stately courthouse in Minden, with some years featuring simultaneous performances on all four sides of the building. In recent years the production has used two sides, with 40-50 actors per side.
The narration and music are pre-recorded and played through the courthouse dome’s Schulmerich Carillon Tower system that was donated in 1946 by brothers Harold and Oscar Warp.
Performances now start at 7 p.m. the Saturday after Thanksgiving and first two Sundays in December.
Ben Morey said his dad often considered changes to the pageant script, which grew from the original six scenes to eight by 1966. A Christmas pageant at the Crystal Cathedral, a California megachurch, sparked one big idea.
Clayton was amazed when angels slowly descended from the ceiling before being whisked away. He started thinking of ways to add a similar special effect to the Minden pageant. “I told him it was stunning,” Ben said, “but they had a million-dollar budget.”
Clayton died in June 2001 at age 83. “He told me the pageant was the best thing he ever did,” Ben said.
Clayton was the first of only four pageant directors in 77 years.
Ted Griess was a new Minden teacher in 1966 when he was impressed by his first pageant. By December 1967, Clayton, “a real likable man,” had convinced him to be assistant director. And then director in 1970.
Ben, a school speech therapist who had moved back to Minden in 1980 to join his family’s insurance business, became the production’s third director when Griess moved to North Dakota in 1983.
Facing health issues, Ben handed director duties to his son Matt in 2010. Matt’s three daughters – a stable girl, angel and Mary – are the Morey family’s fourth pageant generation.
Directing, like all things pageant related, is a volunteer position. Duties include assembling a cast and crew, hosting a rehearsal the night before Thanksgiving, and giving pageant-night cues to the actors.
The production runs on an it-takes-a-village mindset.
Local seamstresses make and repair costumes. A local company made new metal sets to replace the weather sensitive plywood ones in 2006.
Griess said his high school science and shop students often helped move costumes when storage was on the courthouse’s third and fourth floors. “I promised them ice cream cones and great views from the dome.”
Veteran actors and multi-generation pageant families make casting easier.
“Once you recruited adults, they were pretty much in the cast for life,” Griess said. “They preferred the same character, the same (courthouse) side and the same costume.”
“Even if they had outgrown it,” Ben joked.
Veteran actors include University of Nebraska at Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen. The former teenage Roman soldier rejoined the cast in 1981 after returning home to Minden with a law degree.
Initially a sub for “every part except angels, Mary and Herod,” Kristensen now plays Caesar Augustus and Simeon.
Griess recruited former Minden High School teacher/coach Ron Brewer in 1968. He has been a pageant prophet ever since.
Jennifer Pittner, the Kearney County assessor, started as a pageant angel in 1991.
What could go wrong?
A prayer by the director or a pastor is a pageant night tradition.
After the “amen,” Griess would remind actors to “stay in character, don’t fall down and don’t start fires.”
“Ted told me years ago that, somehow, it just comes off OK,” Ben added, even when something goes wrong.
An early “oops” involved the addition of live donkeys to the scenery in 1949. They apparently didn’t follow directions well and weren’t invited back.
Pageant season was canceled in 1973 during the U.S. energy crisis and in 2020 because of COVID.
The Dec. 12, 1993, performance was canceled when a Minden grain elevator explosion closed the two main highways into town.
An ice storm one year caused another last-minute cancellation, but the show largely goes on regardless of weather. Pittner remembers a night when the pageant continued despite a downpour of rain during the shepherds’ scene.
Griess, who’s been a wise man since returning to Minden in 1989, said, “The pageant is so ingrained in me that I don’t notice the cold weather.”
Most actors wear layers on cold nights, but try to keep their costumes authentic. Kristensen wears sandals on his bare feet.
Others wear socks over shoes, including Brewer who once broke the “don’t start fires” rule in the pageant’s first scene.
The prophet lights a flare, holds it up until the scene’s end, then drops the flare to extinguish it. Brewer’s wife, Linda, remembers a night years ago when the scene went dark and their 6-year-old daughter Sara said, “Mom, Dad’s foot is on fire.”
Brewer had dropped the flare on his foot. It burned through his outer sock, shoe and inner sock. “I had a blister on my foot,” he said.
Kristensen said another flare-related fire involved an old plywood-and-straw-bales set.
“You had prophets and wise men rushing out of the courthouse to put out the fire,” he said, like Christmas pageant volunteer firemen.
He was surprised – and hurt – on the night Roman soldier boys in the scene ahead of his moved a box that he used to step down from the stage. Kristensen fell about 3 feet, hitting both shins on the platform’s edge.
“I laid out there through the next scene. I thought I broke both legs,” he said. X-rays ruled that out, but he was gimpy for a long time.
Fitting the part
Character-profession pageant matches have included farmers playing shepherds, parents as Joseph and Mary, highly educated folks as wise men, soldiers played by teens who went into military service, and kind, community-minded women as angels.
Kristensen was a state senator and speaker of the Legislature, not an emperor, but he sees similarities. “Caesar was a pretty visible character and most of my jobs have been that way,” he said.
Plus, a “Teflon cover” is needed for contentious issues like a census, taxes and laws.
County Assessor Pittner laughed when confirming that she’s called an angel only on pageant nights. “Maybe I should wear my angel costume up here (courthouse office) more, especially during property valuation protest season.”
Both said every “Light of the World” pageant has special moments.
“When you’re standing and waiting to go out the (courthouse) door, and it’s dark, you start to think. … There is a reflection point, that this wasn’t a made-up story,” Kristensen said. “This was real.”
Pittner enjoys the collective gasp when the lights come on at the end.
“And it’s such a compelling story. … There’s such a sense of small-town goodness to it.”
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