Christmas pageant is reputed to be the country’s largest.
No one has ever accused Robert Schuller of thinking small. He has compared his Christmas pageant, “The Glory of Christmas, a Living Nativity” to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the recent royal wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. It is, he says, “the largest such production in the history of Christianity in the United States.”
The Crystal Cathedral, already a Southern California landmark and tourist attraction, is a fitting shrine for the performance. Its towering structure of glass and trusses forms an expansive vault of acute angles and airy, open space. It is almost an outdoor setting. By any score, it is a far cry from the days when Schuller held services on the roof of a rented drive-in movie snack bar.
In preparation for over a year, the program was orchestrated by Robert F. Jani, whose credits include the Bicentennial Fireworks Salute in New York Harbor, numerous television specials, and Super Bowl half-time extravaganzas. He is currently executive producer of Radio City Music Hall in New York and creative director of Walt Disney Productions. He cites early pageants by Francis of Assisi as his inspiration for the project.
The costumes, which would do Cecil B. DeMille proud, were based on famous paintings and were three months in preparation. Every cast member who wears one—almost 400 in all—has a double. Their schedules are monitored by a computer.
Only one member of the cast sings (a shepherd), with the rest pantomiming a prerecorded sound track. The choral portion was done recently in the cathedral, while the 120-piece orchestra backing was recorded last summer in London. Selections include traditional favorites, climaxed by Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah.
The electronics and lighting would match any Hollywood set for sophistication. Forty famous paintings project onto a 75-foot backdrop curtain, changing with each musical selection. The lights of Bethlehem and the stars twinkle. On the other side of the stage, a convoy of angels appears in the 40-foot crèche. Spotlights from the distant reaches of the cathedral illumine successive entourages of shepherds and wise men. In a crowning moment, the 90-foot doors open, giving entrance to a shaft of light from the heavens, focused on the manger. It is actually a 2,000-watt beam projected up through the floor beneath the manager and visible outside for miles.
And then there are the animals. Sixteen of them—donkeys, rams, and camels—accompany the throngs of shepherds and admirers. At least one of them has movie experience: the camel Sheba appeared in Richard Pryor’s biblical farce Wholly Moses. A Mediterranean donkey who refused to follow the procession provided the show’s only tense moment.
Narrating all this in a deep, resonant bass is Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger in Kellogg’s cereal commercials. His prerecorded track is piped through speakers on the backs of pews.
Schuller, known worldwide for his seminars and televised “Hour of Power,” draws mixed reactions from church and public alike. These range from fierce loyalty to undisguised enmity.
There will be, no doubt, squads of Scrooges who will see this epic as his biggest bull’s eye ever. Certainly, the $1 million production cost, $6.50–$12.50 ticket prices, the schedule of 40 performances, albums and cassettes ($10 each), and mass media advertising campaign present easy, obvious targets.
Most who attended, however (from as far away as Phoenix), echoed a familiar exclamation of narrator Ravenscroft from his Kellogg’s advertising days—“Grrreeeat!” For those who feel otherwise, it must be admitted that a project of this magnitude is not done with mirrors, nor a lack of imagination.
Reform Jews Reach Out To Gain New Members
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), departing from a tradition of nearly 500 years, will launch a nationwide campaign aimed at “spreading the message of Judaism” to non-Jews. The decision was made at the UAHC’S fifty-sixth biennial assembly in December.
The UAHC, the central body of Reform Judaism, is quick to add that the terms “missionizing” or “proselytizing” are inappropriate to describe what it wants to do. The union will reach out to non-Jewish partners in mixed marriages, to the children of such marriages, and to persons who have no religious preferences. “Reform Jewish ‘outreach’ should in no way seek to convert to Judaism people who identify with other religions,” an assembly report said.
The assembly’s action reverses a Jewish tradition against seeking converts that dates back to the Spanish Inquisition. (The UAHC represents some 1.25 million Reform Jews in 750 Reform synagogues.)
Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the UAHC, said Reform congregations will welcome “Jews by choice,” that is, individuals who have converted to Judaism.
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