Live from California's Crystal Cathedral, Behold the Biggest Easter Ever Played

updated 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the beginning there is darkness and a shuffling of feet as 183 actors hit their marks. Then there is light. The music swells, dancers twirl, merchants shrill, prostitutes strut and travelers gawk. With trumpet fanfares the Roman Legion enters, led by a 325-pound Bengal tiger on a leash. Finally Jesus arrives on a donkey, accompanied by 25 children waving palm fronds.

By the time the Christ figure alights onstage, the passion play within—yes, inside—the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. has been under way for a mere six minutes and 50 seconds. But it has already employed 324 actors, the captive-bred tiger (name: Alicia), seven horses, two peacocks, a camel, two donkeys, three lambs, five goats and gaggles of chickens and ducks. And you ain't seen nothin' yet.

It's called The Glory of Easter, part of the greatest story ever told, presented on the single biggest stage ever built. "We wanted a production that encompasses the facility; the space demands the numbers," explains pageant director Conwell S. Worthington II. The facility he's talking about is the $18 million glass church not far from Disneyland designed for the Rev. Robert Schuller. Longer than a football field and 12 stories high, the 2,895-seat Crystal Cathedral could almost swallow Paris' cathedral of Notre Dame whole.

Except for a similar production at Garden Grove last Easter and The Glory of Christmas in December, nothing anywhere is quite like the current hour-and-18-minute Easter. "This is Cecil B. DeMille done live," says co-director Michael Robert Coleman of the production, which is presented twice nightly (except Mondays) until April 13.

Audiences gasp as a rising wooden cross lifts actor Miles Herter, who plays Jesus, 38 feet overhead. As Christ gives up his life, a thunderstorm rumbles across the cathedral, touching off lightning flashes that give off the equivalent of 40,000 flash cubes ("Next to God, we do lightning bigger than anybody," boasts lighting director Ken Billington). Four fans with six-foot blades help draw 200,000 cubic feet of machine-made fog down from the ceiling, creating a churning vortex of blood-red clouds behind the crucifix.

Many of the special effects are a result of Schuller's insistence on believability. To depict Christ's ascension, for example, he told the directors they couldn't simply "pull somebody up on a wire and leave him dangling." Set designer Charles Lisanby solved the problem with a disappearance illusion borrowed from magicians Doug Henning and Mark Wilson.

Professionals handle the 14 speaking roles, sing the two songs and work the animals, but almost everyone else in the cast is a volunteer. The script was contributed by biblical scholar Paul David Dunn, Schuller's son-in-law. Still the show cost an estimated $1 million to mount. "To do this on Broadway, you'd have to charge $500 a ticket just to break even," says cathedral manager Terry Larson. His staff expects to do it by filling 140,000 seats (at $12 to $14) by show's end.

A TV preacher (The Hour of Power), best-selling author and occasionally controversial religious showman, Schuller, 58, is well pleased with Easter. "It just thrills me," he says, "to see the Crystal Cathedral used as a stage for theater on such a scale—what I would call epic theater with a capital E." Judging from all that thunder and lightning, you'd better believe it.

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