Organizers of the live First Christmas Nativity Pageant on Topaz Avenue know firsthand actors can be as stubborn as a mule, particularly if they are one.
There is a donkey which is relied upon every year for the performance’s manger scene that has memorized his cues so well he refuses to stray from them.
“I said to my daughter, ‘We’ll take the donkey on the set before the crowd comes.’ Well, we were trying to drag this donkey on, he would not go on the set,” says longtime pageant actor Peter Grill. “As soon as he heard his music he just walks on the set.”
The donkey is just one part component of a production featuring a cast of 120 people and a few other four-legged friends. With the crew behind them, in all about 200 people come together every holiday season to bring the story of Jesus’ birth to life.
Every year the pageant, put on by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, attracts more than 6,000 people to take in the performances, which run four times per night for three nights, starting on Saturday, Dec. 21 at 6:30pm. Each performance is a half-hour long.
The nativity pageant first came to life 27 years ago, when a member of the church began to eye up Topaz Park as a perfect location for a pageant.
“It changed our Christmas,” producer Lyanne Jaubert-Sanderson said. “Everybody who participates, all of a sudden it brings back Christmas and presents don’t mean as much. Even the kids say ‘This is Christmas.’”
The location itself is a pocket of peace and quiet in a city buzzing with preparation for Christmas. Topaz Avenue is closed to traffic for the event and the streetlights are turned off, leaving a still, quiet setting in the park.
“It’s like we’re in another world,” Jaubert-Sanderson said. “It’s quite close to Blanshard (Street) but it’s amazing, it’s like it all disappears.”
The production starts at the beginning, when the Bible says the angel Gabriel told Mary she was to have a child. The pageant then moves through the birth of Jesus and the visits of the shepherds and wise men.
The whole thing ends in the singing of the finale to Handel’s Messiah.
Mary and Joseph are the most carefully selected roles, with the actors chosen for being people who best represent the spirit of their characters. Many people vie for the roles, although not always for the most obvious reason.
“We’ve been actually pretty successful, we’re up to four marriages I think,” said director Wendy Yzenbrant.
Grill’s granddaughter met her husband by playing the role.
“All the girls want to be Mary,” Jaubert-Sanderson said. ‘Will you make us Mary this year, because there’s some really cute guys.’ … It’s just a running joke.”
Bleachers and chairs are available but the event does get busy, so it can be standing room only. The free show will go on rain or shine. The first two shows of the evening, at 6:30 and 7 pm, are typically the busiest.