Since 2005 Kent Butler has held a part in the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs. His acting debut came at 16, when he played a Roman soldier. This season Butler will star in the production, which tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As key as playing the character of Jesus is to the story, it’s the role Butler plays off stage that could be most critical in reaching audiences in Eureka Springs. Butler serves as assistant executive director and handles marketing efforts for the financially troubled tourist attraction.
Money raised in December helped keep the Great Passion Play from shutting down in the short term. But with what one production official estimated is $2.5 million in debt, the challenge extends beyond keeping the doors open in 2013.
While the show will go on — a new season begins May 3 — Butler and others are working to ensure there is a long-term future. Impacting audiences through the “the greatest story ever told” is a noble cause, but one that can’t happen much longer without a better handle on finances, Butler said.
“We understand that we are both a ministry and a business,” Butler said. “Our business is ministry, and we can’t minister without taking better care of the business side. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now.”
News that the Great Passion Play was in financial trouble led to fundraising efforts that generated $75,000 over 10 days late in 2012. That money allowed interest to be paid on a loan and kept Cornerstone Bank from taking the 700-acre property in Carroll County.
As it became clear money was drying up, Butler told the Tulsa World on Dec. 15 that he was praying for a “miracle.” Things looked bleak.
A miracle came through the work of Randall Christy, owner of the Gospel Station Network in Oklahoma. Christy, whose network includes 22 stations, led a fundraising drive that brought in enough money to keep the bank from taking the property. It bought enough time to allow for a restructuring of leadership.
Christy, who said he grew up as a preacher’s kid and often attended the Great Passion Play, now heads the board of directors. He and the administrative team, including Butler, have raised an additional $50,000 in hopes of keeping the operation going through October.
Administrators, directors and crew and cast members are all working on a volunteer basis currently in an effort to keep expenses down. Some animals were donated while others were bought at discounted rates.
It all helps this year, but Christy, like Butler, is trying to think beyond this year.
Christy notes the need for a renovation of the 4,100-seat amphitheater. He’s hopeful an underwriter can be found for what he estimated as a $500,000 improvement project. Eliminating volunteer status for workers is something that the board would like to do in the future.
“There is a big financial challenge to overcome the past shortfalls,” Christy said. “But I believe the Passion Play is worth saving. It’s a Christian icon. We can all benefit from it in our society and our culture. This is our one chance. If we succeed at this — I believe we will — we’ll be blessed for many generations in the future.”
Slide Started in 2007
Trouble began for the play in about 2007, Christy said. Economic troubles meant entertainment dollars were becoming increasingly tight for households and church groups.
With lower attendance leading to less money coming in, the marketing budget was among the first areas cut by the Elna M. Smith Foundation, which has funded the play since 1968.
As advertising was cut, fewer people were reminded that the Great Passion Play existed.
That led to a continued dip in customers and less money coming in to pay the play’s bills.
Mike Bishop, president and CEO of the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, said a shutdown would have been devastating for the community. Had the Great Passion Play been shut down, it would have impacted not just the attraction and its employees, but the community and region, Bishop said.
Since opening in 1968 an estimated 7 million visitors have attended the play or been on the grounds to see the towering Christ of the Ozarks and other attractions on the grounds. Attendance in 2012 was 46,578, down significantly from its peak of nearly 300,000 in the 1990s.
Bishop estimated the economic impact over a six-month period would be close to $15 million.
“We’re talking room rentals, dining, gift shops and other attractions that people spend money on when they come into the area for the play,” Bishop said. “It was very critical we help them stay alive and keep it functioning.”
Butler is optimistic that the play, once described by the Los Angeles Times as a “touchstone of Christian Culture,” can continue. Aided by Bishop and the chamber, the Great Passion Play is partnering with local businesses to offer ticket deals.
Concerts are being planned for the amphitheater, including a March 11 fundraiser featuring Jason Crab, a Grammy-winning Christian artist. Butler said secular acts would also be considered.
A save-a-seat campaign is in place with donation levels ranging from $250 to $1,000.
Donors receive their name on seats at the venue and receive two season passes for 2013.
There is a push to educate the public on other attractions on the grounds like a Bible museum and the Christ of the Ozarks statue.
Prices have been cut to make the event more affordable. A redesigned website with an online purchasing system is also expected to help the cause.
“We need the Great Passion Play,” Butler said.
“It’s good for Eureka Springs and the local economy. It’s good for people’s faith. We’re in a much better position now than we were in before. Still, we know there has been a disconnect between us and our patrons. We’re trying to fix that. People need some hope in their lives. That’s what has kept me here all these years.”