Yet another of the remarkable golden age attractions in Polk County – The Black Hills Passion Play of South Dakota ran a winter season in Lake Wales for more than 40 years.
As one of many 20th century passion plays produced in Europe and the US, the Black Hills Passion Play began as a troupe of performers who left Germany in order to tour the US. The year was 1932. Only two years before, Germany, under the control of Adolf Hitler, made religious plays illegal, so it wasn’t surprising that Josef Meier, the actor who played Christ, and his community of actors would head to the US to continue to perform for the large German-speaking population here.
A passion play historically relates the story of Jesus’ last days – His suffering, death and resurrection. The troupe based its passion play on a Lünen, Germany production (sometimes anglicized as Leunen). It’s said that the Lünen style dates from as early as the 13th century. Josef Meier was born in Lünen in 1904.
By 1936 it seemed that Meier’s interpretation of the Passion of was gaining popularity as it traveled around the country. By this time, Meier was known to be looking for a permanent home for the production. At a stop in Sioux City, South Dakota it’s said he was approached by a group of men representing many of the small communities in the the Black Hills area of the state.
A site was chosen in the small city of Spearfish, which had a population of about 2,000. In 1938, construction was begun in a hilly pasture on the outskirts of the city. Construction of the amphitheater was completed for the start of the 1939 season. The play ran each summer from June through September, which allowed the production to tour the rest of the year.
The open-air theater in Spearfish would be the home of Josef Meier and his Black Hills Passion Play for nearly 60 years. Meier died in 1999 and the final season for the play was 2008.
Spearfish wouldn’t be the only permanent home for the production, however. Seeing how the play stimulated the growth and success of the small city in the Black Hills, a group of local businessmen once again approached the management of the production. This time, the men represented the city of Lake Wales in the highlands of central Florida.
In 1953, the Black Hills Passion Play explored the idea of having a winter home amidst blossoming citrus groves. It seemed to make a good location as it was just down the road from the established attractions of Bok Tower Gardens and Cypress Gardens. Additionally, only one year earlier the Great Masterpiece had opened, so the Passion Play would become the second Christian attraction in the immediate vicinity.
Similar to the amphitheater in Spearfish, a new 3,500 seat amphitheater was built on land that had previously been an orange grove. The production ran each year from January to the Easter season. At the start of 1953, the stage was literally set. Initially, most attendees would come in on special trains from Miami, Tampa, Sarasota, Ocala and Jacksonville. Later, bus lines, such as Grayline and Greyhound, would add the Passion Play to their itineraries of the Lake Wales area.
The story of the play’s production followed a similar process as the summer production. Dozens of locals were cast as extras and the animals (sheep, camels, donkeys and horses) were raised on farms in the area.
Josef Meier died in 1999 at the age of 94 and 1998 saw the end of the winter season of the Black Hills Passion Play. By the 1990s, attendance had dropped in Lake Wales and the production struggled. While this was a significant factor to the closing of the production, there were also issues with the amphitheater.
Owned by a separate company, it has been argued that the facility wasn’t maintained properly and the cast felt unsafe using it. This was stated by Johanna Meier, the daughter of Josef Meier. Johanna Meier was the play’s director into the 2000s as well as an acclaimed opera singer.
It was a sad ending for the passion play, which had been an important part of the Polk County tourism community for over 40 years. The amphitheater was heavily damaged by the hurricanes of 2004 and was dismantled not long after.
The passion play ran in Spearfish for only ten years past the final Lake Wales season. It closed at the end of the 2008 season.