SPEARFISH — Entertainment may soon return to the world’s longest stage, in Spearfish.
Spearfish developer Rand Williams purchased the 6,000-seat amphitheater that was home to the Black Hills Passion Play.
The sale price was not made public, but the transaction was finalized on Nov. 2.
Williams said he plans to keep the property a performance, entertainment, and education venue, and plans upgrades that will include state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, large video screens, and enhanced visitor amenities.
“There is a real economic opportunity here for our region,” Williams said in a prepared statement. “I want this facility to once again play an integral role in the community, as it did in the past. I understand how Spearfish people volunteered in the Passion Play for generations, and how they feel a sense of ownership in what happens here.”
Constructed over the winter of 1938-39 using a natural slope on Spearfish’s west side, the amphitheater attracted millions of Passion Play summer visitors between 1939 and the play’s closing on Aug. 31, 2008. The production recreated the last seven days of Christ’s life, including his crucifixion and resurrection. In the 1960s and 1970s attendance sometimes topped 100,000 in a single summer.
“The Passion Play Amphitheatre has been a place of inspiration for many thousands of people,” said Johanna Meier. “We hope its future use will continue to uphold the traditions of high quality and community service which have been established in its 70 year existence.”
Williams stressed that he bought the physical facility and not the Passion Play production, and that he won’t use the Passion Play name or stage another version of Christ’s life. He plans public input meetings to hear Black Hills residents’ thinking about the amphitheater’s best uses, and believes there will be multiple uses. He has ideas of his own, too, and said proposed projects will have to prove themselves economically viable. Although he will not resurrect the Passion Play, he said one of the ideas he is considering is a production that would be a progression from the Passion Play’s storyline, following the miracle of Saul’s conversion to Saint Paul.
“The amphitheater is an awesome venue because of its natural setting,” he said.
Johanna Meier’s parents, Josef and Clare Meier, founded the Black Hills Passion Play and led the production for more than half a century. In 1991 Johanna Meier and her husband, Guido Della Vecchia, became producers and continued to serve in that capacity through 2008. Following the closure of the Passion Play, the amphitheater was rented to Marty Hogan of Cross Purpose Productions. There were performance for the summer of 2009.
Over the years Williams has acquired other historic Spearfish properties, including the city’s former city hall on Main Street, and most recently the older portion of East Elementary School.