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An extensive news release from CJRW says “The Great Passion Play” in Eureka Springs — a source of controversy and tourism in Eureka Springs for 45 years and something of a cultural emblem of the state — could close because of declining attendance.

It’s a plea for financial help. Said the release.

“The needs are great,” said Sam Ray, Executive Director of The Great Passion Play, “but we serve a God who is greater. God works through people, and we are asking people for help.” Ray went on to say that while the Play would benefit from donations including functional used vehicles, up-to-date computers, LCD monitors, software, office supplies, lumber, gravel, and other material goods; its greatest need is funds to keep the attraction running.

The full release is on the jump.

The play is operated by the Elna Smith Foundation, a nonprofit. In its most recent report, in tax year 2010, the foundation reported revenue of $1.7 million and expenses of $2.2 million, a loss of more than $500,000, compared with a loss of about $100,000 the year before. Assets were valued at $3.1 million and liabilities at $2 million in mortgages and notes. But virtually all the assets were in land and buildings, with only about $59,000 in cash and investments.

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I talked further with Ray by phone. He said numbers had “stabilized” in 2011 and 2012 to the point that revenue would probably be off only about 1 percent this year. But he said earlier borrowing in hard times had left the organization with no place to turn for further credit and no reserves. “We will complete the season,” he said. “At the end of the season, we’ll run an evaluation of where we are.” He said the national effort for contributions was critical. And he said he wanted small donors as much as large donors. “I want individuals to send me $1,” he said. “If enough send me $1, we’ll make it over this hump.”

He said the organization was current on its bills and cutting costs every way possible, including with a skeleton crew off-season and volunteer help. But he warned, “Come January 1, if we don’t have the money to continue, we’ll shut the doors.”

Often described as the country’s best attended outdoor drama, it’s home to Christ of the Ozarks, the giant statute that is itself a highly visible and familiar symbol (also widely employed over the years by editorial cartoonists and others in metaphorical statements serious and profane). The operation also includes a gospel music dinner theater and exhibits on the Bible and other topics. Website has details on all.

The invaluable Encyclopedia of Arkansas can background you on Gerald L. K. Smith, the anti-Semitic preacher and “political agitator” who began the “sacred projects” in Eureka Springs. Elna Smith was his wife. The play itself was controversial over the years. Writes the Encyclopedia:

By 1975, the theater was expanded from 3,000 seats to 6,000 seats, and more than 188,000 had watched the play, making it the largest outdoor pageant in the United States. Jews denounced the play as anti-Semitic, but Smith called it “the only presentation of its kind in the world which has not diluted its content to flatter the Christ-hating Jews.”

The organization adds that the play has been changed over the years to explicitly reject Smith’s outlook. The play now begins with a statement that says: “We here at the Great Passion Play believe we are all equally culpable for Jesus’ death. No one people group was or is solely responsible. No, it was the sins of the world that put him on the cross.”

Smith died in 1976 and is buried at the foot of the seven-story Christ of the Ozarks.

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