The Passion Play: Too Big to Fail?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Many people have childhood memories of attending the Passion Play. It was certainly a spectacle for any age, but to a child, the very scale of the event was enough to rivet the attention -- the broad stage, the audience at the time probably 2,000 or 3,000 people easily. One does not recall any empty seats.

The closing of the Passion Play this week -- or more correctly, the New Great Passion Play (they added Satan to the cast a few years back to spice things up -- has caught wide attention, at least regionally, and cast a pall over many locals. Eureka has a long history of businesses coming and going. At any time, there are storefronts all over with FOR RENT signs in the windows. But the Passion Play was on a different scale.

In addition to employing many locals, the play brought millions of people to Eureka over the decades, to eat in our restaurants, sleep in our hotels and shop in our stores.

As it stands now, the bank that took over the property this week has three ways to deal with the acquisition: they can find either find a buyer who will keep the facility going as the Passion Play, or find a buyer who will use the venue intact for music, etc. Or they can parcel it off and sell it piecemeal.

From a local and commercial perspective, the first choice would be best and easiest. The Passion Play is essentially a turnkey operation -- the buildings are all intact, equipment, stages, etc. There exist numerous faith-based operations -- several were mentioned in the front page story on the closing -- who could potentially inject enough cash into the Play to get it up and rolling again.

A sufficiently good marketing firm can sell ice to Eskimos, and in this case they would have as their client a 40-plus-year-old business that has carved out a niche that only need be promoted better, more aggressively and more broadly to revive and succeed.

Remember, though audiences there had been declining for awhile, it was the Great Recession of the past few years that dealt the death blow to the Play; and the Great Recession is, with any luck, behind us. (The next month or so will tell, depending on how the Fiscal Cliff they keep talking about is averted.)

Should this approach fail, there are still multiple uses for the site. With luck, the statue of Jesus will itself continue to draw visitors simply to stand and look up at it. Most everybody does. Suggestions have ranged wildly and up and down the scale of practicality. (A ready-to-go music venue? Sure. A giant flea market? Not so sure.)

The third choice is the least attractive: sell it off piecemeal for whatever it's worth. Should this happen, the likelihood of Passion Play coming back will probably be gone.

But all these things are down the road ahead of us. The ink is barely dry on the foreclosure, and it will surely be months before any further developments take place in this unfolding drama.

It is true some people liked the Passion Play and some didn't. Its origins are tied to its creator, Gerald L.K. Smith, who had some weird ideas about things to say the very least (look him up if you haven't already). But that was then and this is now. One local banker put it, "This guy was up at a pig farm, and he looked around and took a big sniff and said, 'Man, this place smells like ----!' And the farmer turns to him and replies, 'That's funny. Smells like money to me.")

Money isn't the most important thing in the world, but it sure helps when rent time rolls around, and everybody's gotta eat.

The Passion Play, like the Crescent Hotel and a very few other local attractions, is on a scale above the rest, and with luck will prove, like General Motors a few years back, to be simply too big to fail, and, also like General Motors, will see better days ahead.