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Historical Newspaper Articles about The Witness
Photo By David Vann of The Hot Springs Sentinel-Record
SIGNING THE LEASE — Hot Springs Advertising and Tourist Promotion Commission Chairman Gary Rutherford second from left, and Ott Beck, president of Witness Productions, second from left, sign a lease between the organizations while Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Les Green, left Mayor Jim Randall, Alderman Carroll Weatherford and Pat |Reed watch, "The Witness," a religious musical drama, will be featured on weekends at the Mid-America Amphitheater.
Article written when the Witness was located in the Mid-America Amphitheatre (editor’s note)
Volunteers make “Witness” Successful
12-A Wednesday, June29, 1988---- Copyright © The Sentinel-Record
Pat Reed, public relations and marketing director for "The Witness," describes the production's staff as "dedicated to spreading the good news through the use of musicals."
"The Witness" is an outdoor musical production presented during the summer months at the Mid-America Amphitheatre, located on Bull Bayour Road off S. Highway 270 west.
The outdoor musical drama is a production in song and narrative of the portrayal of the lives of the Apostle Peter and his contemporaries in regard to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
"This musical has been accepted into the Hot Springs area beautifully," Reed said. "When the production first came into being in Hot Springs, it was a traveling musical show. We traveled to reach the people. Now, it has been so well received by the public that people are traveling from all over the United States to reach us. It's a good feeling."
The original "Witness" production was created as a traveling show to spread the gospel through England and Europe. The producers, Jim and Carol Owens of Lindell, Texas, were called to create a preaching instrument for European countries.
Missionaries from churches were not allowed to enter many counties to preach the Bible, but musicals were permitted.
Therefore, "The Witness" was written and used as a "gospel tool" to tell Europe the New Testament story. "The Witness" toured England for one year with Pat Boone after which it toured Europe and Asia.
Christian Ministries Church of Hot Springs first brought "The Witness" to its home community as part of a seminar hosted by Hettie Lou Brooks, pastor of the church.
"This performance struck the hearts of many," Reed said, "especially a woman named Judy McEarl of Hot Springs. She was so overwhelmed by the idea of a musical ministry, that she organized a large group of volunteers who began to perform the musical as part of a weekend traveling show."
This traveling show lasted exclusively as such for five years with presentations made to colleges, churches and prisons. In 1986, it was decided to make the performance a semi-permanent attraction in Hot Springs. It is semi-permanent because even though the Mid-America Amphitheatre is the home stage for the production with regularly scheduled performances, the road tour continues now for prisons only.
"The Witness," a non-profit organization, is performed at Mid-America Amphitheatre on Friday and Saturday nights. On Labor Day weekend it will be performed Friday, Saturday and Sunday
To succeed with such a large production we rely upon the help of many volunteers, up to 125 to be exact," Reed said. "Volunteers, ranging from ages four to 80, are responsible for setting up the stage, cleaning the amphitheatre, running the light and sound systems, selling tickets, ushering guests to their seats, building props, running concession stands, parking cars and even tearing down the entire set when the season is over. And this is just a partial list.
"The actors and actresses are also volunteers who dedicate countless hours to rehearsals and actual performances. Even when the season is over, volunteers continue their hard work in making new costumes, repairing the old, building new props and the such."
Advertising and marketing the show is another big part of the business which continues for 365 days of the year, Reed said. "It would be impossible to count the amount of volunteer hours that have been donated to this worthwhile family entertainment production," she said.
Reed, along with assistant Ann Stanage, logs in more than 100 hours per week in marketing efforts.
The production has blossomed in the past few years as ticket sales increase and audiences pack the amphitheatre during the summer months, Reed said.
All of our ticket proceeds are placed directly back into the production," Reed said. "There is always some expense even though the majority of our materials are donated. Our biggest expense is brochures. And even though we've seen some rough days financially, the volunteers keep their spirits up and we always seem to pull through."
Another production of the Owens, "Ant Hillvania," will be performed by volunteers at the amphitheatre July 21 and 28, Aug. 4, 11, 13, 18, 25 and Sept. 1. The production is a children's story of the prodigal son told from an ant’s viewpoint.
"One key to keeping volunteers motivated is positive feedback on results," Reed said.
"Anyone who sees the play says "good job." But when we get the nod from the production creators, we truly feel blessed.
"Such was the case when the Owens first witnessed our portrayal of their production. They stated, 'This was the most professional and spiritual performance of our production that we have ever seen.' A pat on the back from the creators is all anyone would need to generate the motivation and to keep going."
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17, 1997
Copyright © Little Rock Newspapers, Inc.
The Witness makes its move to Hot Springs' Panther Valley Ranch for a larger venue and bigger audiences.
BY JACK W. HILL
HOT SPRINGS — When The Witness, an outdoor musical passion play, lost its home at the Mid-America Amphitheater a year ago, some people in Hot Springs thought the show was history, done for, kaput. Some of the doubters probably thought it would take a miracle
They were wrong and they were right.
The people who kept The Witness up and running for 15 years were not about to give up without a fight. They say it was a miracle that they found a new home in the Ouachita Mountains and got the show up and running again in just 2'12 months.
"We did our last show at Mid-America in October, and we were praying about whether it was time for this to be over with," says Judy McEarl, the show's musical director and president of its board of directors. "If it was time, we were ready to lay it all down and just take the show back to prisons, which was how we got started.
"But then we got a phone call in April from Roger and Jerri Stanage, the owners of the Panther Valley Ranch. They said they had 100 acres and would like to build an amphitheater with us."
Thus began some of the most frantic weeks of wheeling and dealing and working that McEarl and Pat Reed, her longtime public relations/marketing director, could have ever imagined. Luckily for them, Stanage is a mechanical engineer and was ready and willing to supervise the volunteers it would take to carve out a hillside and convert it into an amphitheater overlooking a former horse arena, where the stage would be built.
Panther Valley Ranch is a tourist attraction in its own right, with guided trail rides, hayrides, hiking, perch fishing, camping and a lodge.
"Someone could bring a youth group and combine camping out or staying in the bunkhouse with seeing The Witness at night," Reed says. "We are a ministry, but we know that we can play a part in helping the tourism industry in Hot Springs and for Arkansas, also."
A NEW MIRACLE
"Every day we've seen a new miracle here," McEarl says. "A man saw an article in the Hot Springs Village newspaper about us and he came out here and wrote a check for $5,000, and he had never even seen The Witness. Another man came out and wrote out a $7,000 check for camels and says we could keep them at his farm in the off-season. We've just had stuff like that happen every day; it's just phenomenal."
Once the plans were set, workers, paid and volunteer, wasted little time in getting things up and ready. Teddy Short was invaluable in the whole process, McEarl says, along with John Jenkins, who lent his excavating company's expertise when it came time to provide dirt and arrange it just so.
The workers converted a heavily wooded hillside into tiers, then concrete was poured to create platforms for seating for 1,400 people. Down below, a stage more than twice as large as the former one was built. The eastern gate to the city of Jerusalem is part of the back of the stage, a "Roman wall" 135 feet long, with three archways, along with the corner of a synagogue with columns, purple draperies and an upper room. There's a lagoon for scenes featuring fishermen and the baptism of Jesus. Speakers are hidden here and there so that the sound carries throughout the arena.
The 100-member cast works together to tell the story of the life of Jesus Christ, with the Apostle Peter as the narrator.
"I sat out here recently in front of the Roman wall, with the trees all around and the backdrop of the mountain behind it, and it's more beautiful than we ever could have imagined," McEarl says.
Sheep, goats and horses are part of the cast, and in a stroke of good luck, the two sought-after camels arrived just before the first show started July 25. The work was barely finished before the first-night crowd and the accompanying local dignitaries began arriving.
"We were pouring the last of the gravel for the parking lot with 15 minutes to spare," Reed says.
Not everything came off without a hitch on opening night.
"The purple curtain that was at the temple came down at one point in the performance and showed the mud-mixer and the porta-potty," McEarl laughs. "We don't have any dressing rooms yet; we had to make sure to take care of the public first. Right now everyone is having to come to the show already in costume and makeup."
The show had a 12-year run at the Mid-America Amphitheater, after starting three years earlier as a prison ministry. With hundreds of shows under their belts, McEarl and Reed say they could recall only two or three rain-outs in the dozen years the show was presented there.
"We lasted longer than what was in there originally, the story of Hernando DeSoto. Then they had some other things, like `Papa Bear, Mania Bear.' What happened, finally, was the city sold it. We bid on it, but we didn't have the highest bid."
McEarl and Reed say there have been few changes, except for the larger area, twice the space.
"We have a rotating cast and crew of 200 and they're all volunteers except for three paid positions," McEarl says. "There are 44 different churches represented in those 200. To have that many churches working together is nothing short of a miracle in itself."
New singers and actors join the cast each year, she says, with 20 percent to 30 percent of the newcomers joining the holdovers, who add continuity and experience.
"We have a young man on stage singing bass who was once one of the children who danced across the stage with a donkey that was carrying Jesus," McEarl says. "It's a real generational thing, too. We'll have a grandmother taking tickets, a mother singing on stage, the father playing a guard or working as a tech, and maybe their baby has the role of Baby Jesus.
"Some people are out here every Friday and Saturday night, some are here just on Friday or Saturday, or maybe every other weekend, or whenever they can be here. We take their schedule and work with it."
McEarl says, "The Witness differs from The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs in a couple of important respects."
"We're a musical and [at Eureka Springs] they present the story from a historical aspect, with narration. They have phenomenal props and we consider them a sister production to us. They had been going on for many years when we started and some of their leaders came down and advised us of the pitfalls to avoid. There is no competition and we're very supportive of each other. We have the same goal — presenting the gospel."
Jimmy and Carol Owens, who were originally from Texas, wrote The Witness in the late 1970s for European productions where music was more acceptable than ministers, Reed says. McEarl, a music-loving math major in college who sang in the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra chorus for four years, updated some of the music and wrote three of the songs in the show.
McEarl and Reed are now devoting some of their time to raising money, since the show is not yet what they consider a finished project. The nonprofit corporation is accepting tax-deductible contributions at (Witness Productions Inc. P. O. Box 6434 Hot Springs, AR 71902-6434, (501)623-9781 current contact info) (The amphitheater is available for rental to anyone who might want to present "wholesome, family entertainment" during the time when The Witness is not up.)
"We didn't borrow any money, but there are still debts that need to be repaid," Reed says. "The only way we've gotten as far as we have is that a multitude of volunteers from many, many churches gave of their time. It's really gratifying that so many churches, community leaders and government all came together and helped the show."
The level of ecumenical peace has been something to see, Reed and McEarl say.
"I looked on stage one night, and I don't arrange people by denominations, but by their vocal blend," McEarl says. "But I noticed a charismatic lady with a Baptist lady on one side and a Catholic lady on the other. I just knew that had to bless the heart of God that we could be unified together to praise him."
Even though The Witness is a warm-weather operation, with the show set to go on hiatus at the end of October, the show will do a few things during the Christmas season, including a live manger scene on the lawn of the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences (the former St. Joseph's Hospital) during the city's holiday celebration, participation in an American Association of Retired Persons program and as part of a production Dec. 5-7 at The Witness' old home, the Mid-America Amphitheater.
"Now if I can just get the Osborne family to put some lights up," Reed laughs.
Award presented to The Witness Productions % Pat Reed July 26, 1997 by Governor Mike Huckabee
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