What started as a humble Easter service on top of a wooden cotton wagon in 1928 is now a major theatrical production depicting Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.

The nondenominational Jesus the Christ Easter Pageant, drawn from the King James Version of the Bible and produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is staged each spring on the north lawn of the Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors’ Center.

But who provides the show’s unblemished sacrificial lambs?

Mesa’s Lee Pace, his wife, Carol, and their eight children have donated their time and sheep to the pageant for more than 12 years.

The herd is a mixture of Shetland, Cheviot and hair sheep.

“We try to find small, pretty, friendly, white sheep,” says Lee, 59.

Some of the sheep have been in the pageant up to five times; most made their theatrical debut as lambs.

Lambs get a thorough shampooing before the pageant. They arrive at the pageant about a week early for rehearsals and are housed with the ewes in pens behind the stage. The ewes are leash trained by Lee and eventually come to know their scenes.

Lee reflects on a year that he and his sheep appeared as shepherd and flock in the show. Before the opening act, he tied up his ewe. When he came back, she had gone. The opening song played, queuing the actors to take their places. Lee made his way to the stage, where he found the ewe waiting for him.

The ewes and lambs appear in six scenes for each performance. Lambs younger than one month old (used for their size) are lifted and carried throughout the pageant by children and men and are only separated from their mothers during the brief appearances on stage.

When they’re not strutting their stuff in front of approximately 150,000 audience members — the pageant’s largest count to date — the sheep work full time as lawn mowers for the Paces and their neighbors.

Before the family provided the sheep and lambs, pageant coordinators combed the state each spring for all-white lambs. One year, they rented a lamb for $50 a night from a petting zoo in Scottsdale. The lamb had to be returned to Scottsdale after each performance, Lee says.

Around 2002, the Paces began acquiring the lambs at the end of the pageant. They raised them as pets in their one-acre backyard and began introducing the ewes to a ram every fall. Now, at least one lamb is born around the time of the pageant’s first dress rehearsal.  

But it doesn’t always occur like clockwork. The first spring the Paces tried breeding lambs for the pageant, they found themselves with pregnant ewes but no lambs. Despite their best efforts in scouring the state, none could be found. On the first day of dress rehearsal, Carol fell to her knees, desperately praying for a miracle — but she inevitably conceded to reality. She dialed the pageant director to discuss the bad news. While on the phone, she glanced out a window looking into her backyard, and there stood not one, but two newborn all-white lambs.

As for this year’s lamb, Lee says “one of the ewes is looking very fat,” but he leaves it “up to the Lord to provide lambs (for the pageant).”

The 65-minute play consists of song and dance on a 9,600-square-foot, four-story-high stage. The stage takes three weeks to assemble and disassemble. Approximately 600 professionally trained cast and production volunteers put on the show, incorporating costumes hand made from imported fabrics and live animals, including miniature horses, doves and a mule.

“It’s the largest outdoor pageant of its size and kind in Arizona,” says pageant director Jenee Prince. “It really is a miraculous thing.”

After the each performance, select cast members and animals mingle with the audience.

“It’s easy to find the lambs,” says Lee, who will play a shepherd in this year’s show. “They’re where the largest crowd of people are.”

The pageant begins Wednesday and is held over nine nights, with two performances in Spanish. ASL translators and limited English and Spanish headsets will be available at every performance. Snacks are allowed on the grounds, and audience members may bring blankets and chairs to set on available lawn space.

The show is free. Tickets are not required, but seating is first-come, first-served. Donations are not accepted.

“This is our wonderful gift to the community,” says Prince.

• Angela, a senior studying journalism at Arizona State University, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or tribintern@evtrib.com

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