Somebody have Peter Sellars get in touch with me. I've found the textual material for his next opera.
This is the Christ of the Ozarks. Love it or hate it, it's the single most recognizable landmark in Eureka Springs, it has come to be the town's equivalent of the Gateway Arch or the Brooklyn Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. Like those projects it was the result of uncommon vision and was beset by controversey.
The whole thing started back in 1965 when a man named Charles F. Robertson, representative of the Elna M. Smith Foundation, announced plans to construct a giant statue of Jesus on the summit of Magnetic Mountain just outside the city limits of Eureka Springs. From the 1890's up until the second world war, Eureka Springs was a thriving spa town. People came from all over to drink from or bathe in the medicinal springs. Taking the cure, it was called. Of course in the forties scientific medicine started coming up with actual cures for all kinds of diseases, and the fortunes of spa towns like Hot Springs and Eureka Springs dwindled.
Eureka Springs has from its very beginnings attracted crackpots, con artists and characters. Eureka Springs was once home to temperance advocate Carrie Nation. Medical Quackery usually attends miracle springs, and at least one "doctor" resident was sent away for mail fraud. These days Eureka Springs is a preferred location for conventions of UFO enthusiasts, faith healers, bikers, artists, druids, Corvette and Mustang restorers and chakra aligners. Eureka Springs is featured in "Ripley's Believe It or Not" more times than any other city.
In short, there is a "get-along go-along" kind of atmosphere in this town. You indulge my peculiarities and I'll indulge yours. So when Robertson announced out of the blue that a seven-story statue of Jesus was to be built on the edge of town, neither eyebrows nor questions were raised.
In faraway Little Rock, however, Gazette writer Patrick J. Owens began a one-man crusade to expose Robertson and the Elna M. Smith Foundation. Turns out Robertson was a longtime follower of Gerald L. K. Smith and Elna was the wife of Smith, "the nation's best known anti-semite." Robertson was the editor of "The Cross and Flag," the monthly publication of Smith's political wing, the Christian Nationalist Crusade. He also served as Smith's running-mate in the 1956 presidential race. He replaced the party's first choice, John W. Bricker, who was already the Republican nominee for vice president. Owens generally charged that the Elna M. Smith Foundation was a front for the ultra right-wing Christian Nationalist Crusade.
I don't want to spend too much time on Smith's political views, but I need a couple of paragraphs to give a sense of why Owens' reaction against the project was so strong. In the 1930's Smith was a red-baiter, a Jew-hater and an orator. H. L. Mencken called him "the gustiest and goriest, the deadliest and damnedest orator ever heard on this or any other earth.... the champion boob-bumper of all epochs." Senator Strom Thurmond said of him, "We do not need the support of Gerald L. K. Smith and other rabble rousers who use race prejudice and class hatred to inflame the emotions of the people."
Before the U.S. entered WWII, he led the America First Movement which opposed the lend-lease program and espoused American neutrality in WWII. He was a former minister who preached at Huey Long's funeral and believed that Long was killed on orders of "the Roosevelt gang, supported by the New York Jew machine." In 1955 he testified before a senate subcommittee, opposing the liberalization of refugee laws on the grounds that more undesirables like Albert Einstein might get into the country. He led a movement called "Stop Ike the Kike" to remove Eisenhower from office. He believed the holocaust to be an invention of the Jew-controlled media.
Smith held two core views: 1) There's an international Jewish conspiracy bent on ruling the world. 2) The blacks are up to something, too.
So there. But by 1965 Gerald L. K. Smith was a has-been of the ultra right. The influence of his organization had so diminished and he had been out of the news so long that he was not even mentioned in "Danger on the Right," a directory of anti-semitic persons and organizations published by the Anti Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith.
Then something unexpected happened. Nothing. After a series of four lengthy articles outlining Smith's political history and far-right views it became clear that the people of Eureka Springs just weren't going to get very worked up about Smith or his statue. He had been maintaining a summer home in Eureka Springs for some time (Penn Castle, a Victorian mansion he and his wife had renovated). Thus far he had left his politics at the door. He paid his bills on time. He hadn't made any trouble locally. The project went forward.
Smith had been mulling the project over for years, just waiting to discover the right piece of property at the right price. He found 167 acres of it on top of Magnetic Mountain, just outside Eureka Springs with a view across the valley of the famous Crescent Hotel. The scuttlebutt put the cost of the real estate at $5000.00, but Smith never told what he paid for it. A chance meeting with Emmett Aloysius Sullivan probably also had something to do with the timing.
Sullivan was a cowboy from Montana and a veteran of the First World War who turned to sculpting in the 1930's, and he was in town looking to get part of a job on a project to commemorate the Trail of Tears when he met Smith. He had come from South Dakota where in the 1930's as part of a WPA project he headed the crew that constructed the big cement dinosaurs in Dinosaur Park. He operated the concession at the park until 1966, roughly the time he finished the Christ of the Ozarks. He was also (as Smith Foundation literature puts it) "associated" with Gutzon Borglum who was the man who carved four presidents into the face of Mount Rushmore.
The word "associated" is I think intentionally vague. I wrote to Jim Popovich, the information officer at Mount Rushmore, to ask if Sullivan had ever been on any payroll or if he had ever done any work on Mount Rushmore. He said that there are no records of Sullivan having worked on Mount Rushmore in any capacity. But since there were very few people in South Dakota and even fewer who worked on large sculptures, it's a pretty good bet that Borglum and Sullivan knew each other. "Associated."
Borglum was also a sometime high national officer of the Ku Klux Klan. That couldn't have hurt Sullivan's chances of getting the job. (Note: I just saw a TV program on Mount Rushmore in which Borglum's relatives made a special point of saying that he was not a member of the Klan. Probably the idea that he had been a klansman came from his association with the Stone Mountain project in Georgia. The fact that his relatives made a special point to say he wasn't a klansman makes me think he was often assumed to be one.)
Sullivan clinched the deal by showing Smith this. Pictured at left is John Mitchell, owner of an antique/art shop (Mitchell's Follies) across the street from the Palace Hotel on Spring Street. In his hands is the original clay model made by Sullivan of the Christ of the Ozarks. Mitchell acquired it from Sullivan's estate along with other bits of Sullivan art, including prototypes of souvenir miniatures which never went into production. Mitchell quoted me a price of two hundred bucks for one of the souvenir prototypes.
The clay model has no hands or facial features. I'm told that this was because self-taught outsider artist Sullivan wasn't very good at faces and hands, so the wire frame of the model protrudes from the sleeves. The face and hands of the actual sculpture were executed by Associate Sculptor Adrian Forrette.
If you get bored reading a list of stats, then skip to the next paragraph. Construction took about one year. The statue and base together weigh a couple million pounds. Each hand is seven feet long. In addition to Sullivan and Forrette, the crew included structural engineer McKinley Weems, craftsmen A. C. "Doc" McBride, Billy Myers, Earl Colvin, Larry Evans, Jack Wilson and Rex Martz. Pictorial historians for the project were Michael Mountjoy, Wayne Brashear, Bob Wheeler and Dwight Nichols. Glenn Gant is listed as an artist and General Electric is credited with engineering the illumination. Holway Associates of Tulsa were consulting engineers. Smith Foundation literature says the statue is built to withstand 500 mile-per-hour winds. The highest natural windspeed ever recorded is just over 200 mph, so there's plenty of wiggle room in the aerodynamic tolerances. The literature also claims that a car can be dangled from either wrist without damaging the statue, and the Gazette reported that a 2-foot rectangle is built into the top of the head for pressure equalization to keep the statue's head from imploding in the event of a tornado.
Construction was completed in June of 1966. The local clergy declined comment for the most part. After all, what pastor, priest or parson could be against a statue of Jesus? Father Francis Jenesco expressed the prevailing attitude, "I'm not against it. I don't know that much about it. I know he's a very controversial gentleman, so beyond that, please don't quote me." Any opposition was confined to muttering and grumbling, often in the form of comments from fundamentalists concerning "graven images." Questions had been raised about zoning restrictions, but the mayor pointed out that the statue was being built outside the city limits.
Quoting from 1965 and 1966 Smith Foundation literature and press releases: "No tinge of commercialism has been related to its maintenance. Nothing will be sold on the grounds. No collections or appeals for gifts will be made when the visitors come to see it.... No professional landscaping will be done. Nothing will be permitted that will devastate the beautiful woodland in the name of progress or modernization." That's not quite so true almost forty years later. The statue is surrounded by carefully manicured grounds and there are two gift shops within a furlong (I bought a Great Passion Play(tm) coffee mug.). I don't really intend that as an accusation of hypocrisy. It's just been forty years and things have changed. Plus you could strictly speaking say that the Christ of the Ozarks is on grounds separate from the other attractions and exhibits.
There was a dedication ceremony. Benches for 300 were set up, but because they were marked reserved for the elderly and infirm (and few elderly and infirm made the climb) the seats remained mostly vacant. The crowd numbered about two hundred, most of which watched from the shade of nearby trees. Smith told the press that the statue eventually cost about triple the original estimate, but that he was pleased with the result.
Mayor Jan Bullock, described in the Gazette as "an articulate young man," deviated from his prepared script when he delivered his welcoming speech. Speaking of Jesus he said, "His teaching of brotherhood of man is a lesson each of us should strive to practice. Each of us are(sic) as a child of God in his sight regardless of the color of one's skin, the origin of one's birth, the purity or the mixtures of races in one's bloodlines."
Smith ignored the slight and used his speech to heap praise on Sullivan, claiming in a typical flight of rhetorical excess that the Christ of the Ozarks had been called "the greatest face of Christ ever to be produced in hard material." The Gazette reported that Smith remained cool and gracious after Mayor Bullock's speech, but I wonder about the private reaction of a sixty-year-old warhorse who had just been given a finger-wagging public lecture by one of his own guests, the boy mayor of a hillbilly town.
After the dedication a testimonial dinner was held at the Crescent Hotel in honor of Sullivan and his crew. Tickets were $2.50. Fare was fried chicken, beans and potatoes. At the dinner the Smiths presented Sullivan with a $1000 token of appreciation over and above his fee. Sullivan told reporters that his next project was to be a "blanket Indian" 130 feet tall 80 miles east of the Black Hills near his permanent residence.
Meanwhile, the Smith Foundation projects in Arkansas were expanding. In town, the Smiths opened their Christ Only Art Gallery and charged 50 cents admission to help pay for the upkeep on the statue. Louis Oberste, Jr., of the Publicity and Parks Commission guessed that the statue would quintuple tourism in Carroll County. Smith claimed that 500 to 2000 people were visiting daily even before the statue was completed. Judging from figures provided by Smith on other subjects, I think it's safe to assume those numbers to be on the optimistic side.
At the time of its construction, the Christ of the Ozarks was the fourth gigantic statue of Jesus in the world, and the only one in an English-speaking country. There was one in Spain, another called Christ of the Andes built to commemorate a treaty between Chile and Argentina, and probably the most famous one in Rio. That's ours on the left and Rio's on the right.
The Rio project started in 1921 under engineer Heitor da Silva Costa. The hands and face were built in 1924 by sculptor Paul Landowski and raised into place. The work of art was declared complete in 1931. At 38 meters tall, their statue is twice as big as ours, but it cost a lot more.
A few months after the dedication of the statue, Smith went to the police with a crank letter which contained some religious sayings in addition to a threat to blow up the statue. Authorities said that they didn't take the threat very seriously, but posted guards at the statue on Halloween night anyway.
It was at about this time that the Foundation started announcing plans for the Great Passion Play. Robertson had been having discussions with a young man from Tucson named Robert Hyde, who would eventually write the script, direct the play, design the sets and play the role of Jesus in exchange for fifteen percent of the gross. Now if you were a young man in the mid sixties and all of a sudden you had that kind of juice, what would you do?
You'd build yourself a groovy new pad, man. And that's what Mr. Hyde did. The building pictured at left is today called Miracle Mansion and it's just part of the unorthodox architectural landscape of Eureka Springs. (see also: Quigley's Castle) It serves as a wedding chapel these days, but it was originally built as the residence of Robert Hyde. So says Sherry (I'm guessing at the spelling of the name.) pictured in the interior below right.
Sherry is the daughter of the current owners, and I found her taking care of housekeeping and maintenance chores at Miracle Mansion when I visited. She told me that she would like to turn the mansion into a healing center so that it can generate income on weekdays which are mostly idle. She further told me that she can see negative energies (or demons if you prefer) that most people can't see. The first thought that entered my mind when I entered the building was, "This place must cost a fortune to air condition."
Sherry provided me with literature on a Physical Energy Healing lecture ($10 to attend) and a two-day Quantic Healing seminar ($95 per day) both by Dr. Jim Walden (that's Doctor of Education, Registered Hypnotherapist) of West Chester, PA.
The dome is steel reinforced concrete. It's pretty much the same stuff as the Christ of the Ozarks and was worked on by some of the same guys who built the statue. There are walls of glass, walls of cut stone and walls of wood block. There's a helical ramp from the floor to the balcony and off in one corner is a sunken area that has been converted into a chapel. Oh, and did I mention a fountain in the middle of the floor? When you look at this photo keep two things in mind. This was a private residence and it was the sixties. Far out.
Also in 1966, the Foundation acquired historic Wolf House in Norfork and set about renovating the badly deteriorated building and turning it into a museum. (Ffwd: In 1975, Norfork notified the Foundation that it wanted control over Wolfe House and initiated eviction proceedings. The Foundation decided not to contest the decision of the city council, and turned over the building to the town of Norfork. Smith called the incident, "One of the grossest examples of ingratitude I have ever seen.")
In December of 1967, with the Great Passion Play outdoor drama scheduled to open the following summer, Smith contacted Julius Breckling, Jr. of the Department of Parks and Recreation in an attempt to purchase 6-month-old Humpy the Camel from the Little Rock Zoo. (Notice how often minor state officials in Arkansas have "Jr." in their names.) Breckling agreed to sell Humpy for $1800, but not this year. A young camel was too much of a draw for the zoo to let go of right away.
By now the Great Passion Play was sometimes referred to as the "Mount Oberammergau Passion Play." The grounds on which the play was performed had been officially named Mount Oberammergau in honor of the famous Oberammergau passion play which has been performed once a decade in Oberammergau in Bavaria since 1634. A cynic would suppose that the adoption of this name was intended to appropriate some instant name recognition or assume some unearned legitimacy. Still, Oxford Mississippi is built around the University of Missippi and took the name of Oxford, Britain's premier college town. Athens, Georgia uses the name of Greece's center of learning for similar reasons. So be cynical if you want. It happens all the time.
And speaking of name changes, a spring below the statue was renamed Living Waters Spring, and a rock overhanging the spring was dubbed the Rock of Ages. A small contemplative shrine was planned for the spot.
I contacted the USGS Geographic Names Information Service to find out what I could about the name. I was told that the feature was unnamed on the 1901 topographic map and appeared as Mount Oberammergau on the 1971 map. Further, Roger Payne, Manager GNIS wrote that new geographic names are generally arrived at through interviews with locals, so I guess the Foundation people could have just called the USGS and told them whatever they wanted.
The name Magnetic Mountain came from Magnetic Spring at the base of the mountain, water from which was said to have the power to magnetize metal. I guess the summit name was unofficial because GNIS listed no previous name for Mount Oberammergau. It seems to me that to insist on calling the site of your Passion Play "Mount Oberammergau" accomplishes nothing other than daring people to find anti-semitic interpretations in your production. The Foundation, intentionally or not, was signalling their aspirations to be like the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, a production which for four hundred years has been regarded as the prototype for anti-semitic interpretation of the Gospel. "Magnetic Mountain" was a perfectly good name, colorful, memorable, alliterative, mildly exotic, and it didn't carry with it the negative connotations that Smith's detractors found so useful.
He complained frequently that he couldn't get fair treatment in the press, especially the Gazette, and to some extent he had a point. Once Smith was thoroughly tarred with the bad guy brush, every jasper with a typewriter seemed to think it was his sacred duty to uncork on the old guy.
Smith was an obliging foil, responding with rambling, bombastic tirades to the slightest unsubstantiated rumor or snide remark. He always seemed to think that his rhetorical skills would whip up a wave of sympathy which would dash against his foes. Didn't happen that way. A lot had happened between 1930 and 1970 -- television, WWII, Vietnam. The public was considerably more jaded and Smith's oratory seemed like something from an earlier century. Before WWII, people used to attend speeches for entertainment. By 1965, oratory was a lost art, and the antiquated conventions of oratory only made Smith's views seem hokey and insincere.
It was typical of Smith to choose words for their visceral, emotional impact and disregard the consequences of that impact. Instead of saying something bland like, "Historically and religiously important sites in the Holy Land are in danger of being lost due to construction and war," he would try to heat up the house with, "The Enemies of Christ... are defiling the sacred shrines." Smith shot himself in the foot like that over and over again, making even his more moderate causes seem extremist and dangerous.
By 1968 every art critic who was going to have an opinion on the statue had weighed in. Reactions ranged from "magnificent" to "ghastly." In the Foundation's printed account, The Story of the Statue, on sale for a buck in 1968, Smith wrote, "Mrs. Smith and I both wept because to us it was the most beautiful face of our Lord that we had ever seen portrayed." Your Host's opinion is that art done as an act of religious devotion is not to be judged by the same criteria as art done for art's sake. Sincerety counts for a lot.
Most of the Smiths' problems up to that point had been surmountable. Controversey was really minimal and remote. Nobody refused to take their money. Bits and pieces were being added to the Sacred Projects. In 1968, Charles Robertson, coordinator of the Elna M. Smith Foundation, was elected to the Board of Directors of the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor named him to the Planning Commission.
July of 1969 signalled a year of siege for the Smith Foundation. It all started with a visit by Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker Magazine. Trillin's article on Smith's Sacred Projects was published in the 7/26/69 issue and was negative in tone. Here are a couple of quotes: "The Council of Bishops had listed a half-dozen or so ways in which a passion play might be subverted into an exercise in anti-semitism... and Hyde's version contained just about all of them." Also, "There are no activists in Eureka Springs except Gerald L.K. Smith." And, "The only difference between his past and his present is the number of people paying attention."
In short, Mr. Trillin's opinion was that the leopard had not changed his spots and that the people of Eureka Springs were tolerating Smith's Sacred Projects out of economic self-interest and C. of C. boosterism. He singled out Everett Wheeler, the editor of the Eureka Springs Times-Echo for ducking controversey, saying that Wheeler (like most editors of small-town weekly papers) will print whatever they're handed so long as it isn't controversial.
From the Gazette (9/14/69--5c:5) I got this: After the Trillin article came out, The Times-Echo printed an open letter from Gerald L. K. Smith in which Smith said that privately Trillin had told him that he secretly admired Smith's views, but that The New Yorker wouldn't print the article if it didn't say some negative things because the magazine was editorially opposed to Smith's causes.
The Foundation publicized critical evaluations that were more favorable and tried to generate grass-roots advertising for the Great Passion Play. The Times-Echo printed, "One important newspaperman who flew in from Miami declared, 'It is the greatest thing by far of its kind that I have ever seen.'" Here's a quote from a flyer of about that time: "Those receiving this announcement should give extra copies to responsible friends and should visit the local newspaper, asking them to publicize this sacred enterprise, recognized by the severest critics as the greatest presentation of its kind in Christian History." Vintage Smith.
In mid November of 1969 Ms. Georgie Ziffzer resigned as treasurer of the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce in protest of a resolution honoring the contribution of the Elna M. Smith Foundation to the "life, prosperity and prominence of the community." After her resignation the measure was reconsidered. A second vote was taken and the measure passed 10-2. Ms. Ziffzer was part of a growing local faction that feared Sacred Projects was a Trojan Horse. This faction feared that once the Smith Foundation had insinuated itself in a big way into the local economy, had backed sympathetic persons into key offices, and had made the locals dependent on the attractions for their livelihood, nobody would dare mount any opposition when Smith moved the headquarters of the Christian Nationalist Crusade to Eureka Springs.
The fears of the suspicious faction were given weight by the announcement that the right-wing group (linked to Smith) American Foundation, Inc. was planning to move its headquarters to Eureka Springs. So it took four years to rile up the Arkies, but a small corps of native Eureka Springers were beginning to express dissent. (Note: I called directory information and there was no listing for American Foundation, Inc. in E.S. as of this writing, and what information I've been able to glean from the internet suggests that the Christian Nationalist Crusade died with Smith.)
And then there was the matter of the road project. In an open letter to Eureka Springs residents, Smith accused "lethal enemies of Christ" of trying to scuttle his sacred projects by torpedoing the funding of improvements to roads that led to the Great Passion Play. "We found out that there had developed across the face of the earth a conspiracy to prevent Christian people from presenting the story of Christ's last week on earth." He said that the Jews had in the past organized to prevent airliners from stopping at the original Oberammergau in Bavaria and that now they had organized to cut off transportation to his own Sacred Projects.
In November of 1969, political columnist Jack Anderson reported that Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller was quietly operating behind the scenes to get the road project killed, but didn't want to oppose it publicly for fear of offending Carroll County voters. When WR heard this, he publicly announced his continued support of the road project, saying that Anderson was "grossly misinformed."
Allocation of federal funds was frozen pending a review of the project. Proponents of the road project supported their case saying that the road not only went by the Sacred Projects, but was also a mail route and a school bus route. In January, the project was approved a second time. The project was endorsed by the Bureau of Roads, the Highway Department, the Ozarks Regional Commission and Arkansas Governor Rockefeller.
There was a sudden flurry of activity by organized political interest groups.
Jewish groups claimed that the Great Passion Play was an anti-semitic version of the New Testament, stressing the culpability and damnation of the whole Jewish people in the execution of Jesus while portraying Herod and Pilate innocents duped by a perfidious and hypocritical Sanhedrin. Therefore, they said, federal money should not be used to improve roads leading to it. There were also objections that federal funds should not be used to build a road for the exclusive benefit of a sectarian religious project.
Smith's lawyer, John Maberry, countered that this road project was "no more sectarian than to improve a street in front of a cathedral or Jewish synagogue or a Baptist church." Maberry asserted that Governor Rockefeller quietly had the project killed because his brother Nelson was running for governor of New York against Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg. Under those circumstances Rockefeller could not afford to be percieved as supporting the projects of so infamous an anti-semite as Gerald L. K. Smith. Maberry also said that he believed orders came from the Nixon White House to scrap the project. Smith answered claims of anti-semitism by claiming the Great Passion Play to be a scrupulously accurate account of the last days of Jesus on earth as adapted from the New Testament, and that certain political action groups had managed to get the road project cancelled for no other reason than the name on the easement was Gerald L. K. Smith.
In June of 1970, Transportation Secretary Volpe announced that there would be no federal funds available for the road project. Volpe's announcement said that additional study has shown that there was not enough general use of the road to merit federal funds. There had also been news articles casting doubt on the reliability of traffic figures provided by the Foundation. A Gazette investigation found that claims that the road was also used as a mail and school bus route were pretty much bogus. The school bus stopped to pick up kids who assembled at the end of the road and a mail cart traveling the proposed new road would bypass three of nine homes on the existing route.
Volpe's decision was publicly applauded by the Anti Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, The Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish War Veterans, The National Council of Jewish Women, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the United Synagogues of America, the ACLU, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and yadda yadda yadda. Governor Rockefeller said that Transportation Secretary Volpe buckled under political pressure and scratched the road. Said Rockefeller, "I don't think there's any question but that there has been an organized barrage of mail going to the secretary, but I don't know if I would call it a conspiracy."
So for all you fans of irony, here goes. Smith spent his life battling a gigantic international imaginary Jewish conspiracy. Then finally toward the end of his life an actual Jewish conspiracy appeared and bit him in the ass. I imagine a grizzled old rabbi scolding Smith, "If we had REALLY been conspiring against you these past sixty years, you would have KNOWN it, mister."
Troubles come not single spies, but in battalions. In July of 1970, in a response to a query by Carroll County Tax Assessor Charles Clarke, A.G. Purcell of the Arkansas Attorney General's office responded that the Smith Foundation property could be held liable for property taxes even though the IRS and state revenue offices had granted the Sacred Projects non-profit tax exempt status. At the time, Purcell was a candidate for Governor. Smith commented, "We are not disposed to respond without contest to superficial opinions issued off the cuff by politicians." He further said, "It does not require a deep observer to conclude that some of us in Eureka Springs are being persecuted."
Smith filed a complaint against the groups, but the road project was dead. The new and improved road would have been a little over two miles long and would have cost $227,000 (about $68,000 of that federal). It probably cost more to kill the road than it would have to build it. Since Arkansas had proposed no alternate projects for that year, the federal money went to road projects in Oklahoma.
Four months after that, Emmett Sullivan, creator of the Christ of the Ozarks statue, died and was buried at the Black Hills National Cemetery at Sturgis, South Dakota. He was survived by his wife, two children and eight grandchildren. His artistic legacy of giant sculpture had grown to include several huge dinosaurs he had designed for Ola Farwell's Dinosaur World at Beaver Lake on highway 187 northwest of Eureka Springs. Sullivan was 78.
Paradoxically the defeat over the road issue infused Smith with new energy. In May of 1971, he called the Gazette to "congratulate my foes" on defeating the road project. It seemed that the Foundation's bold new project would require every scrap of land which would have been paved had the road project gone through! Said Smith, "If Volpe would come down tomorrow in person, we would refuse to sign the easement.... I am grateful to the people who have opposed the bypass road leading past the great statue, Christ of the Ozarks, for reasons that seem providential."
The new plan? A life-sized replica of first century Jerusalem!
Here's a quote from an early 1970's flyer, published by the Smith Foundation, which I found at the Arkansas History Commssion: "IMPORTANT -- The enemies of Christ are in posession of the original Holy Land. They are desecrating the shrines. They are building housing projects on the holy sites.... We are faced with a situation where the enemies of Christ in the Holy Land will use the despoiled areas to glorify the antichrist instead of our Savior." He invited all to take part in "THE MOST SENSATIONAL PROJECT OF THE CENTURY" by sending in a thousand bucks.
Sounds a bit like a medieval pope calling for a fourth crusade. But that was Smith's rhetorical style, all right. Robert Hyde was dispatched to the Old Holy Land to take photographs, make sketches and prepare an artistic prospectus for the creation of Ozark duplicates of Palestine's most important holy sites.
Smith announced he planned to send out a million letters soliciting donations. He and Mrs. Smith would pay for preliminary construction out of their own pockets. Here's some of that preliminary construction pictured just above on the left. It's billed as a stone-for-stone replica of Jerusalem's East Gate. Here's a link to a photo of the original Golden Gate. You decide. Looks smack on to me.
And here on the right, a costumed guide explains to a couple of tourists the details of Upper Room, the scene of the Last Supper. In addition to reciting the biblical account, the tourguide goes over the customs, manners and dining habits of first-century Jerusalem. The desciples would have reclined on mats or carpets behind this low table. This kind of jar, that kind of fruit, such and such a bread would have been typical. It would have been eaten thus. Stuff like that.
Back on the left we have a actual size reproduction of Moses' Tabernacle in the Wilderness.The guide at this site is quick to point out that the tabernacle isn't made of authentic materials; but he'll be able to tell you how much gold, silver, wool, silk, bronze, copper, seal skin and other precious materials WOULD be required if it WERE made of authentic materials. The cost of building the Tabernacle out of authentic materials would probably cover the cost of building the rest of the New Holy Land out of authentic materials.
Again, in addition to a standard account from Exodus, he seemed reasonably well versed in Jewish customs and religious practices and also seemed to have taken a fairly serious chop at studying some Hebrew. Of course, what the heck do I know? I'm a Presbyterian. That's just one disillusionment from agnostic.
All-in-all the New Holy Land is a really ambitious project and it seems to be coming together emphasizing living history as much as dramatizing Bible lessons. Of course there are times when one or another exhibit falls unavoidably short. For instance, the "Mount of Olives" is pretty hard to pull off when Arkansas winters keep killing your olive trees. And it's not really practical to reproduce the Sea of Galilee "actual size," now is it?
A word of caution. These tourguides aren't here because they're being paid big piles of money. They're spirit-filled Christians. So watch your damn mouth. Just kidding. There's no need to feel uncomfortable about the demonstrative nature of their religion. They might invite you to sing a hymn in the resonant weeping chamber of Jesus' tomb, or they might ask you to join in the Lord's Prayer on the banks of their downsized Sea of Galilee; but you probably won't see any snake dancers or glossolalia and they're not going to try to convert anybody on the spot. However, one of the tourguides informed me that a couple of times a year some guest will spontaneously have an epiphany.
As of this writing, the New Holy Land Tour has about forty exhibits, ranging from very simple stuff like the Canaanite altar to big and complicated stuff like the East Gate and Wilderness Tabernacle. Each site has a little Bible reference and a little history/archaeology.
While the main events here are the Great Passion Play and the New Holy Land, there are some other attractions on the grounds worthy of note. Next to the Church in the Wildwood, which used to house the Bible Museum, there's a section of the Berlin Wall, imported and memorialized after the reunification of Germany. On the other side of the Church in the Wildwood is a styrofoam replica of the Liberty Bell.
When Smith put his collection of Bibles on display at the Sacred Projects he said, "The American Bible Society said there was nothing like it on earth." Today the Bible collection is housed in the basement of the domed Smith Memorial Chapel. Across the way from the Bible Museum is a Christ Only Art Gallery. I have to wonder what Jesus, a man known for his humility, would have thought about that. There's also a buffet restaurant (which used to be the Anita Bryant Theatre) tricked out in the California Mission style.
The road project was the last fight of any significance Smith faced in Arkansas, although he maintained an embarrassingly public running battle trying to get local big wigs to come to the Great Passion Play and visit the shrines. Of course, given Smith's reputation, no politician with national aspirations would want to be seen with Smith any more than he'd want to be photographed urinating on the Wailing Wall. Smith railed in the press that Governor Bumpers was snubbing his Sacred Projects, which he probably was, but which the governor couldn't admit.
Smith finally backed him into a social corner such that an appointment was set for a meeting at which Smith hoped to get Bumpers to agree on a date when he would come see the Great Passion Play. Shortly before the meeting was to take place, Bumpers' administrative assistant (and nephew) Archie Shaffer III, telegraphed Smith with the Governor's regrets that he would not be able to keep their appointment, but that the governor "planned to be in Carroll County in the next 60 days." The governor was scheduled to attend a couple of political functions in Berryville and Eureka Springs.
Plainly Smith was being "handled." No big surprise, of course. You and I get "handled" like this every day by politicians, loan officers, waiters, bosses, lawyers, relatives. You know the game. They don't want to kick us out, but they do want us out so they start causing and apologizing for regrettable little frustrations. Smith had been around and he was a big boy. He certainly would have known that Bumpers was just going to make and break one appointment after another until Smith got tired and went away.
Smith, however, interpreted the telegram to mean that the Governor had promised to visit the shrines within the next 60 days, and he notified the papers to that effect. When Bumpers corrected the misunderstanding and produced a copy of the telegram Shaffer had sent, Smith called Shaffer "a double-talking bare-faced liar." Further he said, "I believe that the original difficulty was caused by self-initiated deceptive remarks by this same Shaffer without the knowledge of the Governor. I do not believe the governor has been aware of these alarming duplicities."
If you think the story has run out of irony, think again. In 1970, examination of tax documents revealed that the Elna M. Smith Foundation was a consistent money loser. The Christian Nationalist Crusade had loaned the Foundation $112,284.77 gratis. Robertson himself had made personal loans to the Foundation at 6%. If this trend continued, and it likely did, the Sacred Projects, which weren't overtly anti-semitic, would have siphoned considerable cash resources away from the Christian Nationalist Crusade, which WAS overtly anti-semitic. The religious projects would have bled the political wing white.
Pictured at right is very nearly the end of the story. Gerald L. K. Smith died during Holy Week of 1976, survived by his wife and an adopted son Gerry, who worked as a golf pro in Texas. He and wife Elna are laid to rest in the very shadow of the Christ of the Ozarks. Charles Robertson, the guy whose announcement started all this, was left in charge of the Foundation, the statue, the play, the gallery and the rest of the attractions and exhibits.
A couple of the folks I spoke to clammed up at the mention of the road controversey. I guess it's a sore spot with them. One woman suddenly asked for my name and address, quickly adding, "We're starting a mailing list." (Been up and running since the mid '60's and just now starting a mailing list?) I guess they still feel a little threatened, always expecting to get basted by every smartass that comes along asking a lot of uncomfortable questions, always glancing over their shoulders, wincing in anticipation of a sucker-punch even after twenty-five years.
So what about the old Gerald L. K. Smith in relation to the younger version? A harmless kook or a dangerous hate monger? Did old age soften his views? Could he have softened his views if he had wanted to, or was he too strongly defined by his past? Was he cynical, delusional or just ham-handed when it came to spin-doctoring? He came to Arkansas long after his public heyday, and he was pretty good about not intruding his politics onto anything he did here, so we didn't know him with his hackles up and his teeth bared. The locals generally saw him in his role as the avuncular, baronial eccentric with the money.
His motives aside, his past aside and his politics aside, from anecdotes in this article it should be clear that any views he espoused did not require much in the way of facts for support. As for the question of the softening of his anti-semitic views, I think that can best be answered by his funeral oration, delivered by the man Smith had personally chosen (after meeting him but once) to preside over his burial, Reverend Buddy Tucker of Knoxville, TN. Quoting Reverend Tucker's graveside oration (this is Tucker talking, not me and not Smith), "All issues sink into insignificance compared to the battle between the Christ and the anti-Christ Jew, and these same forces which nailed our Savior to the cross are now attempting to crucify Him anew by evaporating our civilization which grew out of His Name and His Blood."
As Ahab said to Moby, "With my last breath, I spit at thee."
And by the way that was a quarter century ago.
I've made three visits there over the past year and I have yet to see anything that struck me as being anti-semitic. There might be right wing or anti-semitic sentiments around somewhere, but I didn't see any. I should say right here that I haven't seen the Great Passion Play yet, and that was the focus of anti-semitism charges. I haven't seen any right-wing political literature on the grounds and I was never proselytized.
So that's about it. Things have been relatively quiet since the death of Gerald L. K. Smith, and his projects have developed apace as you have seen, perhaps more smoothly for his absence. As it was from the start, there is a kind of uneasy peace between Eureka Springs and the Sacred Projects, based largely on the fact that the Sacred Projects is in the main responsible for the town's present prosperity. If the project coordinators want to be philosophical about it I suppose they could say that, just like the first century Christian church, they weathered a hostile storm and their enterprise became stronger for having done so.
Shortly after the death of Charles F. Robertson, the Sacred Projects team undertook to revamp the Great Passion Play. The script has been revised, a new sound track recorded, and it's been restaged and there's a new technical design. So there's no way I can see the old production to judge for myself whether or not it was anti semitic. Also, literature and advertisements issued by the Great Passion Play today lists Magnetic Mountain as the location. This had nothing to do with my article, they were doing it before I first posted my original story.
I wrote to Calvin Trillin c/o The Nation to ask him about his meeting with Smith and whether or not he had pursued any legal action over the incident. Here is his reply.
Dear Mr. Johnson: If you're still interested in the events surrounding the piece I did for the New Yorker on the Eureka Springs passion play, here's what I remember. When I interviewed Smith in Eureka Springs, he mentioned a profile of him that had recently appeared in Esquire. I can't remember the writer's name, but he had a three-name by-line and lived someplace like Memphis or Nashville. The name John Fergus Ryan is in my mind, but I might have gotten that from something else. At any rate, Smith told me that this writer had told him that he had included some negative things in the piece because that was the only way he could get the piece by the liberal editors at Esquire. That struck me as an odd thing for a writer to say, but then I throught no more about it. Then my piece came out. As you say, it was rather negative, although what seemed to bother the Passion Play people most was a sort of aside about the cast making smart-aleck remarks to each other on stage (the dialogue was all on tape.) After the piece was published, someone sent me an article from the local Eureka Springs paper by the guy who acted as Smith's deputy -- running for vice-president, emptying the ash-trays, etc. It said that I had warned Smith that there might be some negative things in the piece because that was the only way I could get the piece past my liberal editors. (So the short answer to your question is, yes, he just made it up out of whole cloth -- at least twice). The article also gave the impression that my wife and I (she was with me) were old pals of the Smiths and it said a number of other things that weren't true. I told the newspaper editor that printing that I would change something I wrote for that reason was libelous, and that I was going to sue him for a lot of money if he didn't print a reply from me. (In fact, the lawyer at the New Yorker had advised me to forget about it.) He published a reply by me that was much more negative than the original article, but in the middle of it -- in bold face, as I remember -- was a paragraph that said that the Smiths wanted the paper to print my reply to demonstrate how the minds of those who opposed the Sacred Projects worked, and that readers should see the answer on page something or other. That referred to a full page of small type defending the Sacred Projects against thugs such as myself. If there's anything else you need, let me know. Calvin Trillin
Last week I visited the Carnegie Library in Eureka Springs to look up the pertinent citations in the 1969 Times Echo in order to confirm that their content had been fairly represented by Mr. Trillin and the Arkansas Gazette, and it's pretty much what they said it was.
Sources: Arkansas History Commission, Place File: Eureka Springs, subhead "Elna M. Smith Foundation, Great Passion Play". Trillin, Calvin. U.S. Journal, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. New Yorker, 7/26/69, pp. 69-79. Arkansas Gazette -- articles from 1965 to 1976 too numerous to mention. If you want a reference for a specific fact, e-mail me at Traveler.