(Published in the Seattle Times online on June 24, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on June 27, 2021)
In 1921, a passion play of ‘reverential grandeur’
shone brightly, if bitterly, at UW
By Clay Eals
Believe it or not, Seattle once possessed “the largest stage in the world” for an event “second to nothing that the world has ever seen.”
From promoters and newspapers, such superlatives flowed to biblical proportions for “The Wayfarer,” a Christian passion play whose Seattle centennial is next month.
The production rented eight-month-old University of Washington (Husky) Stadium and erected a stage covering its east end, with a massive 100-by-75-foot proscenium. The six-night show ran at 8 p.m. July 23 and July 25-30, 1921, drawing a total of 88,285 who bought $1.10-$3.30 tickets ($16-$49 today, with inflation) to see 100 paid performers and 5,000 local volunteers present a three-hour musical tribute to Christ, culminating in his allegorical, global coronation.
“Never, perhaps, in the 1,921 years since was born the Babe ‘that in a manger lay’ has humanity witnessed such a spectacle of reverential grandeur,” stated one ad.
To counter the “horrible nightmare” of the just-completed Great War (World War I), “The Wayfarer” had inspired awe since its 23-show debut in 1919 in Columbus, Ohio, and five-week run in 1919-1920 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The fanfare intensified when its author, the Rev. James Crowther, formerly of Seattle’s First United Methodist Church, pressed a button in Philadelphia to electrically launch Seattle’s opening performance.
On its front page, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer predicted “The Wayfarer” would become “the most important civic enterprise ever undertaken here.” Five nights in, the show legitimized the tall talk when attendance hit the event’s 24,000 capacity and 3,000-plus were turned away. “Stadium Too Small!” trumpeted a front-page Seattle Times headline.
Crowther had projected, and many locals had assumed, that “The Wayfarer” would become an annual affair here. Civic leader C.T. Conover vowed it would “make Seattle a Mecca for spiritual uplift and regeneration.” But cracks quickly shattered the sheen.
After closing night, the troupe’s manager, Edgar Webster, clumsily declared the pageant “strictly a business proposition” that would use half its $125,000 Seattle proceeds to — as implied by its foot-traveling name — stage it wherever it wished.
“COMMERCIALISM!” cried a Times editorial, accusing Webster of breaching public trust. “Bitterly disappointed,” the paper said it “resents this playing upon the normal religious feeling of the tens of thousands who … went away confident that Seattle would become the home of the greatest spectacle of its kind in the world.”
Immediately, Webster’s board walked back his affront. “The Wayfarer” returned to the stadium, but just twice, in 1922 and 1925. Of course, the generations to come supplied us further evidence that transcendent visions often fail to sustain the heights of their hype.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Special thanks to Magnolia historian Dan Kerlee as well as Chelsea Kristen Vaughn for her informative doctoral dissertation (see below). Both provided invaluable assistance with this installment.