- Hansen, Harold I., 1914-1992 (Creator, Person)
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Conditions Governing Use
Permission to publish material from the Harold I. Hansen collection must be obtained from the Supervisor of Reference Services and/or the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Board of Curators.
1 oversize box (1.5 linear ft.)
47 boxes (23.5 linear ft.)
"No man knows how long the road of faith is, nor where it will lead." For Harold I. Hansen, devoted family man, professor at Brigham Young University, and 40 years director of the acclaimed Hill Cumorah Pageant, that road led to success and fulfillment in touching countless students and audience members, and serving his God through theater.
Reviewers have continually remarked on Hansen's capacity to work dramatic miracles within the constraints of limited staffing, money, and time. This ability to overcome obstacles and exceed expectations characterized his entire life, despite personal financial hardships and the incredible demands of rehearsal, teaching, and service in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One of his four daughters remarked, "we were never really aware of how poor we were, because mother and father created such a warm, loving environment for us." He would surely have found that to be a most rewarding tribute.
Harold I. Hansen was born March 10, 1914 in Logan Utah to Hans Dederik and Nielsine Caroline Hartman Hansen, who had recently immigrated to Logan from Denmark. In Denmark, the Hansens had been successful shoemakers in the town of Randers, but chose to leave behind their prosperous business to come to Utah after their conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Harold's interest in drama began early; at the age of 14 he joined the Waldron summer touring theater company. During his undergraduate years at Utah State, he toyed for a time with becoming an accountant (those were depression years, and theater didn't promise great stability), but nonetheless his first love prevailed, and Harold Hansen graduated in 1937 with a Bachelors of Science (B.S.) in dramatic arts.
Throughout his young life, Harold Hansen dreamed of serving a proselyting mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to his parent's homeland, Denmark. He enthusiastically studied Danish language and customs in hopes of being an effective emissary, and was certain that he would be called there. When the call came for him to serve in the Eastern States mission within the United States in 1937 he was disappointed and decided to turn the call down in favor of a rare opportunity to go to the University of Idaho on a graduate assistantship. He explained his feelings to then president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, David O. McKay, who responded, "Harold, I don't know if you will ever get another day of schooling in your life. But you're going on that mission!" Although he was not reconciled to it for quite some time, this difficult decision to go on that mission was without doubt inspired. It was perhaps the most important decision Harold Hansen ever made, for it was there that he met his future wife, Betty Kotter Hansen, and began directing the Hill Cumorah Pageant.
The Hill Cumorah, located outside Palmyra, New York, is a site sacred to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was to this hill that Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the LDS church, was directed by a Heavenly messenger to obtain the Plates which contained the Book of Mormon. It is uncertain when the first pageant commemorating these events was performed on the site, but it appears that the tradition was established when Harold Hansen arrived in New York. Because of his prior acting and directing experience, Hansen was immediately chosen by President Colton of the Eastern States mission as director of the fledgling pageant. When he arrived at the hill in the spring of 1937, Hansen despaired of making anything of the poorly staged and conceived production. After the first dress rehearsal, he told the mission president, "All I can tell you, president Colton, is if this thing ever comes off, I'll have a testimony." He describes the opening performance as follows: The opening came. That was the first blow; when I saw the audience, there were over 13,000 people there. And as I stood there and watched, I was overwhelmed because there were things happening that I could just not believe. I saw things happen on that hill that were never touched by any one of us there, and we knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt, because we had worked with it day by day. I just kept saying to myself, "it could not be. It simply could not be."
The annual pageant was an unfolding miracle to Hansen, who remained director at the Hill Cumorah for 40 years, from 1937-1977. Each year he improved the pageant, adding cast, rewriting script and improving sound and lighting as technology became available. The script for the pageant "America's Witness for Christ", by H. Wayne Driggs, recorded with the score by composer Crawford Gates, premiered in 1953, marking the beginning of the modern pageant. It depicts stories from the Book of Mormon, the history of an ancient American Christian people, as well as the coming forth of the book in our day and the beginnings of the LDS faith.
In his final year as director, "America's Witness for Christ" featured a cast of over 500, the largest outdoor Pageant in the world. Putting a show of this magnitude together each summer was something of a directorial and personal miracle. A local newspaper, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, commented: ...in just one week, he takes a swarm of raw, inexperienced volunteers, sizes them up, assigns them roles, rehearses them, and then opens public performances of a vast, masterful religious pageant that draws thousands...
Under Hansen's tireless and capable direction the pageant developed into a magnificent spectacle. Through it he moved thousands with his faith--a marvelous tribute to his devotion and to the hard work of the volunteer staff, cast, and crew.
During the first years at Cumorah, Harold met his future wife, a fellow missionary in the Eastern States Mission, Betty Kotter. The story of their first meeting evolved in the telling, until in later years he would often reminisce about their meeting at the flagpole on Hill Cumorah-a slightly apocryphal story according to Betty, but an engaging tale nevertheless. They were married at the flagpole on July 16, 1940; and after the simple ceremony the groom returned to final dress rehearsal which lasted till midnight. Their marriage was later solemnized in the Logan Temple on August 26 of the same year.
This pattern of waiting while he rehearsed would continue throughout their married life. Betty was a constant source of support and encouragement to her husband despite financial hardships and long hours of separation. Their union was blessed with four beautiful daughters, Leslie Kae, Linda Rae, Betty Ann, and Patti Jeane.
After their marriage, Harold and Betty spent a year in Iowa where he earned his masters degree at the state university. His thesis, A Survey of Drama as Fostered by Religious Bodies in the United States, served as a preliminary study for his doctoral dissertation, A History and Influence of the Mormon Theater from 1839-1869, completed at Utah State University in 1949. In the interim, he served as an instructor for LDS Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (1941-42), performed with the prestigious Cleveland Playhouse (1942-45) and taught drama at Michigan State University at Lansing (1946-47).
Hansen joined the faculty at Utah State in 1947 while in pursuit of his doctorate and remained there until 1952. Acclaim for his skill as a director and teacher reached Earnest L. Wilkinson, then president of Brigham Young University, who was searching for a successor to T. Earl Pardoe, retiring head of the Speech and Drama Department at the BYU. The 1951 and 1952 seasons were apparently quite exciting and frustrating for Hansen; while he was aware that President Wilkinson was routinely attending his productions and making inquiries at Utah State, he never received word that he was being considered for the position at BYU until weeks before his appointment.
An editorial in Utah State's Student Life commented: We might say "BYU's gain is our loss", but the situation merits more than that. Dr. Hansen has accomplished almost miraculous feats with little money, little equipment, and little recognition. Aggie productions are now on a near-professional basis and few students realize what [Hansen and his crews] have been doing under almost overwhelming odds.
Although the BYU appointment was a great opportunity for Hansen, he and Betty approached it with some misgivings. Betty's own experience there as a freshman had convinced her that BYU was a "glorified High School". However, both were impressed by Wilkinson; "there was such dynamics about him, such a sense of excitement." Dr. Hansen was convinced that he could find support to create the kind of theater program he was envisioning for BYU.
While it is impossible to estimate the impact Harold Hansen had on the department of Theater and the BYU community, a few accomplishments certainly need to be mentioned here. Hansen had an ambitious vision for theater education and created an internationally acclaimed program at Brigham Young University. He was able to increase the scope and influence of the department, adding several majors and initiating a graduate program in 1960. In 1965, BYU Theater finally found a suitable home in the Harris Fine Arts Center, which included appropriate instruction rooms and three stages. This was an answered prayer for Hansen and his students who had "made do" for many years with the inadequate Joseph Smith building stage. The first production in the Pardoe theater of the new Harris Fine Arts center was Barrie Stavis' A Lamp at Midnight, which Dr. Hansen presented again as his final production as head of the department in 1979.
By the close of his career, Hansen was reported to have directed over 250 plays and pageants; some of his greatest successes were at BYU. In his first season he brought Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams) and Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller) to BYU, quite a feat, considering both shows were still on Broadway.
Hansen directed the massive pioneer musical Sand in their Shoes, book by Don Oscarson and music by Crawford Gates. In finished form, it was more of a pageant than a typical drama, with a cast and crew of more than a thousand complete with chorus and orchestra. It ran two years, 1959 and 1960 and was a landmark for the University and Mormon theater.
Because of his wide reputation as a fine director, Hansen drew many talented actors and authors to the university. One of the great compliments of his career came when noted playwright Barrie Stavis chose BYU to world premiere his play Coat of Many Colors, which opened in 1966 to considerable critical acclaim.
It is possible, however, that to his students and the University community, Hansen will be best remembered not only for his art and the professionalism of his productions; during the run of his farewell production of Lamp at Midnight in 1979 the student newspaper commented: "He is much more than a teacher of drama, and more than a director of plays. He has always gone the extra mile for his students."
In addition to his regular academic duties, Harold Hansen also had a commitment to repertory and summer stock theater. In association with Brigham Young University, he organized touring companies for the USO and the American Educational Theater Association traveling throughout the United States, Europe and the Orient.
He tested his belief that small communities could benefit from and support local theater in two joint ventures with colleague Leal Woodbury. Together they successfully owned and directed the Proscenium Players (1949-1952) and the Ledges Theater (1960-67) in Grand Ledges, Michigan. The Ledges was under their direction for seven undoubtedly hectic summers with Pageant rehearsal to take Hansen away for a full three weeks each mid season. But the venture was a success because it gave both Hansen and Woodbury (and their wives) an opportunity to perform as well as direct, a rare pleasure.
Harold Hansen's tremendous accomplishments in theater, academia, and on the Hill Cumorah can only be understood in the context of his deep belief in God and in the basic goodness of people. He viewed each new venture as an act of faith, and relied on that faith as a guide and source of strength and inspiration. These comments he made on the occasion of his final pageant are key to understanding this good man: I tried to run away from this assignment...I said at the beginning that no man knows how long the road to faith is; what I have learned is that faith is an eternal battle. It doesn't come in a moment, and it doesn't come in a day. But when you've been willing to give everything that you have of yourself, when you've been up against something that just seems insurmountable, and everything you have you've poured out to the Lord, asking: that's when you'll find your faith. I am bearing my testimony, brothers and sisters: God lives. The human race is incredibly good. Each of us is just trying to find our way a little better. I thank my Heavenly Father that He didn't let me go, because would have destroyed myself if He had allowed me to go.
Harold I. Hansen passed away unexpectedly on June 13, 1992. His life testified to a great love of family, teaching, and theater, and an abiding faith in God. It is impossible to adequately honor his full life and valuable contribution to countless students, audiences, friends, and loved ones. Perhaps he best speaks for himself: "A man from the New York Times once asked me what my angle was on all of this. I told him it was just plain love. And you can't sell that."
Further information on Harold I. Hansen can be found in the following locations: Two Pd.D. dissertations examining his life and work held in the Special Collections division of the Harold B. Lee Library. The Road to Hill Cumorah, by Walter E. Boyden Jr (Special Collections call number BYU 378.22 B693) is a thorough biography and assessment of the accomplishments of Dr. Hansen. Unless otherwise noted, all direct quotations in this biography are taken from this work. A History of the Hill Cumorah Pageant and an Examination of the Dramatic Development of the Text of America's Witness for Christ, by Charles W. Whitman (Special Collections call number M222.082 W591h) concentrates on the history of the Pageant he founded and developed.
Researchers might also wish to check the holdings of the University Archives and the University Archives faculty file.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this biography are drawn from The Road to Hill Cumorah by Walter E. Boydon, Jr. BYU doctoral dissertation, 1982, p. 287.
Other Finding Aids
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Departmental records (University Archives collecting policy, July 2003).
- Brigham Young University -- Faculty
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
- Drama -- 20th century
- Hansen, Harold I., 1914-1992 -- Archives
- Hill Cumorah Pageant
- Ledges Playhouse
- Pageants -- New York (State) -- Palmyra
- Theater -- Production and direction -- Utah -- Provo
- Theater -- Study and teaching -- Utah -- Provo
- Register of the Harold I. Hansen papers
- LeGrand Baker, Mark A. Clifford, Jenny L. Forston, and Kevin B. Lindsey
- June, 1993 (revised July 1998)
- Description rules
- Language of description
- Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant, 2007-2008
- 2010 February 16: GilEADized to correct small errors. Updated to DACS and CCLA standards by Jonathan.
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