INSPIRED PERFORMANCES Pennsylvania theater brings the message of the gospel to life on stage

STRASBURG, PA. — The artistic and entertainment directors came from Hershey Park, and the technical director from Disneyland in California. The camels came from Connecticut, and the audience comes from all around.

The destination is Sight and Sound Entertainment Centre, the "vision" of owners Glenn and Shirley Eshelman, in the Amish country of Lancaster County.


"This is the country's largest full-time professional Christian theater," says Gregg Halteman, 37, sales and marketing manager.

Mr. Halteman says in the year since it opened, 250,000 people have seen at least one of five shows, all with nondenominational Christian themes, in a 1,400-seat theater which has a stage the same size as the one in Radio City Music Hall in New York. The current show, "Joys of Christmas," featuring 30 cast members, 15 animals (including those two camels), music, robotic Christmas trees and a barrage of special effects, runs through Jan. 2.


In the beginning there were slide shows

Glenn Eshelman, 53, wearing a patterned shirt over a purple turtleneck and light-colored trousers, sits in Centre's second-floor conference room. Shirley Eshelman, 49, known as the quieter of the two, sits on the other side of the table.

"I oversee the business operation," says Mrs. Eshelman, vice president of administration. "Glenn handles the creative and vision aspects."

"I'm not in this for the glory," he says. "I can live in the shadows. What I do I do for the glory of God."

All this started in the 1960s when Mr. Eshelman was drafted, but because of his religious beliefs (he's a member of Church of the Brethren) he did alternative service at a hospital where Mrs. Eshelman also worked.

Pay was low so he worked in a dairy, did landscape paintings of farms, took photographs to help in the sketching. Then they started doing slide shows of his photographs for churches, adding a sound track and readings by Mrs. Eshelman.

"From that it grew into a business," he says.

After being on the road, they returned to their native Lancaster County in the mid-1970s. They built a 650-seat auditorium a half mile down the road, now used for their non-actor "Living Waters" show, but when they moved into live entertainment, they decided a theater was needed.


The current center, on 65 acres, opened in March 1991.

The theater is a technical dream, with a master control booth that looks like the cockpit of a jet, a "fully loaded" recording

studio, a film and videotape library of every production, 1,000 lights controlled by a computerized light board, a custom-designed sound system. Computers run two dozen slide, 35 mm and video projectors. There also are fog machines, a 100-by-50 foot main stage, a separate elevated stage (good for heavenly scenes), two 75-foot side stages and a 10,000-square-foot production facility in a separate building.

Mr. Halteman says a show costs $200,000 to $300,000 to mount.

After creating a concept, Mr. Eshelman says, he does models and drawings and turns them over to the technical crew to execute. Nels Martin, his technical director and a man who appreciates detail, says, "Glenn is the bottom line to everything here," including such things as the "color and texture of fabrics."

Mr. Martin arrived this month after 20 years in California, the last 2 1/2 as production stage manager for live entertainment at Disneyland.


"Theater is theater," says Mr. Martin, 41, who got into the business at 15 and has worked everything from dinner theater to Elton John concerts. "All that changes is the subject on the stage. Our only goal is to present Jesus as gospel, not teaching religious politics."

Earl Grove, 31, artistic director, and Bonnie Bosso, 34, entertainment director, agree. They are two more young members of the "incredible" staff Mr. Eshelman says makes his projects successful.

Mr. Grove and Ms. Bosso formerly were at Hershey Park, the popular amusement center.

"Bonnie and I have an artistic and logistical type of relationship," says Mr. Grove, director of "Christmas." "For instance, she arranges auditions, and I conduct them; she sets up the rehearsals, and I run them."

Both say the chance to present a New Testament message rather than just doing entertainment attracted them to Sight and Sound.

One way of emphasizing the message is a "team approach," Ms. Bosso says. "The traditional show business way has been to acknowledge one person, the star. We acknowledge everyone as a team. We have no stars, no curtain calls.


"Theater is a very self-centered business. It's really neat for me to see that flipped."

The actors, including two Eshelman daughters, are not full-time or Actors Equity union members. Auditions are required for each show.

Keeping the flocks

In the barn behind the theater, Luke Charles, in charge of animal husbandry, washes down a little white pony that will be pulling a sleigh onto the stage early in the show. An assistant brings in a white horse, the mount of a Roman soldier in Bethlehem. The two camels are in their stalls, awaiting appearances on stage with the three wise men.

Besides the horse, pony and camels, Mary will ride into Bethlehem on a gray donkey, a nativity scene will include an oxe, another donkey, a goat and two sheep, and shepherds in the hills will need sheep to herd.

Up the hill, cars and buses start to appear, climbing from state Route 896.


Mae and Charles Lightbourne and 47 other members of the Gun Hill chapter of the American Association for Retired Persons traveled down by bus from the Bronx, N.Y.

R.J. Wetzel, her mother and four relatives came by car from Waynesboro, Pa., two hours away.

All seats, at $18.50 and $19 each, quickly fill up.

Mr. Eshelman introduces the show, welcoming newcomers, welcoming back returnees. In his roll call of states, New Jerseyians win the day, in raised hands and noise.

"Joys of Christmas" runs 90 minutes without intermission. It starts with a secular "Christmas in a Winter Wonderland" slide show and music, follows with "Christmas in Toyland," with toys coming to life, bouncy songs and a brief message of the "real meaning" of Christmas. After that, everything is all "visualizing 00 the gospel," as Mr. Eshelman calls it, centered around the birth of Christ.

The audience loves it when the shepherds, praising the Lord, bring sheep up an aisle. Hands reach for a lamb trailing after its mother.


Cast members, led in prayer by the full-time staff minister before each show, play many roles.

Melissa Wiessner, 33, of Hunt Valley, is a Salvation Army woman, fabric seller in Bethlehem, an angel in heaven, a Christmas caroler.

She says she is Catholic but denominations are not important here.

Duane Hespell, 29, married with a 3-year-old son, commutes an hour and 20 minutes from Lansdale, Pa.

In "Joys of Christmas," his fourth show, Mr. Hespell has a major role as Joseph, and three smaller parts.

Marie Taylor, Laura Peterson and Pearl Sledge are in a Woodlawn contingent that came by bus. "Just wonderful," Ms. Taylor says.


Down in the production building, Christmas is not the focus. Set-builders work on a Victorian town for the next production, "The Splendor of Easter," opening in March. Mr. Eshelman says he took Mr. Grove and Ms. Bosso's Victorian set idea and incorporated the Biblical story of the prodigal son who left home and fell so far from grace he lived with pigs.

The pig sty is finished, ready to hold a live pig at show time.



What: Sight and Sound Entertainment Centre

When: "Joys of Christmas" Tuesdays-Saturdays through Jan. 2, except Dec. 23-25 and Jan. 1. A Monday show will be held Nov. 30.


Where: Route 896, Strasburg, Pa. Directions: I-83 north to York, Pa., then U.S. 30 east into Lancaster County. Turn right on Route 896 at Rockvale Shopping Center to the center.

Call: (717) 687-7800.