A week ago yesterday, my wife and I joined others from this area on a Fullington bus trip to the Sights & Sound Theater at Ronks, Pa., in Lancaster County. The trip was organized by Meredith Monteville and Debbie Britton from the Sugar Hill and Beechwoods Presbyterian Churches and we boarded the bus in the Brockway Presbyterian Church parking lot at 9 a.m. In my opinion, that was a more reasonable time than what I’ve heard some other tours begin.
This was actually our fourth viewing of a production, the first being in the spring of 1996, as a feature of my first year of retirement from the classrooms of Brockway High. Our good family/farmer friend Margaret Verbeke had moved to Blue Ball and we were among the first to visit her at her new home. While in the Lancaster area, it was our plan to go to the “Living Waters Theater” for a morning show with lights and dancing water spurts that rose and fell in motion with music; and then to the “Sight & Sound Entertainment Centre” to see Noah in the afternoon.
The theater complex was begun by a local couple named Glenn and Shirley Eshelman. Glenn had grown up on a dairy farm in Lancaster County and became so aware of the beautiful world around him even as a boy, that he took up the painting of landscapes. To enhance his memory of the scenes he’d seen, he bought a camera and began taking pictures as well. That developed further into slide shows with appropriate music and narration that were well-received by his audiences and were highly in demand for religious and civic groups throughout the area, and even across the United States.
In the summer of 1976, the Living Waters Theater was opened as the realization of their dream with their own picture show titled A Land of Our Own. In due time, live actors and actresses were added to the production to make it a full stage production. With continuing popularity, a second building was built on a nearby hilltop and was given the name of “The Sight & Sound Entertainment Center.” That’s where we visited in 1996 and were entertained with our first view of the play Noah.
In January of 1997, while workers were building a whole new set for an upcoming production, a welder’s torch started a fire and the building burned to the ground. The Living Waters Theater was again the main attraction until the Entertainment Center could be replaced. In September of 1998, the new “Millennium Theater” opened again with a musical version of Noah and followed with The Miracle of Christmas. The 2,000-seat state-of-the-art theater features a massive, 300-foot panoramic stage that wraps all the way around the audience that often brings visitors right into the middle of the action. The stage is high enough that sets may reach as high as four-stories with actors at all levels.
We made our second visit in April of 1999, this time to the new theater. It was a part of a visit to Lancaster County by our small “Classy Clan” group to Lancaster with the express purpose of celebrating the marriage of two members. They were married in the fall of 1998 and were gifted to an all-expense stay at Willow Valley Resort and other entertainment and meals – but with the stipulation that the rest of our group could go along – and so we did!
Thoughts of such a trip always bring back many memories but sometimes it takes a few notes to pull them back to the surface of the mind. Thanks to the ledger recordings of our friend Joy Lewis, I was given the opportunity to relive our experiences of that time. Now I recall that a few pieces of my wardrobe came from the “Rockvale Outlet Stores” and who could forget the dinner we tried to have at a little country restaurant where our waitress, after taking our orders, got into a verbal fight with the cook and left the place in a huff without serving our meals (no fault of ours, of course).
We all had tickets for The Millennium Theater for the current presentation of Noah where we watched the step-by-step process of Noah building his Ark among all the heckling of his neighbors. Finally thunder clapped, lightning flashed, and the rains were about to begin. The aisles of the theater were filled with animals, running two-by-two, to get on board. Then the boat floated off with us inside. I have a great picture in my mind of sitting there with the side walls of the theater opened to reveal stalls of animals, some mechanical but many live and quietly enjoying the ride.
With those memories behind and within us, we booked passage for a bus trip to Lancaster County in November of 2000 with a group coming out of the Moorhead United Methodist Church. I think we viewed The Miracle of Christmas that time. With something like 50 years of Sunday School floating around in my mind, the actual stories seem to run together. I’ve already heard the stories and many of the same ideas reappear in one play after another. Not so with the settings and presentations.
Over the years in operation, in addition to Noah and Jonah, the writers and engineers/producers have developed stories of the Biblical characters Abraham, Daniel and the Lions’ Den, Ruth, Joseph, Moses, and Samson. The publicity states, “What began with a dairy farmer, his wife, a few slide projectors, a passion for creativity and a desire to serve God, grew into the Sight & Sound Theaters we know today – the nation’s largest organization of its kind and one of the top three theater destinations in the country. We are humbled by this success and grateful to remain a family-owned business, led by the next generation of the Eshleman family with a passionately committed team of 600 employees.
By the early 2000’s, regular sell-out crowds at the Millennium Theater inspired the Eshlemans to give new thoughts to expansion of the facility and finally decided to open a second location. They created an identical twin theater in the beautiful Ozark Mountains at Branson, Missouri. They proclaim, “As we look to what the future may hold, we are continuously exploring new ways to bring the Bible to life and how we might provide more opportunities for more people to experience these powerful stories.”