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The stage lights will dim for the final time on a piece of South Dakota theatrical history on Sunday as the last performance of the Black Hills Passion Play ends its nearly 70-year run in a Spearfish amphitheatre.

"As far as we know, that will be the closing performance of the production," Johanna Meier, its owner and artistic director, said Wednesday. "It's an important part of the history of the Black Hills, of Spearfish and of South Dakota. It was one of the pioneer pieces of South Dakota's tourism industry."

The play was first performed in its outdoor setting in May 1939 in an amphitheatre designed by its founder and longtime star, Josef Meier. That theater seats 6,000 and has the longest outdoor stage in the country.

The production played in Spearfish each summer and toured the United States and Canada during the fall and winter months, playing over 650 cities nationwide before a lifetime audience of nearly 11 million people. From 1953 through 1998 there was a regular winter season in a similar amphitheatre constructed in Lake Wales, Florida.

When Meier and his wife, Clare, retired in 1991, their daughter and her husband, Guido Della Vecchia, took over management of the production.

Meier will appear in her usual role as Mary for the final time on Sunday.

It will be a poignant and painful performance in some ways, she expects, but the play must go on.

"Whenever one comes to the end of a long era, there's always a good deal of emotion involved, but theater people are trained not to let those things protrude on their performance," she said. "First and foremost, will be a smooth and comfortable performance for the audience."

Johanna is the only child of Josef and Clare, who acted the roles of Jesus and Mary in the two-hour and 15-minute story of the last seven days of the life of Jesus Christ. She has appeared in the play since she was a baby.

"I have a great many memories, having been associated with the play since I was an infant," she said.

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The amphitheatre property has been for sale for several years. Current negotiations are underway with a buyer, but Meier said she was not at liberty to discuss them.

"As for Guido and me, hopefully we will have a little break now," she said of her future plans.

There is no closing night event planned for Sunday, but she is expecting a "rather large house" as people hear of the closing performance.

If you go

What: Final performances of the Black Hills Passion Play

When: 8 p.m. today, Thursday, Aug. 28 and Sunday, Aug. 31

Where: Spearfish

Cost: Tickets range from $20 to $25

Call: The Passion Play office at 642-2646.

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