Every Easter season, starting with the first weekend in Lent, what was billed as "America's Passion Play" was performed at Saint Michael's auditorium on the South Side of the city. This was a big deal every year since about 1910, and sometimes as many as 25,000 people would attend the performances each year. There were purple signs all over the city advertising the annual event, and when we were in grade school we were taken there every year.
I remember the first year we went to see the production, and the sea of yellow school buses that were packed onto Monastery street...hundreds of school kids from all over the city for the special weekday performance. We climbed up what felt like a thousand steps from the street below, and then a thousand more to the second floor of the old school building to an enormous auditorium that held almost a thousand people. I remember my cousin whispering to me that our mother's would call the place a "fire trap" as the nuns herded us into our seats.
There were some kind of monks or priests who eventually came out and attempted to settle us all down before the play began. The most curious thing he seemed to talk about was how there would be some loud thunder during the play when Jesus died on the cross, and that we should all remain silent and reverential when that happened. There were a lot of murmurs about just what he was talking about...but my cousin and I exchanged an odd look...I could tell he was considerably alarmed by this unusual warning. Telling a thousand kids that something was probably going to startle them resulted in a wave of both anticipation and nervous excitement.
The play was well done....well rehearsed....with beautiful scenery and costumes...and some real Pittsburgh accents from two thousand years ago.
We were awed by the organ music and the tableaus of the Agony in the Garden, preceded by a DaVinci Last Supper, and the kids were all very quiet and reverential as we were instructed to be. Then came the crucifixion scene, with the centurions milling around, and the women lamenting, and some distant rumblings of what sounded like real honest to goodness thunder. Some of the kids were actually crying softly as Jesus's life was slowly ebbing away. After He uttered the few last words....it happened.
The loudest, scariest,earth shattering clap of thunder shook that old auditorium like a nuclear bomb. All hell broke loose in that very young audience...kids screamed, kids stood up as if they were going to run for their lives...the nuns went ballistic...the monk stopped playing the organ, and my cousin and I (to use my mother's expression) nearly jumped out of our skin.
The bedlam verged on hysteria for what seemed like forever. Poor Jesus was hanging dead, the action on the stage had come to a temporary halt, and then what was undoubtedly nervous laughter began.Pretty soon the place was roaring.
The show of course went on...the nuns were actually pretty understanding as we rode home later, probably because they were practically scared out of their wimples that day too. The next year when we were all packed into that place like sardines again, we knew what to expect...were duly warned again pre-performance about the impending shock...but once again Jesus died, and the place went crazy. Someone told us that the thunder was actually created by huge sheets of metal that were struck by something or other, but my cousin and I are still convinced that after all these years nothing has ever scared either one of us the way that fake thunder did....although he thinks we screamed exactly the same way when we went to see "The Creature with the Atomic Brain"...( I think he was actually just as vocal when the TINGLER was supposedly loose in the Fulton theater). It still seems strange to say that the scariest thing I ever remember was being ten years old and watching a Passion Play.