Main Street Bethlehem celebrating 25th anniversary

Contributed/Leslie Walzel
The wise men watch from outside the cave as Joseph and Mary swaddle baby Jesus during a previous performance of Main Street Bethlehem in Burnet. The event opens the first Friday in December.

 

 

 

By Jenn Robison

Burnet Bulletin

A Burnet icon — Main Street Bethlehem — has begun preparation for its 2017 annual production.

This is the 25th anniversary of the production. Main Street Bethlehem is a free admission, outdoor re-creation of how the birthplace village of Jesus Christ may have looked on that night more than 2,000 years ago.

If past years are a reliable guide, crowds of people will come to Burnet to walk through at their own pace, experiencing first-hand culture, animals, crafts, and beliefs that characterized that moment in history. If the weather permits, attendance is expected to be upwards of 25,000 people.

How it started

In the spring of 1993, First Baptist Church was without a pastor. Larry Brownfield was about to vacate that position to serve elsewhere, and Bob Beasley, minister of music, along with other church leaders, were open to ideas for a project that would combine the various talents of the members in a new ministry.

Having heard of a Christmas production in El Paso that was interesting, they sought information on it, and were inspired to do something similar. The El Paso group must have been hardy folks, for it snowed the first night they opened, and as it was outdoors, visitors showed great endurance as they went from station to station. The buildings were not built to last, and after two years it was discontinued.

The idea was down, but not out. Some of those involved in it moved away, but the memory of it, with thoughts for improvements, stayed alive. It was on this basis that First Baptist Burnet voted, in May 1993, to have something similar. There were some vacant lots the church owned adjacent to the sanctuary, and they were selected as the site to be used.

Numerous decisions had to be made: Would it be free, or would it cost? (Free won out as nobody wanted to exclude anybody). Would visitors view it from a grandstand, walk through, or drive cars through? (Fortunately, the car idea lost; the walk-through won).

Would visitors be able to talk to cast members? (Yes, and the cast person would stay in character e.g., be helpful in explaining their job; maybe ask if the visitor had come by camel caravan or walked … you get the picture).

Another big decision was how to build the various structures. A plan was submitted for 16 buildings and a wall around the whole thing. As it would obviously be impossible to build it all immediately and to last indefinitely (plus a severe lack of time and money to do it with), the plan agreed on was comprised of making about 200 cloth-covered, painted wooden frames, six feet by eight feet. These would be screwed together to form the building desired. It would all be taken down and stored until the next year.

The cast would have about 125 people in appropriate costumes for the role played: shoppers, merchants, crafts people, Roman soldiers, blacksmiths, and priest, to name a few. Props would be built by church members or obtained wherever authentic items could be found, Examples included brass, weavings, pottery, and metal objects. Work on it soon began, and the doors were opened as scheduled.

About 3,000 people came the first year. That figure doubled each year, and when the attendance reached 12,000, it was apparent that the production had a good chance to survive an extended period of time.

Permanent buildings made of limestone were put up at the rate of one or two a year, and by 1999, everything had been built to last, even the cave which housed Joseph and Mary, she being great with child, plus a wall and all 16 buildings. Incidentally, prison labor was used extensively. Burnet County and the Intermediate Sanction Facility both had work programs for prisoners for community projects, and many of these were skilled in the areas needed.

Main Street Bethlehem tells a familiar story, and the purpose of it, since the outset, is “to so present the story of Jesus' birth and visit to mankind that many would come to know Him personally,” according to organizers.

Beside the visual impact of a busy city under Roman rule, animals of the time in abundance, and the strains of Middle Eastern music overarching the whole picture, a printed brochure is given to each family at the entrance which further explains why Christ came to earth and was crucified.

Main St. Bethlehem opens on the first Friday in December, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. It runs Friday through Sunday for two weekends. This year, there will be an additional performance on Thursday, Nov. 30, the night before the regular opening night, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and is intended for Burnet residents only.

Throughout the years, many Burnet residents have been discouraged by the long line outside the front gate, so they consequently stayed home. This is the production's way of saying “thanks” to Burnet's townspeople for hosting this event.

Wanting to avoid the wait? Come on a Friday or Sunday night, as Saturdays have tour buses and huge crowds. Arrive by 5:30 p.m. or earlier. Many families bring a picnic-style meal to eat as they wait. Some chairs may be available at the front gate.

This year's production will be dedicated to the many participants who have blessed the Bethlehem effort in the past, and who are now deceased. It is no exaggeration to say that “without you, this job could never have been done,” organizers said. Among those who are being remembered are Doug Newton, Pete Reed, Carroll Asbill, Olene Holly, Caleb Christianson, Gordon Edwards, Jerry Brooks, Ken Snowden, P.J. Taylor, Shirl Halliburton, George Worrell, Beryl Hawthorne, G. W. Russell, Bob Sandlin, Pat and Gladys Beck, Carl Schlomach, Billy Miller, R.V. Stone, Emma Warwick, Frances Bookout, Sam Jones, Linda Jones, Corky Lee, and Irma Smith, with sincere apologies to the family of any who may have been overlooked.

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