mayor and city councilmen had thought it was just a prank when
the first request came from Historical Dramatic Productions, Inc.
to stage a reenactment of a Roman Circus at the Municipal Auditorium.
The city had been reluctant to allow the event, offering a long
list of legal justifications to deny access to a municipal facility.
The primary objection was over the closing act which was billed
as a portrayal of the sacrifice of a Christian to a lion. The
legal staff of the city was concerned that such a portrayal would
evoke the wrath of the religious community and animal rights groups.
in the year, the Auditorium had been rented to the area Churches
of Christ for a revival that had drawn over 8,000 local Christians
for six consecutive nights. Lawyers for a local civil rights group
argued that the city could not discriminate based on the content
of the religious message and that as long as there was fair market
compensation for usage it would not effect a violation of church
and state legality. After many meetings between the lawyers on
both sides, the contract was signed, a date was fixed, and the
production company met with PETA officials who determined that
the one lion used in the production was harmless and was being
handled by a licensed animal trainer. The chariot races and other
equestrian events were being staged by the Middle Tennessee State
University Equestrian team. The costumes were being designed by
the fashion design department of a local college.
began in late July for the event scheduled for early September.
Public reaction was mixed. Some people in the religious community
were skeptical as to how Christians would be depicted in the production,
but others saw this as an opportunity to call attention to the
courage of early Christians. The production company contacted
local churches asking their participation, requesting several
hundred church members who would be dressed in authentic Christian
clothing. Several churches volunteered to participate, convinced
that the sponsors were sincere and would treat the religious image
with some historical accuracy.
participation of the local churches became a major factor in ticket
sales. The Christian and lion scene was to be the dramatic closing
with a spectacular cast of hundreds. Once the churches became
involved, there was broad support for the event throughout the
city by those who saw this as a Christian event rather than as
a circus as it had been advertised.
early August, several rumors that threatened the event began to
circulate. The rumors followed a true misfortune in the death
of the aged and benign lion. It just died unexpectedly of old
age, and the trainer was distraught and went back to Florida.
The first rumor was that the lion had been replaced by one recently
caught in the wild and that the sponsors, for fear of having the
circus cancelled, had not told anyone connected with the city
or the churches. The second rumor had to do with the integrity
of two of the owners of the Historical Dramatic company. It was
alleged that they had connections to a group of atheists in Florida,
and had participated in some questionable activist documentaries
in which religion had been discredited and not depicted fairly.
That may or may not have been true, but it made its way through
the churches. In a matter days, all participation by the churches
was cancelled. Ticket sales stopped and the sponsors refused to
give refunds on advanced sales.
a prepared press release, the promoters announced that the show
would go on but the closing scene would be cancelled unless they
could find some Christians to volunteer. They made no attempt
to explain why the scene could not be done with actors playing
the roles of Christians, but rather launched a vindictive assault
on the religious community, insisting that they could not find
even one Christian in the entire city.
exchange precipitated days of letters to the editor. Some suggested
that the event sponsors were godless troublemakers who were hostile
to Christianity. These were countered by letters that echoed the
idea that the city was in fact void of the religious fervor of
the early days of the Christian movement.
several days, the senior pulpit minister of the Good Life Community
Church called their bluff and offered to represent the local Christians.
Reverend Andrew Klease was a retired Marine officer who had found
God in a near-death experience in Korea and dedicated his life
to the ministry. Throughout the city, churches applauded Reverend
Klease for his bravery, though they still questioned the feral
threat of the lion or any harmful intent of the promoters.
sales resumed and the sold out sign went up in the ticket window.
For reasons that may have been coincidental, the event had been
scheduled for a Wednesday night, or as it was called, a church
night. Most churches chose to meet for a brief worship service
and provide church bus transportation to the auditorium. Most
Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians ignored the event,
treating it as yet another unfortunate display of ostentatious
religious misconduct and theological grandstanding. Reverend Klease
became a heroic figure among the Evangelical ranks, a symbolic
icon of bravery and selfless devotion to Christ. To the secular
community and mainstream Christians he was seen as a more comedic
or tragic figure.
church buses made their way through the snarled traffic around
the Auditorium and the Wednesday night church people were unloaded
at the front entrance. The sellout crowd was a diverse group of
the curious and the serene. To some it was a joke; to some it
was a tangible manifestation of a true Christian spiritual presence.
impatient throng, anticipating the final confrontation, sat through
the long program. The chariot races had been run at a safe speed
in the limited space and did not rise to the dramatic level of
a Ben Hur. The skillful horsemanship of the drivers was exciting
enough to overshadow the amateurish design and construction of
gladiatorial events were supervised by a retired Hollywood director
working with local Civil War re-enactors. The games were spectacular.
They seemed slightly diminished by the absence of the smell and
smoke of gunpowder, but the authenticity of the costumes and weaponry
was meticulous. The promoters had rented costumes from a company
that was a supplier for epic Hollywood productions. The Civil
War re-enactors exhibited their usual skills to effect realism
and historic exactness. One of the local universities planned
and executed the several track and field events that may have
seemed more Greek than Roman, except for very authentic attire
and equipment. Overall, it was a success. Each event was followed
by enthusiastic applause and crowd approval. The Wednesday night
church crowd had gotten its moneys worth.
last gladiators, including the dead and wounded, exited or were
dragged from the arena floor. The herald trumpets, played by the
music students from a local Baptist university, proclaimed the
long-awaited final scene. The flourishes of the trumpets ended,
and the arena lights were dimmed as suspense and uncertainty engulfed
a silent audience.
spotlights framed the arena entrance as Reverend Klease entered
wearing a pure white toga, also more Greek than Roman, tied at
the waist with a purple sash. An approving crowd of fans and sceptics
rose to its collective feet in some mixed din of praise and ridicule.
Reverend Klease circled the arena perimeter as the applause followed
him like a wave, rising and falling with his proximity.
mood of the auditorium was one of victory. The religious community
had stood tall and stared down any who would question the bravery
of Christians. The applause, mixed with whistles and cheers, continued
and grew louder.
spotlights separated and one circled the arena until it caught
the glistening mane of the young, large lion as it emerged from
another arena entrance. This was not the blunt-toothed and tranquil
survivor of black-and-white movies as advertised in local publicity
cheering crowd became quiet except for deep breaths of disbelief
and an occasional muffled scream. Surely the animal-handlers would
come and capture the lion and return it to its cage. How would
they end this drama? Whatever statement they had hoped to make
was lost in the impending horror of this tragic finale. Would
Nero or Caligula suddenly appear and lift an upturned thumb to
deliver this devout man from martyrdom? It was time for Historical
Dramatic Productions, Inc. to end the production and drop the
curtain on this farce.
Klease, with no sign of fear, moved toward the lion. The lion
stood motionless and watched the man in the white robe and purple
sash. The crowd watched, not knowing if this man of God was about
to be mauled and bitten by a lion innocently caught in this anachronistic
role as a the villain in the chronicle of Christianity. Every
person in the audience wanted to cry out to Reverend Klease and
tell him to run. You dont have to do this! You dont
have to prove your faith! Run! Run! Instead, he moved closer.
The reluctant lion, still not certain of the identity of this
fellow creature, leaned backward with its back legs bent and its
tail wagging. Finally, it showed an open mouth with finger-length
teeth, and still did not move toward Reverend Klease.
that moment of truth, that climactic big finish that all dramatic
events must have, the lion with an almost deafening roar sprang
from the arena floor into the air toward his smaller but unflinching
the skill and courage of a retired Marine officer, with bravery
in a time of peril, with the reflexes of his days in Korea, Reverend
Klease fired a burst of five or six rounds from his pistol which
he had hidden under his white robe and purple sash. The lion landed
at the feet of the reverend and soon became motionless on the
dazed audience watched in horror. Short isolated and spontaneous
applause was followed by a hush of uncertainty. Some were obviously
crying; others covered their faces and turned their backs to the
carnage in the arena. A still spotlight caught the spreading pool
of red that now encircled the lions head and front paws.
Reverend Klease took one look behind him as he left the arena
floor. Children clung to their parents legs and hid their
eyes. There were some sounds of relief and approval for what seemed
to have been a last second miraculous escape from a potential
church buses were waiting just outside the auditorium exits. The
Wednesday night Christians spoke very little as they boarded the
buses and rode back to the churches to pick up their cars and
go home. The few words that were spoken were humble prayers, thanking
God that this night was over.
Peach, storyteller and philosopher, resides in Franklin, Tennessee.
He is the author of The South Side of Boston, the memoirs
of an eight-year-old growing up in the community of Boston, Tennessee,
and Random Thoughts, Left and Right, a collection of essays,
articles, and short fiction on subjects including organized religion,
human rights, the First Amendment, politics, violence, and sexuality.
He also published a play, To Think as a Pawn, a study of
confrontation and reconciliation between generations with different
views of time, religion, and patriotism.