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Life-size Precious Moments characters stroll outside an inspirational chapel.



Published: Sat, July 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Life-size Precious Moments characters stroll outside an inspirational chapel.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

CARTHAGE, Mo. -- Twice daily, the Fountain of Angels erupts into life.

In the center of its own 10-story theater, the multilayered fountain blasts water over 120 4-foot bronze statues of bare-bottomed cherubs, cheerful-looking fish and water-spouting ducks.

As the music soars -- a recorded chorus of Christian music (example: "In the Garden") performed by members of the London Philharmonic -- the fountain bursts into a Vegas-style light and water show. In one, "The Everlasting Promise," a booming voice narrates tales of Genesis and the New Testament as corresponding biblical images are projected onto a wall of water behind the fountain.

At the end, a smiling Jesus, played by an actor bearing a striking resemblance to a bearded Orlando Bloom, greets the audience from heaven with open arms.

'Totally fantastic'

"It just gets me every time," says Joann Hannaford, 65, sitting outside after the show. "It's just totally fantastic. I've seen this show six or eight times, and every time it touches me. Like I'd never seen it before. ... The ending is always the best, when you see Christ walking toward you."

Once or twice a year, she drives two hours from her home in Gentry, Ark., to bring friends and relatives to the Precious Moments Park and Chapel.

"I just keep finding people who haven't seen it. So many people have the impression that this is just about the figurines, the collectibles," said Hannaford, who doesn't own any figurines herself. "They don't realize all the rest of it is here."

But the Precious Moments Park, based on artist Samuel J. Butcher's popular, doe-eyed illustrations and figurines, isn't a theme park in the modern sense.

Rather, it's a park, in the traditional sense, with a theme. There are ponds, flowers, acres of rolling greenery and even the occasional sun-basking black snake. The word "serene" wouldn't be out of place in describing the 2,000-plus-acre Ozark wilderness setting.

Along with Hummel figures and Dreamsicles (collectible statuettes of flower-wreathed, chubby angels), the Precious Moments collection has become shorthand for Heartland Americana.

Simple origins

Butcher's teardrop-eyed children with inspirational messages got their start in the mid-1970s on greeting cards he gave to friends. Today, Precious Moments Inc. is a full-blown cultural phenomenon -- a multimillion-dollar, multimedia corporation built on pastel-colored figurines and related merchandise.

Precious Moments figures are still designed by the press-shy Butcher, who now lives and works in a quiet seaside studio in the Philippines. According to company publicity materials, his designs are converted into figurines by master Japanese sculptor Shuhei Fujioka and fired somewhere in Indonesia and Taiwan.

But what led Michigan-native Butcher, a former janitor and dishwasher, to build his park in Carthage is another story.

Today, in the park itself, Disneyland-esque elements abound. Giant Precious Moments characters come to life in the form of spongy character suits worn by sweaty park employees. Strategically placed gift shops abound. You can even get married, after-hours, at the lavishly decorated Wedding Island, which specializes in fairy tale-style ceremonies ranging in price from $550 to $5,775.

Centerpiece

But the center and backbone of Butcher's vision remains the chapel, the first building constructed on the main grounds.

As a nondenominational born-again Christian, "Mr. Butcher felt strongly that he wanted to build something for the Lord," says Ted Easley, director of marketing for the park. "The Lord was telling him to rent a car and don't stop until he found the place."

That place turned out to be Carthage, a former Civil War battleground in a part of Missouri near the Oklahoma and Kansas borders. In 1985, Butcher bought 171/2 acres there and spent the next four years painting his own version of the Sistine Chapel.

Butcher, 66, has returned from time to time with additions to the chapel; the main sanctuary houses 84 individual murals with multicultural Precious Moments figures acting out biblical scenes. Butcher's magnum opus is "Hallelujah Square," a ceiling-to-floor vision of heaven populated by angels, puppies and families in the middle of reunions.

Providing inspiration

"The chapel is a walk through the Bible -- heaven as seen through the eyes of child," Easley says. "And there are some real people in there. Most of the artwork in 'Hallelujah Square' is based on real children 'whose lives ended too soon, but whose lives continue to inspire.' That's how it's typically described."

One of the most famous is Coleenia, daughter of Missouri couple Mike and Carolyn Sutton. Coleenia was a seriously ill young woman who came to the chapel with her mother while Butcher was adding paintings in 1990. After her visit to Carthage, Coleenia passed away, and Butcher incorporated her image into the main mural.

"I told [the family] they would find Coleenia and her favorite clown doll in permanent residence in 'Hallelujah Square,'" Butcher said at the time.

When Butcher's young son Philip died in a car accident in 1990, the family dedicated a room in the chapel to him, complete with its own mural. In the painting, cloud-perched angels hold up a sign that says "Welcome Home Philip."

Another room nearby contains photographs of deceased children next to pictures of their Precious Moments portraits. Visitors are also encouraged to write their own remembrances of departed loved ones in huge, leather-bound ledgers.

"It's an incredible place," Easley says. "Friends and family will come there and feel comforted when they see their loved ones in heaven."

Sentimentality

While all this might seem maudlin in another context, it must be remembered that Precious Moments Park (and the brand, for that matter) thrives on being proudly sentimental.

It's a place that wears its worldview on its sleeve, from the Ten Commandments posted on a sandwich board outside the Fountain of Angels building to a poem taped up in the park shuttle buses.

The poem reads, in part, "... It was the Veteran, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. / It was the Veteran, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to fair trial. / It was the Veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to demonstrate. ..."

All this makes the park an unusual tourist draw in a state that's home to the variety-show attractions of Branson and Silver Dollar City, not to mention the heart-stopping roller coasters of Six Flags St. Louis.

Brand challenges

Attendance has been down 25 percent to 30 percent since Sept. 11, Easley says, with an average 3,350 visitors on a typical summer weekend. Easley says admission numbers are up from last year, however.

Precious Moments Inc. was also dealt a blow recently when Enesco Group Inc., which distributed the figures for 12 years, announced it was "transferring the business back to Precious Moments two years before its license was set to expire," according to a piece in business newspaper Crain's Chicago Business.

The same article cited a drop in the figurine market, from $2.4 billion in 2000 to $1.2 billion in 2003.

Precious Moments Inc. sees the move as an opportunity for growth, says John Brooks, vice president of sales.

"We're very, very excited about ... the brand coming home. We can focus on one brand," Brooks says. "What we're trying to do is stabilize and reinvigorate the brand again ... we've found that its so positive and there's so much awareness of it among the public."

For Maria Laboy, 31, a Puerto Rico native working as a TV producer in Kansas City, Mo., the Precious Moments brand has been omnipresent. She spent one recent weekend touring the park with her family, including five energetic nieces. Laboy has a Precious Moments jewelry box, but no figurines.

"Growing up, it's everywhere. Like it is here. In Puerto Rico, they sell those figures everywhere," Laboy says.

Her sister Lideana, 35, adds: "I think that once you visit the Precious Moments Park, you'll have more appreciation for the meaning of the figures."




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