Dollywood Expands Empire

As usual in these parts, everything’s coming up Dolly.

That impression certainly is confirmed as you motor down the Dolly Parton Parkway, through Parton’s Smoky Mountains hometown of Sevierville, on the way to Dollywood, the sprawling music and thrill-ride park nearby that forms the nexus of her butterflies-and-dreams-themed entertainment empire. Over yonder, past Dollywood’s 300-room DreamMore Resort, you come upon Dollywood’s Splash Country, her 35-acre water park, and tucked in the surrounding hills are Dollywood’s rustic rental Smoky Mountain Cabins. The area’s theme song might as well be: “Here a Dolly, there a Dolly, everywhere a Dolly, Dolly.”

“We Dolly-ize everything,” the eternally exuberant 70-year-old Parton exclaims with a laugh, sitting in a blaze of hot lights on the stage of her latest venture, a $20 million dinner theatre — yes, you heard right — on a busy commercial strip here. It is this new enterprise that has prompted a city slicker to make a pilgrimage to the Land of Dolly, to see firsthand what it means when a celebrity of Parton’s popularity builds a virtual city of attractions — all contoured to take advantage of her fame, her history, her personality — and incorporates a theatre for the masses.

It truly is astounding and possibly without parallel in American pop culture, the kingdom that one singer and her partners have managed to develop in an out-of-the-way locale such as the wonderfully named Pigeon Forge, with a network of attractions that bring upwards of 4.5 million people a year to a one time depressed coal-mining region of East Tennessee.

GracelandDisney World, Branson, the themed hotels in Las Vegas, are variations on this idea. But the marriage between this place and this star still feels unique. Parton’s identity has become such an integral economic engine for the area that the opening of a dinner theatre draws TV crews from 48 kilometres (30 miles) away in Knoxville, and merits reports on the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. broadcasts.

Dolly Parton’s Lumberjack Adventure Dinner and Show” is the showplace whose doors are being thrown open on this evening in late spring, and if it’s as successful as, say, “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” a show with live horses that’s been running here since the late 1980s (and in Branson since 1995), then it will become yet another permanent fixture in Parton’s portfolio.

If not, well, it’s no small stand of trees that the potentially year-round “Lumberjack Adventure” has to cut. The hope here is that this new 90-minute show, complete with a belly-busting fried chicken dinner, will be able to fill 750 seats twice a night, at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., at prices ranging from $35 to $45 per adult and $20 to $25 per kid. That’s a whole lot of coleslaw to sling.

The sound system alone for the renovated space cost in the neighbourhood of $10 million, says Ken McCabe, Dollywood’s corporate director of entertainment. The public that swarms the parks is looking for nighttime diversion in the increasingly competitive Pigeon Forge market: Jimmy Buffet, Paula Deen and Cal Ripken have venues here now, too. So if the crowds don’t swallow the “Lumberjack Adventure,” which Parton says was created in direct response to the challenge from the likes of Buffet and Deen, her creative and technical teams and the cast of 18 dancers, actors and acrobats will have to deal with a heck of a lot of pricey leftovers.

The “Lumberjack Adventure,” located a couple of miles from Dollywood, brings dancers and gymnasts onto the stage for a lively entertainment that will never be confused with the work of Stephen Sondheim. That’s not at all what it’s meant for, anyway: This is breezy, middle-of-the-road escapism, packaging the Smokies as a haven of moonshine and hootenannies. On opening night, Parton herself makes a few welcoming remarks: “Hope you like it!” she says with trademark aw-shucks modesty. The recorded music kicks in, and the story of the love between, as McCabe calls them, “a highland boy and a holler girl,” unfolds as a series of deft acrobatic acts and some cringe-inducing good ol boy slapstick.

The climax comes when the stage floor recedes, to reveal a pool, in which members of the warring mountain clans engage in log-rolling contests. A pair of highly motivated yellow labrador retrievers enter from doors behind the pool to compete in jumping and fetching games. It’s all mindless and harmless and goes down as easily as the chicken and biscuits and fried corn on the cob.

Imbued with familiar aspects of Appalachian culture, this variation on dinner theatre certainly adheres to the Dollywood ethos. Corny for sure, but mindful, too, of the spirit of Parton’s own values. For she has woven an entire leisure-time universe, and brought thousands of jobs here, too, by successfully curating her own homespun image. Asked how she defines her role in Dollywood, she says, with what sounds like total sincerity: “I’m the CEO of Dreams.”

“It’s just like a tree,” she says of her Pigeon Forge domain. “You have great roots, and then you get your tree, then you get a lot of limbs. Then, if you’re lucky, there’s a lot of leaves. So it’s like one thing just kind of adds to something else. One dream adds to another.”

By Peter Marks, Washington Post

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