By Brian Jewell
Whether they’re country singers, acrobats, lumberjacks or “blue men,” Southern stages deliver plenty of entertaining characters.
Shows and entertainment have become a staple of group travel over the years, and destinations throughout the South have developed wide-ranging menus of programs to please visitors.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, have grown to be national leaders on the entertainment scene, but they’re not the only places in the region where groups can see great shows.
Cities big and small throughout the South offer numerous entertainment possibilities for church groups. Some have traditional variety shows and musical revues; others have created innovative entertainment programs that involve drama, theater, festivals and other events.
Renfro Valley, Kentucky, and Elkins, West Virginia, have homegrown musical traditions. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, brings drama, music and variety shows to a charming mountain town, and Orlando, Florida, features a number of high-energy shows to keep crowds of any age entertained.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Several decades ago, Pigeon Forge was little more than a sleepy eastern Tennessee mountain town. But as nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park brought vacationers to the area, the locals developed a knack for musical entertainment.
“The entertainment started in the ’80s,” said Jeff Taylor, general manager of Country Tonite. “Pigeon Forge used to be a really small town that people would come to on the way to Gatlinburg. Being opportunists, some of the locals started building attractions. There are 12 theaters right now in Pigeon Forge, and live entertainment has become a large part of our appeal.”
Shows in Pigeon Forge run the gamut from music and comedy variety shows to acrobatic showcases and athletic competitions. Cirque de Chine features acrobats from all over China, and the new Lumberjack Feud showcases some of the nation’s best competitive lumberjacks in fast-paced contests. Dixie Stampede gives audiences an opportunity to cheer for trick riders who perform stunts on horseback.
The newest show in town, Smoky Mountain Opry, debuts this spring, bringing the “opry” style that has succeeded in other destinations to the Smokies. Country Tonite also features music, along with comedy and dance.
“Country Tonite consists of traditional country music and the current songs that are hot on the charts now,” Taylor said. “We have a very powerful gospel segment. There’s comedy, and we have tremendous dancers. And there’s a really strong patriotic finale at the end of the show.”
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
For a town of 2,200 people, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, has a strong contingent of creative people. More than 750 artists, musicians, actors and entertainers live in the area, giving Eureka Springs a wealth of group entertainment offerings.
Two theaters in town offer traditional variety shows for groups.
“Pine Mountain Theater and Ozark Mountain Hoedown are both long-running shows in Eureka Springs,” said Karen Pryor, sales director at the Eureka Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’re a mix of music and comedy, very family oriented and group friendly. They run from March through November.”
Church groups visiting Eureka Springs almost always take time to attend a performance of the Great Passion Play, a large-scale outdoor drama that depicts Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The campus of the passion play has numerous museums and attractions, and visitors can see smaller productions and concerts in addition to the main drama.
The Eureka Springs City Auditorium also has a season of programming that presents visitors with a diverse range of entertainment options.
“We have everything from magic and illusionists to folk music concerts,” said auditorium director Ray Dilfield. “We have a three-week classical music festival, as well as a blues festival. There are about 165 events in the auditorium each year.”
From July through November, the auditorium is home to weekend performances of Intrigue Theater. This magic act is a Victorian-themed show in which entertainers wear costumes and perform a style of illusions that was popular in the 19th century.
Renfro Valley, Kentucky
It’s not very big town, but Renfro Valley, Kentucky, packs an oversized entertainment punch. The lifeblood of this destination is Renfro Valley Entertainment Complex, an institution founded by local performers in 1939 to showcase the region’s roots music.
“We’re celebrating our 73rd year here,” said Craig Barnett, Renfro Valley vice president of public relations and entertainment. “Our classic show, ‘The Renfro Valley Barn Dance,’ takes place in the Old Barn Theater. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and has the same wood and stage from when it was built in 1939.”
The Barn Dance show takes place several nights a week from March through October and features classical country, Southern gospel, mountain and bluegrass music, as well as comedy. Many of the performers hail from the surrounding area, although some come from other states and have toured nationally with prominent country artists.
In addition to the traditional shows, Renfro Valley also features a series of headline concerts in its state-of-the-art New Barn Theater. During the 2012 season, concerts will take place every Friday and Saturday night and will feature artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Gretchen Wilson, George Jones and Randy Travis.
“It’s a 1,500-seat theater, so it’s a very intimate experience,” Barnett said. “It’s your chance to get up close and personal with the stars. You don’t often see them in small settings like this.”