News Column

Detroit Free Press John Carlisle column

June 16, 2013


June 16--MARSHALL -- One actress was from New York City. Another was from Arkansas. Two came from Ohio to perform on this small stage.

They'd all been theater majors. They all found a love for acting early in life. And each had their own dreams -- of musical theater, of big stages, of Broadway.

Yet here they were, about to perform at a dinner theater, of all things, at a spot called Turkeyville, of all places. Their audience would be about three dozen elderly folks who'd traveled here in their RVs, and the show couldn't begin until the crowd finished their turkey dinners, which were included in the $40 ticket price.

But none of the six actresses here to star in "Steel Magnolias" during its nine-week run viewed this as some small-town, last-resort gig. Each talked highly of this little theater's reputation in acting circles, as well as the producer who made it his mission years ago to build up its stature and recruit good talent from all over the country -- despite its location, and its small size, and that name.

"I have not worked with this many talented people since I was in school studying performance," said 32-year-old Hillary Hernandez Anthony, a theater major who grew up in Lake Orion. "I really mean it, and it's because when he pulls people from all over, that's a huge pool of talent to get from."

Old-fashioned charm

Cornwell's Turkeyville is a fowl-based entertainment destination nestled in the country fields of Marshall, not far from Battle Creek. It has all the old-fashioned charm its name implies.

A little white house still sits on the sprawling property where a farmer named Wayne Cornwell once lived. About 60 years ago, a neighbor gave him a dozen turkeys to raise, and soon he had a farm full of gobbling birds.

He and his wife, Marjorie, turned this turkey surplus into turkey sandwiches they sold at the county fair. Demand grew so great, the couple opened a one-room restaurant called Turkeyville next to their house, named for the main course of every dish they served.

Their home cooking proved so popular that they kept expanding. Over the years, they added another dining room, an ice cream parlor, a gift shop, a deli, a bakery and campgrounds big enough to accommodate more than 100 RVs.

Turkey is still the center of culinary life here. Manager Patti Cornwell, 50, the granddaughter-in-law of the founders, said about 300,000 people dine in every year, with about 40,000 of them taking in a show, too. Thanksgiving, of course, is their busiest day of the year.

The grounds are big enough that they hold weekend events such as flea markets, antique shows and even biker rallies featuring live bands that draw an audience of wild turkeys from the farm on the grounds.

"They love bike night," Cornwell said of her birds. "They come hang out at bike night. They love music, and they all gobble."

But they still needed a bigger draw.

A new reputation

One day, Cornwell asked the director of the little theater in downtown Marshall to come by and perform skits for the diners. Over time, it evolved into a dinner theater, less for artistic reasons and more for practical ones.

"I said if we could entertain them, we could keep them here longer and they'd spend more," said Cornwell, who began working here when she was 15, rose up the ladder to run the place, and now lives in an RV on the campgrounds.

Dennis McKeen, a local producer, saw it differently. He grew up in Battle Creek, attended Western Michigan University and chased acting jobs around the country for 12 years before coming home and founding his own theater company in Marshall called Top Hat Productions. He took over Cornwell's theater about 13 years ago.

McKeen set out to establish a new reputation -- not only for this particular place, but for dinner theater in general. Though many still thrive across the country, dinner theater isn't anywhere as popular a form of entertainment as it once was.

"It's certainly not as prevalent as it was 20, 30 years ago," McKeen said. "I think because it has a stigma, that dinner theater is an old-people thing. I think that's part of our marketing challenge."

To counter that, they've tried staging more contemporary plays, drawing younger actors and advertising on Facebook.

McKeen started traveling to cattle call auditions around the country, extolling the virtues of this family-run, rural theater, emphasizing the quality of the shows, and working to elevate it above being seen as some corny backwater destination.

"When I took over there, my primary objective, my fantasy objective, was to make everyone in the country realize that we do good stuff," he said. "It's a huge undertaking, but I didn't want anyone to look at Cornwell's or Top Hat Productions and say, 'Don't work for those guys.' I want them to come because it's got good shows, and we treat them well."

Gradually, it became a self-fulfilling effort. The more actors he drew here, the more word spread of this place, and the more its stature rose. Actors began approaching McKeen for auditions.

"I knew people that worked here consistently, and they had good things to say about it," Anthony said.

Kaitlin Lawrence, 24, came from New York City to perform on the farm among the turkeys, the RVs and the miles of green countryside.

"I just love it, wherever it is," she said of the theater, and of theater itself. "As long as I can keep doing it, I'm happy to be able to do it."

The show goes on

The lights dimmed on the well-fed audience, the stage began to glow, and out stepped the actresses, who launched into their roles in different degrees of drawl.

The theater's so small that no microphones were needed. And the stage is so close that there's no real barrier between audience and actors. It makes for an intimate form of entertainment. For a couple of hours, everyone there was inside a Southern beauty salon, where the play is set.

And for a couple of hours, any thoughts of this place's name or location faded into the background right along with the audience in the dimmed room. The actress who dreams of being in musical theater, the one who wants to act in New York City, and the one who got married and stayed in town all poured themselves into their work like it was the role of a lifetime.

"I love it," said Jocelyn France, 35, an Ohio native who moved to Marshall. "I love all the shows we do, I love the variety, I love when the girls come in, like he hires people from all over the country, and you get to meet all these fabulous people. I don't plan on going anyplace else."


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