Pigeon Forge, gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the home of 16 theaters that produce 21 shows offering a variety of entertainment options for the more than nine million tourists who visit the area each year. Some of the shows feature performers from Knoxville, and at least one show features a unique attraction not seen anywhere else in East Tennessee -- a white lion.
And while we're all aware of the galloping good fun going on at Dixie Stampede, we may not know much about these other productions in our own back yard. Here's a look at five of the best.
Smoky Mountain Opry
The Smoky Mountain Opry is likely the largest production in the Smokies featuring a cast of 26 skilled performers. The multi- million dollar production begins with a laser light show choreographed to Zarathustra's 2001 Space Odyssey. The show opens with a live band and a selection of country tunes featuring the music of Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and other contemporary artists. In later sequences the music of country legends including Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and others is featured.
Knoxville native LaKieta Bagwell performs several songs throughout the show including a riveting rendition of "My Heart Will Go On" from the movie "Titanic." Bagwell has performed with several country music stars over the years including Lee Greenwood and has performed at Dollywood as well.
The Opry features a magic segment under the direction of master magician Michael Keating who has performed in Las Vegas and worked with David Copperfield, among others. The magic sequence is set to music featuring the vocals of Kendall Manning whose powerful voice helps capture the essence of the magical montage.
Comedy is performed by two comedians, one of which performs a pantomime skit featuring several audience members in which the director is attempting to make a movie without uttering a word. Slim Chance is a juggler and comedian who bring years of experience to the show with his hi-jinks of balancing and juggling.
The Opry also features silk aerialists who perform acrobatics from two silk wraps dangling high above the stage and a segment dedicated to Broadway including Mary Poppins, who flies onto the stage from the back of the theater high above the heads of the audience. The Broadway segment also features a tribute to "Lion King" with the cast in colorful costumes singing "The Circle of Life." The segment concludes with the unveiling of two cages containing two large endangered cats, a rare white tiger and a white lion. According to David Fee of Fee-Hedrick Family Entertainment, there are only 300 white lions left in the world. Fee-Hedrick is currently constructing a habitat that will permanently house the two cats.
The Opry concludes with a gospel segment followed by a patriotic segment. The show provides good family entertainment suitable for all ages.
Sweet Fanny Adams
The oldest show in the Smokies is Sweet Fanny Adams in Gatlinburg. The show was created in 1977 by Don and Pat MacPherson, both of whom performed for years across Europe and on TV. Since its opening the show has been recognized as one of the most innovative and unusual professional theater companies in the country. Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre was proclaimed a National Historical Treasure by the city of Gatlinburg and recognized by the 112th Tennessee State Senate.
The show is based on the old vaudeville shows in the old music halls of the 1890s. The multi-talented performers take turns adding their uniqueness to the inevitable comic mayhem for which Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre is renowned.
The show is all about comedy: original musical comedies and comedy skits. More than 30 original musical comedies have had their world premieres at the theatre, with many of these productions going on to play in cities throughout the country, including Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
The cast features Chris MacPherson, son of Don and Pat, who practically grew up in the theater. Chris began his career on the Sweet Fanny Adams stage at the age of 6. He left the show and toured the country with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as Crunchy the Clown. In an ironic twist of fate, he ran away from the circus and returned to the stage at Sweet Fanny Adams.
The cast is small -- usually no more than five performers take the stage each night -- but extremely talented. The theater is small but quaint with decor that hearkens back to the late 19th century. The show proves that vaudeville is not dead and the comedy that appealed to audiences decades ago is still fresh and funny. Audience members are routinely asked to participate in the mayhem.
Hatfield and McCoy
The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Theater serves up great entertainment and good food. The show has little to do with the infamous feud between two families by the same names. Mayor Timothy P. O'Reilly admits "the show is taken from the truth. It's taken about as far from the truth as we can get it."
For the production's purpose, the two families have been fighting for 50 or 51 years, depending on which one you ask. The feud started over a stolen pig. Mayor O'Reilly, known as Cousin Timmy, has hired a sheriff named Dooley Neil who is swindled into renting a barn from the corrupt politician who arranges for the two feuding families to appear at the same time at a barn dance. A huge fracas ensues when the families collide at the shindig.
Later, O'Reilly, who is also the town banker, decides to foreclose on the two families and leaves it up to Neil to inform the families they must go. But there is one chance to save the farms. The mayor is hosting a talent competition at the county fair with a cash prize of $1,000. The two families appear at the fair and compete to win the prize and save their farms.
The show features country, gospel and bluegrass music performed by skilled musicians. The cast of 26 features cloggers and comedians who dance and fight in choreographed routines that feature comic sequences. The humor is suitable for children.
The talented cast features Knoxville native April Johnson, who dances, fights and plays banjo. Drake Elkin, a clogger in the show, appeared as a finalist on America's Got Talent. Kata Hay, a five- time national yodeling champion, sings, dances, fights and, of course, yodels.
The dinner includes fried chicken, vegetable soup, potatoes, cole slaw, corn, peas and dessert.
Bob Nelson Comedy Show
The newest show in Pigeon Forge is the Bob Nelson Comedy Show. As a comedian, Nelson's resume is impressive. He has worked with Rodney Dangerfield and appeared in four HBO original comedy shows. He appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," "The David Letterman Show" and entertained President Ronald Reagan. He has performed in Las Vegas, the Grand Ole Opry and Broadway. He has appeared in several movies including "Kindergarten Cop" and "Brewster's Millions."
"Red Skelton was my mentor," said Nelson. "When I first started in the business I used some blue language. Red sat me down one day and told me not to curse in my act. Red told me, "Laughter does good like a medicine. When you curse it's like putting poison in the medicine, and it doesn't have the healing effect it's supposed to"."
Nelson took the legendary comic's advice and cleaned up his act. He had appeared for four years in Branson when he was recruited by David Fee of Fee/Hedrick Family Entertainment, who persuaded the New York-born Nelson to come to Pigeon Forge and open a theater.
Nelson's show features a set that resembles an apartment building. He plays various parts in the show including a punch- drunk boxer named Jiffy Jeff, a cop, an Asian landlord and a gorilla.
Nelson performs various comic routines that he used on HBO such as a monologue by the punch-drunk boxer and a Football All-Stars routine. A master with sound effects and comic timing, Nelson performs a comic routine on the farm in which an irritable farmer has a run in with a mischievous duck that sounds a lot like Donald Duck.
Great smoky mountain murder mystery
The Great Smoky Mountain Murder Mystery Dinner Show serves up comedy, mystery, great food and audience participation. The theater presents three shows on alternating nights including Whodunit Lucy, the Moonshine Murders and the Bradley Bunch.
Whodunit Lucy is a take-off from TV's "I Love Lucy." In this murder mystery, someone has killed one of the Gabor sisters in Ricky Bacardi's show. Soon afterwards Fred Hurtz is murdered. Whodunit? Was it the adorable redhead, who was jealous of the amorous show girl and fearful of Fred, who was about to evict her family from the home? Was it Ricky, who had reason to believe Fred had embezzled from him? The audience is given clues and encouraged to solve the crime. The winning sleuth is awarded prizes for his detective work.
The Bradley Bunch is based on TV's "The Brady Bunch," and Moonshine Murders is based on TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard."
The cast is a talented crew of actors who are skilled in comedy and ad-libbing. Audience participation lends levity to the production.
Dinner is a chicken breast, bread, corn, snap peas, pork and a slice of cheese cake.
Smoky Mountain Opry: smokymtnopry.com, 865-428-7469
Bob Nelson Comedy Show: www.bobnelsontheater.com/, 865-428-5600
Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre: http://sweetfannyadams.com/, 865-436- 4039
Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show: www.hatfieldmccoydinnerfeud.com/ , 800-985-5494
Great Smoky Mountain Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre: http:// murder-mystery-theater.com/, 888-641-7195
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