Each year, America’s outdoor theaters offer factual and fictional tales of conflict, suffering, triumph, and romance.
By Dianne Driever
We had arrived at the theater early, as it was a new location for us. Tour buses in the parking lot made it evident that this was a popular show. After finding our seats, we watched and listened as the stage technicians made final adjustments to the sets and sound systems. A gentle evening breeze scented with sage began to blow, and above us the evening stars began to twinkle in the still-blue sky. We were about to experience the outdoor spectacle called “TEXAS!” This drama has been performed each summer since 1966 and chronicles the history of the settlement of the Panhandle region.
Suddenly a lone horseman appeared above us atop a vivid red canyon wall. Riding along the cliff’s edge, he held high a Lone Star flag. The theater crowd murmured and pointed upward in awe. The music swelled. The pageant began.
Every summer, thousands of people attend full-scale theatrical productions of historical dramas, all performed outdoors. Pulitzer Prize-winning authors have written the scripts for some of these dramas, and the music accompanying the productions has often been penned by prominent composers. Actors such as Ann Archer, Goldie Hawn, and Denzel Washington have appeared in these kinds of shows on their way to bigger stardom. They represent an original American dramatic art form and are a beloved favorite of local history buffs. Featuring a cast of both professionals and local amateurs, outdoor plays take place from Montana to California, and Missouri to New York. North Carolina leads with eight different historical dramas being performed during the summer.
The dramas tell stories spotlighting the varied and unique cultural heritage of each region. “The Lost Colony,” performed in North Carolina since 1937, celebrates the birth of the first European child in the New World. “Tecumseh,” performed in Ohio, chronicles the struggles of the great Shawnee Indian leader to protect his land from European encroachment. Performed before families on vacation, history enthusiasts, school groups, and curious foreign tourists, these plays present an entertaining way to rediscover America.
Staged in scenic Palo Duro Canyon State Park, “TEXAS!” features a state-of-the-art sound and light booth; two-story, sandstone side stages; seating for 5,000; and an outdoor stage that includes a wagon road and a “ranch” “” all with the beautiful canyon walls as a backdrop. The production is renowned for its spectacular sound and light displays, including fireworks and a prairie wildfire.
Although 21st-century technology is used, the story and music were created more than 50 years ago by a nationally known playwright and a talented composer. Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green wrote the script, which tells the story of the struggle to settle the vast Texas plains. Isaac Van Grove, former conductor of the Chicago Civic Opera and other orchestras, arranged the musical score. Dance scenes feature more than 30 performers.
The actors and dancers who perform each summer are typically theater majors from area colleges. Longtime professionals flush out the cast and crew. The goal of the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation, producer of the event, is to provide both an educational and entertaining experience.
In 2008, “TEXAS!” will be presented June 2 through August 17. Ticket prices vary from $9.50 for a senior ticket on the far left or right side of the stage to $27.50 for an adult ticket in the center stage area. A steak dinner is available prior to the show for an extra fee. Visit the show’s Web site, www.texas-show.com, or call (806) 655-2181 for more information.
Camping in the canyon is available at beautiful Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Campsites have electric and water hookups, and a dump station and store are located in the campground. Reservations can be made through ReserveAmerica at (512) 389-8900 or by visiting the Texas State Park Web site at www.tpwd.state.tx.us. For general info, see www.palodurocanyon.com.
The road that leads down into the canyon has a 10 percent grade; so, if you prefer to park your motorhome up top and take your towed vehicle down to the show, camping is available in the nearby town of Canyon. Palo Duro RV Park can accommodate very large motorhomes and has full hookups, a laundry, and Internet access. Contact the campground at (800) 540-0567, (806) 488-2548, or online at http://palodurorv.tripod.com.
Another show with an exclamation point in its name is this gripping saga of the life of a great Shawnee Indian leader. It’s set in the beautiful Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre near Chillicothe, Ohio, and has been performed for more than 35 summers. Seven-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and Emmy recipient Allan W. Eckert wrote the script. The spectacle includes a herd of galloping horses, actual military cannons, and dazzling battle sequences. Authentic Indian dance performances add beauty to the event.
Families can enhance the experience by purchasing a behind-the-scenes tour with cast members. In addition, a reservation-only restaurant on a terrace (with a great view) offers a buffet dinner prior to the shows. The complex also includes the Prehistoric Indian Mini-Museum, featuring artifacts from the Scioto Valley; admission to the museum is free. It is easy to see why enthusiasts claim this is the ultimate outdoor theater experience.
“Tecumseh!” show dates for 2008 are June 6 through August 30. Ticket fees range from $19.95 to $21.95 for adults; the slightly higher fees are for Friday and Saturday performances. The show is not recommended for children age 6 and under because of some violent content and loud battle scenes. Call (866) 775-0700 for information and reservations, or visit www.tecumsehdrama.com.
There is so much else to see in this historical and scenic section of Ohio that you will want to stay for at least a few days before or after the show. Full-hookup camping is available at Sun Valley Campground in nearby Chillicothe, and “big rigs” are welcome. Call (740) 775-3490 or visit www.sunvalleycampground.freeservers.com. Or, try Scioto Trail State Park, which offers 40 sites with electrical hookups and 33 sites with no hookups. For reservations, call (866) 644-6727 or visit the Ohio State Park web site: www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/787/default.aspx.
The Shepherd Of The Hills
For many visitors to Branson, Missouri, attending “The Shepherd of the Hills” is a must. The amphitheater is located on the site of the home of author Howard Bell Wright, who wrote the 1907 bestseller on which the play is based. A mysterious stranger arrives in the backwoods of Missouri and thus begins a story of tragedy and triumph, hatred and reconciliation. Many visitors return year after year to enjoy the beautiful scenery and entertainment.
The cast is made up of more than 80 performers. Other accompaniments include 40 horses; a flock of sheep; wagons; and a log cabin that “burns down” each night.
The show is credited for ushering in the area’s tourist economy. The “Shepherd of the Hills” attraction has since grown to include Inspiration Tower, a 230-foot edifice located on the second-highest point in Missouri, with stunning views of the surrounding Ozark Mountains. You also can take a tour of “Old Matt’s Homestead” on the grounds, and enjoy a buffet dinner at Aunt Mollie’s Restaurant.
The youngsters may ask, “Where are the rides?” But once the play begins, a hush falls over the audience and even the little ones sit entranced as the drama unfolds, music fills the air, and dancers perform on stage. A few humorous moments add to the enjoyment. During the intermission, guests are invited to square dance on stage. After the performance, actors mingle with the audience to sign programs and answer questions. The hospitality and friendliness of the staff contribute to the enduring popularity of this event.
This show is offered in 2008 from May 3 through October 25. Tickets are $18 for children (ages 4 to 16), $35 for seniors (55 and over), and $37 for adults (17 to 54). For an extra fee, you can enjoy a chuck wagon dinner with cowboy entertainment prior to the show. Call (800) 653-6288 for more information, or visit www.theshepherdofthehills.com for more information.
Branson, Missouri, abounds with private campgrounds to accommodate the thousands of visiting tourists. It’s recommended that you choose a location close to the center of activity, within walking distance, to avoid traffic and parking issues. Shuttle services are available to take you directly to the theater entrance. Two good campground choices would be Branson Shenanigans RV Park, with 120 sites and full hookups (800-338-7275; www.bransonrvparks.com) and Musicland Kampground, with 106 sites and a swimming pool (888-248-9080; www.musiclandkampground.com).
Enjoying an evening at an outdoor drama is an opportunity for your family to experience an art form that is both educational and highly entertaining. Don’t miss the chance to see one this summer.
Other Outdoor Dramas
Following are notes about several more outdoor dramas that are full of Americana. Check the Internet for an outdoor drama near your travels this summer, or see the list available from the Institute of Outdoor Drama at the University of North Carolina: www.unc.edu/depts./outdoor or (919) 962-1328.
“Hatfields and McCoys.” This musical dramatizes the fierce mountain pride that fueled the world-famous conflict between the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky. It’s presented in Beckley, West Virginia, at the Cliffside Amphitheater. The 2008 dates are June 11 through August 22. For pricing and more information, call (800) 666-9142 or visit www.theaterwestvirginia.com/hatfields.html.
“The Lost Colony.” Performed in the Waterside Theater on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, this symphonic drama depicts the valiant struggle of 117 men, women, and children to settle in North America in 1587. They vanished without a trace, and for more than 400 years their disappearance continues to be one of history’s greatest mysteries. This year’s production runs from June 1 through August 20. Call (252) 473-3414 or visit www.thelostcolony.org for more information.
“Oklahoma!” This version of the famed Rogers and Hammerstein musical is performed right in its “national home” of Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the 1,500-seat Discoveryland Amphitheater. It is an all-American tale of love in the days of the Oklahoma land rush. This year’s performances run from June 6 to August 16. For prices and more information, call (918) 245-OKLA (6552) or visit www.discoverylandusa.com.
“Ramona.” Set in Southern California in the 1850s, this is the tragic love story of Ramona, the half-Scottish, half-American Indian bride of Alessandro, a member of the local Cahuilla tribe. It’s based on an 1884 novel, which also has inspired five motion pictures. The outdoor drama was first presented in 1923. Today “Ramona” is among four different shows performed each year at the Ramona Bowl in Hemet, California. “Ramona” show dates are in late April and early May 2008. Call (800) 645-4465 or visit www.ramonabowl.com for more information.
“Stephen Foster, The Musical.” Performed in Bardstown, Kentucky, in My Old Kentucky Home State Park, this musical tribute to America’s first popular composer contains more than 50 of his most appealing songs, including “My Old Kentucky Home.” The show celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2008, wherein dazzling costumes and lively dancing take audiences back in time to the 1800s. It runs from June 7 to August 15. Call (800) 626-1563, (502) 348-5971, or visit www.stephenfoster.com for more information.
“Unto These Hills.” From the arrival of Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto in 1540 to the removal of the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma along the tragic “Trail of Tears,” this drama paints a vivid portrait of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and their brave leaders, Junaluska, Tsali, and Sequoyah, who fought for survival. It’s presented at the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, North Carolina. This year the show will take place June 13 through August 30. Call the Cherokee Historical Association at (866) 554-4557 or visit www.cherokee-nc.com for more information.