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Theme Park Dreams

Dollywood's annual auditions—same old song and dance, 350 different stories.

by Mike Gibson

Big Tom Jones is a looming presence, a veritable titan, practically engulfing with his massive girth the multi-piece Pearl drum kit that sits before him—even though said kit is large enough to subsume in its toms-and-cymbals shadow most of those who would play it. Beneath Big Tom, it's little more than a collection of tiny pots and tin can lids, waiting for the inevitable ham-fisted assault of a particularly husky child.

Jones is stationed at rear center of Dollywood's 85-seat Showstreet Palace, an old-fashioned theater stage booby-trapped with wires and amplifiers and guitar stands and a cadre of musical instruments, framed by the background litter of cheesy stage props. The props are wood and cardboard sets hinting at one of the amusement park's regular song-and-dance routines, a show staged in this auditorium.

The 47-year-old Tampa truck driver and grandfather of three drove 13 hours the previous day, from South Florida to Pigeon Forge, all for the sake of this 2 p.m. Saturday audition for one of the vacant musicians' slots put up for grabs by park entertainment coordinators during the late winter off-season. A weekend lounge musician back home in the Bay, the burly trucker collected nearly $500 from friends and fans at the city's Eastside Lounge, seed money for his trip to the annual Dollywood tryouts.

"I just love playing music," Jones says earnestly, huffing and not a little red-faced after his audition in front of D-wood auditions coordinator Roger White and music coordinator John Cormac. "And I'm just as happy playing someone else's music; old country and pop and old-time rock 'n' roll...It's hard to make a living driving trucks anymore."

Even given his long-running aspiration to earn the whole of his income as a full-time professional musician—and he estimates he's been playing drums and dreaming for more than 40 of his 47 years—Jones eschewed auditioning at several closer Floridian theme parks, including Busch Gardens and Disneyland. "This is much closer to Nashville," enthuses Big Tom, wide-eyed and buck-toothed, in his typically guileless fashion.

White smilingly pronounces Tom's story "kind of romantic." But it's only one of more than 350 others to be told among the singers, dancers, actors and musicians auditioning over two weekends in January for one of the coveted slots in the park's roster of entertainers.

Dollywood employs nearly 40 musicians among its myriad musical shows, says White, plus another 60 or so singers/dancers/all-around entertainers, plus an additional 35 stage technicians. And even with any number of competing music theaters and tourist traps in Sevier County's Sevierville-Pigeon Forge-Gatlinburg vacationers' triad, the park sees only a few of those positions turn over from year to year.

"We've had lots of people go over to Governor's Crossing or Lee Greenwood," White says. "But now they're all closing, and people are coming back over to us. We pay competitively, but we will work you 10 months out of the year."

It is in some respects a counter-intuitive milieu, that of accomplished musicians seeking actively and enthusiastically to make their living performing other people's creative works, especially in a forum some might consider, um...less than cutting-edge.

But according to White, most of the Dollywood musicos share an organic love of performing, as well as yearnings for normality and stability, that overshadow the various creative and ego-driven considerations most artists seem to harbor.

"It's a regular gig, and it's a daytime job," says White, a stout, hardy fellow with a wind-blown shock of brown hair. "Musicians are just like anybody else. They grow up, get jobs and raise families, and they want to get out of the bars.

"I thought I was going to be a classical theater person," continues White, who earned his BFA in theater more than 10 years ago. "But that doesn't always pay too good. And theme parks are the only places that consistently cater to mainstream Americans. Lots of people will see a show here and never see one anywhere else."

Portly multi-instrumentalist Sonny Smith echoes White's sentiments. A 1998 national banjo champion, the Winchester, Tenn., native studied with jazz violin maestro Sebastian Campesi and played at a San Antonio, Texas, amusement park before moving to Sevier County and a Dollywood gig. Having then left Dolly's world for a job at a local music theater, Smith's audition could earn him a second stint at the park.

"I get to play, which is all I've really ever known, and I get to meet an awful lot of folks," says the gray-bearded Smith, a Phil Williams look-alike. His audition is remarkable, his stubby figures nimbly navigating the impossibly tiny neck of his fiddle, then tearing through a precisely-executed, Bach-influenced banjo excursion (with a subsequent bluegrass break-down).

"I don't have to ride around on a bus. When I finish playing, I go home to my family. I do have my own music, but I produce it myself, at my own pace."

White admits that not all of those who audition are as accomplished as Smith, likely a shoe-in for one of the open slots. "The quality [of auditioning players] varies widely," he says, noting that Dollywood performers must be versed in a number of genres, from country to bluegrass to show tunes to soft rock.

And some of the hopefuls are perhaps a tad...misplaced. At one point in the afternoon's tryouts, a wildly shagged throwback rocker sort, sporting a flaming red Van Halen-esque electric guitar, plugs in and unleashes a series of misbegotten feedback belches in preparation for his audience. On the adjacent drums, a moon-faced kid, his long stringy brown hair held captive in a pony tail, launches into a pounding Sabbath cadence, and ruptures one of the Pearl kit's snares.

"Do, uh, you all do much Zeppelin?" the blond-mopped guitar player asks of White. He's apparently oblivious to the mishap—and perhaps a few other things, too.

"Uh, no, not too much of that," White replies, with a dubious glance at the wounded traps. Then he turns to Cormac and enunciates, with a proper English rock star brogue, the most oft-quoted line from the infamous rock 'n' roll parody This Is Spinal Tap: "John, turn it up to e-lev-en."

"You be nice," Cormac returns, with a knowing grin. Then he turns and nods at the shaggy axeman, 38-year-old David Fenstermaker, to begin his audition.

Which isn't a bad one at all, really, except that the substance of it—a series of flash-fire blues riffs followed by a hyper-distorted and heavily tremoloed rendition of "Stairway to Heaven"—seems woefully out of place among the glossy pop and country standards discharged by the other musicians.

"Guess I should have brought my acoustic," Fenstermaker murmurs as he exits stage left. A Knoxville construction worker, the weekend wildman is nonetheless refreshingly carefree about his audition.

"I'll either get it, or I won't," he says, his deeply-creased and bearded face crinkling into a happy-go-lucky smile. "What the hell? Not too bad for a self-taught guy with a $20 pawn shop special."

Across the deserted expanse of off-season Dollyworld from the Showstreet is the Celebrity Theatre and its accompanying Backstage Restaurant. The 1,700 capacity auditorium is hosting the singer/dancer/actor try-outs, a place that White describes today as a "madhouse," with more than 208 hopefuls crowded into either the "on-deck circle" of the restaurant or the main performing area upstairs. It's already after 4 p.m., and the Dolly folks have only given witness to half of the hopefuls who signed the auditions list at 9 a.m.

It's a pretty vibrant scene, with a gaggle of the performers gathered around a couple of acoustic bards on the porch outside in an impromptu folk and country sing-along. The restaurant itself is a carnival sea of humanity, performers in various stages of costume: an otherwise conventionally-dressed girl wearing a pair of enormous red clown shoes; lots of cowboy hats and leotards and leather coats; even a couple of black-clad, silver-specked, rhinestone-encrusted Elvises (Elvi?). Vegas-era, natch.

And each hopeful is accompanied by an entourage of supporters, friends and family and girlfriends and boyfriends, moms and grandmas knitting patiently while their charges fidget anxiously. Near a center table, a delicate lad—his denim garments pulled over a pair of leotards—executes a couple of balletish kicks, then breaks into a little soft shoe (in out-sized white Adidas, no less).

They're all waiting for a slender fellow in jeans and a blue-plaid flannel shirt, auditions list in hand, to walk amongst them and signal that it's their turn to ascend that daunting stairwell at the restaurant rear, a winding two-story journey that will dump them directly into the theater's backstage area.

Like the musicians across the park from them, the performers here seem more interested in seizing this occasion to showcase their talents than in the forum that would ultimately display them. A pair of, um, nicely-assembled South Carolina girls, freshly arrived from Columbia this afternoon, both manifest the desire to one day shepherd their own dance schools. Right now, however, they're young, energetic, and revel in the prospect of practicing their art, irrespective of context. "I'd like to have my own school, definitely," relates 20-year-old Tambra Nipper, a dancer since age 3. "But first, I just want to dance for a while."

And dance they do, a couple of graceful blonde ballerinas in black leotards, performing routines that juxtapose classical dance moves, uptempo gymnastics, and a little bump-and-grind coquetry, for good measure. Nipper's friend Melissa Berry, 22, spikes her routine with some particularly absurd limb-twining contortions before finishing her two-minute number with a vehement split that sends her compact form literally crashing into the Celebrity's oft-pounded wooden stage.

And so the trials wear on, through a husky gospel bass rumbler, an orange-locked 14-year-old who belts pop standards (think Annie), a gently mustachioed and painfully sensitive guitar-strumming folkie, a 40-ish cowpoke vending vintage Haggard in a whiskey-familiar back-porch bray...And at long last, the four judges (plus a couple of technicians) seated at the fold-out table at the side of the stage call for a sandwich break, a woefully inadequate respite considering the 80 or so performers still waiting for a chance to shine.

The last auditioner before the break is 19-year-old East Knoxvillian Gary Lewis, a veteran of not a few church singings and choir performances, as well as couple of community theater plays. Long-locked and softly bearded, the blazer-and-khaki-clad Lewis runs through a snippet of sweetly-rendered country before finishing his audition with a lustrous and confident reading from the Eagles classic "Desperado."

"This is my first professional audition; my friends talked me into it," says Lewis, in a thoughtful, deliberately-measured voice that seems telling of his crooning talents. "I'd like to sing in a band one day. I haven't accomplished that yet, but it's something I've given careful consideration."

Asked to evaluate his performance, Lewis stops, looks dubiously skyward, and launches into a lengthy dissection of an alleged tonal faux pas he committed in "Desperado," detailing at some length the wavering mis-intonation with which he rendered a particular syllable of the chorus. And in doing so, he reveals perhaps more than anybody the motivational stripe present in all of the park's incumbent performers, and their hopeful successors too.

"Yeah, I wavered a little," Lewis says with a sheepish grin. "But I guess that's part of what makes performing exciting. Some people bungee jump. Some people sky dive. Me, I go on stage."

February 8, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 6
© 2001 Metro Pulse