“We do ask that you hold your applause until we do something,” says Kenny Sexton, his voice dripping with Southern honey.
The host sets a humorous tone at the outset of the show at the American Mountain Theater. The audience sits back to enjoy an evening of pure entertainment.
For nine years, a talented troupe of professional musicians and singers — mostly related by blood or marriage — have churned out wholesome Branson-style variety shows in the little town of Elkins, W.Va. The shows change every year, but follow a winning formula of diverse musical genres and comic relief.
The premier two-hour show features the band playing a variety of instruments, with individual performers spotlighted in solos or different groupings. The music ranges from country to rock to gospel to patriotic. Two of the performers are Sexton’s wife, Beverly, and her sister, Susie, who are show biz veterans.
Sexton and Denny Franks banter between songs, and comic impersonations of James Brown, Frank Sinatra, and The Monkees are hilarious.
“It makes us laugh and it’s contagious,” says Sexton about the comedy.
Besides the premier show, the theater also has a “History of American Music Show” on selected dates and a “Christmas Spectacular,” Nov. 27–Dec. 20. Two concert series with southern gospel and bluegrass themes bring in outside groups.
The theater draws some 30,000 visitors during the season, which runs from April to December. The audience sits in a roomy auditorium. Veterans, those with birthdays, and special groups are recognized at intermission. There’s popcorn and a gift shop in the lobby, and the cast comes out to greet patrons after the show.
“Did you have fun?” a troupe member asks a little boy after a recent show. The child happily hops up and down in response.
“We’re not plastic. The show is real,” says Sexton, when asked about the key to the theater’s success.
The theater owns the nearby Isaac Jackson Hotel and 1863 Grill and offers various package deals. Get a box of the Grill’s out-of-this world cinnamon rolls to go.
If you prefer a dinner theater, Elkins also has the Gandy Dancer Theatre & Conference Center. Performers showcase a variety of musical styles from the 1950s to the present, along with family-friendly comedy.
Artifacts to art shows
Elkins, about a 200-mile drive from Washington, D.C., has other cultural highlights. One is the little-known Stirrup Gallery inside the Myles Center for the Arts at Davis & Elkins College.
The nucleus of the gallery is the Darby Collection, some 10,000 items donated to the college in 1943 by Hosea M. Darby, an Elkins architect. Ranging from the Stone Age to the early 20th century, the artifacts include American Indian pottery and baskets, firearms and other weapons, glassware, metalware, and Americana items. The gallery’s collection of 300 powder horns is considered among the best in the country.
Visitors are invited to handle some items, says curator Mark Lanham.
The college’s Augusta Heritage Center, which is on West Virginia’s Mountain Music Trail, hosts a variety of performances, classes, and folklife programs. Its next event is October Old-Time Week and Old-Time Fiddlers Reunion, Oct. 18–25, featuring live music, fine craft, and homegrown items.
Downtown Elkins will be the scene of the Mountain State Forest Festival, Sept. 26–Oct. 4, with fine arts and crafts, live music, and parades.
The Randolph County Community Arts Center, housed in a former church, also offers art exhibitions.
While you’re in Elkins, pick up a brochure for a self-guided tour of the historic district, which has many turn-of-the-20th-century buildings. A variety of excursions aboard the vintage passenger trains of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad leave from the restored Elkins train depot. Among them are scenic rides, children’s events, dinner trains, and murder mystery trips.
For more information