An Insider's Look At Silver Dollar City's Musical "It's a Wonderful Life"
For the past month and a half, I have been working as an usher in Silver Dollar City for the Broadway-style musical production of It's A Wonderful Life. I have had more fun at this job than any I have ever worked before in my life, and if I had my way, I would work at this one until I am so old and gray I could no longer work. It is that good, that fun, and it has an added bonus of working with perhaps the kindest and most selfless people I have ever worked with, and perhaps ever known.
I was interviewed by Dalton, then hired into Entertainment by Casey. My Lead Ushers are Myron and Sarah, a married couple of 50 years who are retired teachers. They have worked at the park for a good many years and are in the position they are in through a combination of hard work, selflessness and by their incredible personalities. What personalities, you ask?
Christian. They are the absolute best at walking the walk of Christian attitudes, of Servant Leadership, and of displaying positive, uplifting and truly caring behavior that I have ever seen. Every work day is started with a prayer and they thank God for this team, for the hard work we do. During working hours, they talk to us constantly in our earpieces, thanking us for doing this or that, or praising us for doing a good job with the public, or taking care of an issue quickly. There is never, ever a negative word spoken: none.
The rest of my team consists of Freddie (whose wife works for the park also), Sid (whose wife also works for the park) and Lisa (who plays fiddle in several places during the year for SDC and whose father was the Herschend family's right hand man by accounts) and together we are as cohesive a group as I believe to be possible. Each of the group is exactly the same as Myron and Sarah, praising one another, helping one another, and causing the public to smile and laugh thereby reinforcing the motto of the park: "Creating Memories Worth Repeating."
Pretty cool eh?
So, what does an usher do here? Well, we "usher" the guests into the theater before the show, of course! But we also do other things; a lot of other things.
We clean the theater in the fifteen minutes that lie between shows with a broom and mop; we assist those who need our help into a seat; we bring those in wheelchairs and electric vehicles in and line them up in a linear manner; we take people into and out of the theater to use the restroom, get food and drink, or to run back to get something from another store. Keeping track of this group can be difficult as we often have up to thirty people out at a time.
Perhaps the most important job we have is Guest Relations. This is when we visit with the park guests outside the theater between shows. We will answer questions, guide a guest to a destination, or provide any information we can in response to their query. That may be show information, area information, where to find this or that food or anything at all: whatever they need to know we do our best to provide.
Then there is the weather. Take one day in particular: temperatures were quite warm (for the time of year) on this morning, running in the mid-fifties. Not that afternoon! Falling temps and weather moving in on a north wind meant temps in the twenties and wind chills near to below zero. To top it off, there was freezing rain in the area.There are times we stand outside in costume for almost an hour, providing that world class Guest Relations. Myron will constantly check on us via radio, offering to have someone switch with us if need be, We trade off if we need to and come inside for a cup of something hot.
We have others who work with us, people who are technicians for the show and people who work the concession stand among them. The tech people are led by Steve, another wonderfully positive person who heads up a team of eight including himself. Three are up in the booth, controlling the computers and sound equipment; Steve is one of two who work high up in the air on the catwalk where the lighting equipment is; and the remaining three are backstage, moving sets in and out, assisting the performers as they come off stage and rush to change their costumes before the next scene.
The backstage changes are the easiest to spot from the side where I am positioned. Things like chairs suddenly disappearing from the stage, which is a result of a person yanking a rope tied to it from offstage while the lights are dimming. It took me a couple of shows to catch that one. Then there is the disembodied hand that appears suddenly during one scene to assist in the lead character descending a stairway in darkness. These guys are constantly on the spot, moving things in and out, setting up various pieces of the set just off-stage in readiness for the next scene.
Then there are the really backstage workers, those who rarely if ever get any form of acknowledgement at all: those in wardrobe. Led by Bea, they are the ones who collect the costumes every single night and get them cleaned and repaired, ready to go the next day. They will outfit you with everything from hats to shoes, pants and vests, jackets and coats and scarfs and gloves. If it doesn't fit they make it fit with a tuck here, a cuff there. They are amazing!
There is also a concession stand attached to our venue, the Lady Liberty. Stan is the lead in this wonderful location, selling hot dogs (only Nathan's best!), big hamburgers topped with just about everything, some of the best chicken strips you'll ever taste and other vittles to fill your empty belly. I was tickled pink to learn I was to be at this location, as this restaurant was the only one we ate at whenever we came to the park before I went to work here. The food was always fresh, well made and the people were the best I had encountered. To work beside them daily is a true blessing.
Finally, we have the performers themselves: the talented group who sing and dance their way into the heart of every visitor to the show. Led by Stage Manager Elise, these guys are unbelievably talented, performing up to four shows a day, almost twenty a week at times. Every performance seems to be their first, giving it all they have regardless of the crowd. There may only be two hundred due to the weather, or there may be a full house of over nine hundred, it does not matter: they are on target, on cue, on key.
Of course none of this is possible without hard work. Daily I get to watch their warming up, from stretching exercises designed to get their bodies ready for the dancing to vocal exercises designed to get their voices ready for the singing. Joey and Eric are almost always the first ones to begin, followed by Logan and Tanner and the rest. Once their bodies and voices are ready, they go through the beginning song, singing it as casually as you or I might talk in a conversational manner. It is amazing to see just how talented these people are! I listen closely to their voices and am in absolute awe as to how easy this appears for them. Then all but Eric depart to get dressed as he fires up the final few lines of his "hero" song, sung as he realizes just what he truly desires. Again, amazing; he hits these notes so confidently and easily, wandering around stage just singing and sounding perfect.
As you can tell from the table below, most of the cast play multiple parts in the show. It is amazing to watch them go through their wardrobe changes, sometimes in a minute or less. I took me a while to learn who played what as they change their demeanor, their wording and their very personas with the change of clothes: they are true professionals!
Of course, occasionally one or the other is ill and someone has to fill in. So some of the cast are understudies to other parts, and must know the words, inflections, actions, dance steps and every nuance of the other character. If Kevin is gone, Dan becomes Clarence which is quite a difference as there is about a foot of height difference between the two. But Dan can shake his gruff and grumpy Potter persona and becomes the ever-positive Clarence in a heartbeat. While he is Clarence, Tanner steps up to become Mr. Potter and James becomes Joseph. James is a true understudy, playing several parts depending upon who is off or ill on any given night.
There is a female understudy whose name is Lyndsey. She becomes Mary as needed, or any other female part required. In addition to knowing every female part in our show, she is also the understudy for the park's production of "A Christmas Carol". Can you imagine having to know every female part in TWO ongoing musicals?!
God, Principal, Old Man, Clarence
Old Man, Bridgekeeper, Dancer: School
Joe the Shopkeeper
Ernie, "Nerd" Dancer
Dancer: School, George, Mr. Potter
Dancer: School; Money
Dancer: School; Money
Dancer: School; Money
Dancer: School; Money
Understudy: Harry, Dancer (A/R)
Some tips for those wanting to see a show
As a visitor, I rarely thought about a few things I now understand quite clearly; being on the other side of the fence can give one a different perspective I suppose. Things like: when the show says it begins at 2:00 PM, that means you need to be INSIDE the theater before then, not arrive by then. For the shows here at SDC, the space for seating is limited to between 600 and 900 persons for a park that could easily have 20,000 visitors daily. This means one should be in line before the doors open in order to guarantee a seat. For ours, we opened the doors 45 minutes before each show. Also, do not come inside piecemeal as a family; come together, all at once. No seat saving is allowed and once the doors shut your family will not be able to enter. We routinely had a full house 20 minutes prior to showtime and had to deal with people coming up at the last minute, "My wife/husband/parents are in there with seats for me!". Sorry, you are not getting in. A little planning on your part is the best way to go.
This group is a truly talented assortment of mostly young people who work in a wide variety of other locations during the rest of the year. Kelly has worked on a cruise ship as a performer and even spent seven months in Australia. Joey has worked on cruise lines as well. Both Eric and Ashley have performed at Echo Hollow in SDC over the years. Kevin works at the Titanic museum in town and at Pierce Arrow Theater.
After the final show, which was looked upon with both happiness and sadness, several of the cast came to our group to give hugs, goodbyes and leaving us with the hope of seeing one another in the future. Logan gave me a big hug, as did Kevin and Dan. I asked Joey and several other cast members what was on the horizon, where they were going next. Most didn't know; other than home for what remained of the holidays they were unsure of where their next "gig" might be. Some will be off until Echo Hollow begins in the late Spring; others, like Kaylee work locally at other jobs. She is a cosmologist and will remain busy in that capacity until the call comes in to return to the stage once more.
This year, the park saw an unprecedented amount of visitors for the Christmas season, and the show saw record attendance as well. Park attendance exceeded 410,000 visitors in the brief November/December months and some 93,000 visited the show during its run.
On the final evening, between the second and third shows we received notification that the cast asked if we and the other support crew could get together to go through a small deviation to the finale. When we gathered, we found that they desired us to be a part of that final scene as the cast waved and took their final bow. The ushers gathered in front of the stage, the techs stood on stage and costumers stood upon the famous bridge built onstage alongside Clarence. We were moved at this gesture as it had never been offered in previous years. Later we found that Kevin, who played Clarence might have been the one behind the gesture. If so, thank you Kevin/Clarence! We appreciate it more than you know. Standing there as the crowd applauded this last show and watching as the love they showered on the cast included those who stood in the shadows assisting is a memory I will treasure forever.
As the crowd left after that final performance, a sadness settled over me as I stood with my back against the stage, gazing up at the empty seats. A song entered my mind unbidden, one from many years ago. A favorite artist of mine, Jackson Brown had once penned these words along with Brian Garafalo as a tribute to his roadies and fans. Here are a few lines of that song.
Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They're the first to come and last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They'll set it up in another town
Tonight the people were so fine
They waited there in line
And when they got up on their feet they made the show
And that was sweet,
But I can hear the sound
Of slamming doors and folding chairs
And that's a sound they'll never know
Now roll them cases out and lift them amps
Haul them trusses down and get 'em up them ramps
'Cause when it comes to moving me
You guys are the champs
But when that last guitar's been packed away
You know that I still want to play
So just make sure you got it all set to go
Before you come for my piano
I have loved that song for years, and thought I understood the meaning behind those words; tonight I knew different. These words were going through my mind as I listened to the silence settle on the building, only to be broken a few moments later by the very sounds Brown wrote of as the "roadies" (read techs) began to break down the stage. By the next day everything would be taken apart piece by piece, the seats removed, the stairs gone, the stage itself disappearing as though it never existed. But it did, the performers and support staff did, and the audience did: they all existed. They were real, and now they reside in my memory for all time. I hate to see it end, like a dream disappearing upon waking from a sound sleep but disappear it must. I will retain the memory of new friends, of incredible performances by a cast that is as wonderful as the title hints at. It is a wonderful life, and I am glad to have been a small part of it.