Outdoor Drama Will Return To Letcher County
After more than 20-year-absence, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come outdoor drama will resume.
It's de ja vu for Don Amburgey who is spearheading the current drive to develop a new amphitheater in Letcher County. In the early 1970's, Don Amburgey established The Little Shepherd Arts & Crafts Council, which built the rustic amphitheater at Van. He came up with the idea after seeing the very successful play Trail of the Lonesome Pine outdoor drama at Big Stone Gap, Virginia, also an adaptation of a novel by John Fox, Jr. He organized a committee and served as the producer for most of the life of the theater. The play ran successfully for about ten years until it lost its venue about 1982. Playwright, Earl Hobson Smith, whom Amburgey met at Lincoln Memorial University, wrote both plays.
"We typically had two or three hundred in the audience with each showing and by checking license plates we learned that every state of the union was represented at one time or another. We also had folks from several foreign countries", said Amburgey. "It takes dozens of players and staff to put on a live theater and it's hard to keep the group together knowing that every weekend of the summer is already spoken for. After about ten years, I guess all of us were a little tired so when we lost our venue we dissolved the organization".
Amburgey retired as regional librarian for the Kentucky Department of Libraries in 1990. When he met informally with former members of the theater group, they spoke of the fond memories they had with the original play and wondered if they would ever do it again. "I really didn't think I would ever attempt such a massive undertaking again", said Amburgey with a sigh, "but several of the former members called me and asked me to form a new committee, get a new location and do the play again. I could see the new, 4-lane U.S. Route 23 being built through Letcher County, and I could see that the Trail of the Lonesome Pine Outdoor Drama had enjoyed a tremendous success. (The play has run more than 40 years.) And many of us recognized the need to promote tourism in our county, so I thought maybe the time is right."
In 1997 Amburgey founded The Cumberland Mountain Arts & Crafts Council, Inc. and went to work. He visited civic groups, attended Fiscal court meetings and attended city council meetings throughout the county. He met with our state legislators and talked with anyone who would listen to his ideas. "I felt that it was essential to locate the proposed theater near the new highway to facilitate tour buses", said Amburgey. "Many of the theater patrons arrive on organized tours, so the Jenkins area was the logical choice. But, getting the land and the funding was the most difficult part." The council's first big break came when Letcher County Fiscal Court with the help of State Representative Howard Cornett voted to appropriate $30,000.00 to get the project moving. Most of the undeveloped land in the Jenkins area belongs to T.E.C.O. (Tampa Electric Company) and their subsidiary Premier-Elkhorn Land Company. After numerous meetings with T.E.C.O., the pieces began to come together. Finally, in August 2003, T.E.C.O. officially presented a deed to 15 acres of land on the old C&O Railroad bed approaching the railroad tunnel to Pound, Virginia. The area is located on the side of Pine mountain above Jenkins High School.
(When we hear talk of building a tunnel from Whitesburg to Eolia to reroute U.S. Route 119, it may sound a little far fetched, but the old railroad tunnel was built in 1946 for C&O Railroad to haul coal from the Clinchfield Coal Company's mines on Pound River. The tunnel is over 3,600 feet in length and was utilized through the late 1950's.)
The theater site does have a remote tie with the novel. It will be built on grounds where the battle of Pound Gap was fought during the Civil War. A young General Garfield who led the Union troops in this battle later became President of the United States. The setting for the play is the Antebellum Period through the Civil War and beyond. General John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate leader, is a character in the play; he passed through Pound Gap several times during the war.
John Fox Jr., a Paris, Kentucky native, traveled extensively in Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia early in the 20th century. His classic novel, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come first published in 1903, has remained a favorite for generations of readers. In the story, our hero, a youthful Chad Buford became an orphan when his mother died of cholera. He runs away from an abusive family who was using him to tend sheep for his keep. He is taken in by another family who nurtures his development and his education. Through a chain of events, the young Chad ends up in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky with a family who thinks he might be a distant relative. He works for his keep, grows up, attends the college and falls in love with the beautiful Bluegrass lady, Margaret. When the war between the northern and southern states breaks out, Kentucky was unable to maintain its neutrality. Chad chose to enlist in the Union Army while some of his friend's families were split with brothers serving on opposite sides. Check this book out of your library and see why it has become a classic. Better still, you will probably want to purchase a copy for your personal library. The noted playwright Fern Overbey Hilton wrote the current play. She and her associates also wrote the musical score to accompany the play.
"Potentially, there will be 50-70 people involved with the drama", said Amburgey. "We will need 8-10 full-time staff employees and dozens of actors, understudies, support people and volunteers. We have plans for shops, a museum, a library and facilities for a year-around caretaker. Though the outdoor drama will run only during the summer months, we have plans for other events during the off season."
Typically, members of the theater family will serve dual roles. Ella Tolliver, one of the members of the council, is also an actress. She is scheduled to play the part of Margaret, the object of Chad Buford's affection in the play. Ella has extensive theater background. After her late husband John Bastola died, she began acting in a theater group at Hazard Community College in 1994. Through the years she has been a member of several theater groups throughout the region. Currently, and for the past 4 years she has played a leading role in Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Recently she has played in Stonega Run and Sycamore House, both written by local playwright Jenny Galloway Browning.
It always takes a lot of loyal, hard-working and talented people to make theater successful. In the original theater at Van, the late Clifton Caudill and his wife Ruby worked as support people and also as actors. Their son Randall, a current Letcher County Magistrate, was an actor and the lighting technician. Three of Ruby and Clifton's grandchildren had parts in the play. current council member, Sybil Whitaker and her husband Landon also served as support people with the original play.
The Cumberland Mountain Arts & Crafts Council meets monthly at the Jenkins Library. Recently the council was the recipient of a $1,000.00 gift from American Electric Power, and a $5,000.00 gift from the E.O. Robinson Mountain Foundation. Currently the council is negotiating with an architect to do a layout of the entire theater complex. They hope to begin construction of the complex this summer as additional funding becomes available. Tracy Frazier of the Letcher County Action Team is coming in with technical assistance to the project. The council's membership, with Don Amburgey as President includes: Ernestine Flint, Peggy Bentley, Debby Polly, Lois Greer, Ella Tolliver, Sybil Whitaker, and Madeline Gibson. At a recent meeting the council voted to officially name the complex Little Shepherd Amphitheater. The stage will be named Don Amburgey Stage, in honor of the president who has nurtured this project from infancy and will likely lead it to maturation.
"We have an enthusiastic council and we're eager to get to work", said Amburgey, "we hope to have the outdoor drama in production during the summer of 2005"**. Interested parties should watch for our announcement in the media pertaining to project development, auditions, employment opportunities and scheduled events.
**The current projection for the opening of the outdoor drama is summer 2009.