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Summer serenade in Elkins

Courtesy American Music Theater

It might not be the Austrian Alps of “The Sound of Music,” but Rodgers and Hammerstein might appreciate what is taking place in the West Virginia mountains, where “the hills are alive with the sound of music.”

The American Mountain Theater, which presents a popular Branson-style variety show in a $2 million state-of-the-art theater in Elkins, is being joined this year by Gandy Dancer Theatre, a new variety dinner show.

Although Elkins is within an hour of three major ski resorts in eastern West Virginia, the theaters, combined with the existing Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad and the nearby Civil War Rich Mountain Battlefield, have enabled the town to become a summer destination for motorcoach groups.

“Being in a rural area, in the last few years, since the addition of the American Mountain Theater, we can really get into the group market in the summer,” said Brenda Pritt, executive director of the Randolph County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Gandy Dancer, which is a whole different kind of entertainment, gives us greater variety.”

“We are a three-day, two-night destination,” said Kenny Sexton, owner of the American Music Theater, who works with the train, restaurants and local hotels — the first two new hotels in more than 40 years recently opened — to develop group packages.

Last year, more than 300 motorcoach groups attended the theater’s 205 shows, which Sexton described as “G-rate variety show with all types of music and comedy.

“We have a great cast,” he said. “We are really personable and real folksy. On stage, we enjoy what we are doing; we are not plastic. Folks eat that up.”

A family affair
Most of the cast are either family members — among them Sexton; his wife, Beverly; her sister, Susie Heckel; and two nephews — or performers who worked for Sexton when he owned the Ozark Mountain Hoedown in Eureka Springs, Ark.

The American Music Theater, which has received a coveted Mountain State Award for tourism excellence from the West Virginia Division of Tourism, grew out of a vision by Heckel to start a theater in her hometown of Elkins.

“She started with a song and a prayer,” said Sexton. “She had no budget and rented an old National Guard armory five miles south of town. My wife and I started helping her, and little by little, I got drawn in.”

The show opened in 2003 and continued on weekends for a few years until Sexton built the new 527-seat theater in the Elkins rail yard about a hundred yards from the restored depot that is home to the Durbin and Greenbrier Railroad. The new theater debuted in January 2007.

The “Premier” two-hour show is a mix of country, gospel, pop and patriotic songs and comedic impersonations. The theater also has a “History of American Music Show,” a “Christmas Spectacular” and a Southern gospel concert series.

The one-hour  “History of American Music Show” is done in the morning and afternoon in conjunction with the train schedule, “before the train leaves or after it returns,” allowing groups to package it with a train excursion.

“We start at 1900 with the most popular song from 1900 to 1910 and go from there up to 2000,” said Sexton. “We do 27 songs in one hour.”

When groups return, they can eat at either the new Railyard Restaurant or at Graceland Mansion Inn on the scenic campus of Davis and Elkins College.

Another new dining option is the Gandy Dancer Theatre and Conference Center, which opened on weekends in April in a new building about a mile south of downtown Elkins.

“We are a high-energy show, a kind of Branson-style program,” said operational manager G’na Stephens. “We have a variety, from country to a little bit of rock, to old-time, bluegrass, some gospel and a lot of comedy. We have anybody’s taste in music covered.”

A plated meal that includes a half chicken, slaw, baked potato, green beans, roll, tea and dessert is followed by a 20-minute video preshow.

“When the music starts at 7, we go nonstop all the way through,” said Stephens.

Stephens said the new stone-and-wood-exterior theater, which includes a 40-seat conference room upstairs, seats 356. “When you pull up, you realize you have arrived at someplace special,” she said.

You know you are someplace special when you hop aboard one of the Durbin and Greenbrier Railroad’s trains, which take groups through the surrounding mountains, along rivers, over a high bridge, around sharp curves and through an 1,800-foot-long tunnel with an “S” curve on the track inside.

“We have three trains and four options,” said Naida Vonne Simpson, group sales manager for the trains.

She said the most popular options for groups are a four-hour roundtrip from Elkins aboard the diesel-powered Tygart Flyer and a two-train, two-meal option that features the steam-powered Durbin Rocket and the diesel Cheat Mountain Salamander.

For the two-train option, groups depart from Durbin, about an hour from Elkins, aboard the century-old Durbin Rocket, one of only three Climax-geared logging steam engines still operating.

Lunch provided
A two-hour roundtrip in the morning, which includes the chance to ride in one of two wooden cabooses, runs along the Greenbrier River in the Monongahela National Forest. A box lunch is served on the train.

“It’s a nice, peaceful, quiet ride,” said Simpson.

“Your coach then takes you seven miles up the mountain to the Cheat Bridge boarding location, where you board the Cheat Mountain Salamander,” said Simpson. “You stop at the High Falls of the Cheat, which are spectacular, and go through the S-curve tunnel on the way into Elkins.”

Groups can start in Elkins and reverse the course.

Simpson said groups can have a buffet dinner at the railroad-themed Railyard Restaurant upon their return to Elkins. If they have started the trip in Elkins and there are fewer than 50 in the group, they can have a catered meal in the historic 1902 Victorian Durbin depot.

Four historic buildings on the campus of Davis and Elkins College, which has scenic views of the Appalachian Mountains, are part of a national historic district. One of those, the Graceland Inn, is a national historic landmark.

Built in the late 19th century as the summer home of former U.S. Sen. Henry Gassaway Davis, one of the college’s namesakes, the sandstone Queen Anne-style mansion is now an inn and conference center staffed by students from the school’s hospitality and tourism program.

The Mingo Room provides upscale dining in the original red-oak dining room, which extends into a glass conservatory that overlooks the town. Tours of the mansion are available to groups.

Elkins is also gaining a reputation as an arts community. The Randolph County Community Arts Center has a regular schedule of art exhibits, performances and art classes.

The Augusta Heritage Center at Davis and Elkins College is world-renowned for its weeklong workshops in traditional folklife and folk arts, attracting participants from around the world from July through October.

“They have concerts on Tuesday and Thursday, which are just wonderful,” said Pritt. The concerts feature performers based on weekly themes such as Cajun/Creole Week, Blues Week, Irish/Celtic Week, Bluegrass Week and Old-Time Week in October.