Christmas at Dollywood, with Streetmosphere and a Chicken Lady

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Christmas at Dollywood, with Streetmosphere and a Chicken Lady
A replica of Dolly Parton’s childhood home is furnished with some of her family’s heirlooms at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Dec. 9, 2022. Dolly Parton’s theme park gets into the holiday spirit in a way that rivals Radio City’s Rockettes — with fewer kicklines but far more fingerpicking. (Stacy Kranitz/The New York Times)

by Melena Ryzik

PIGEON FORGE, TENN.- In June or July, Dollywood employees begin stringing more than 6 million twinkle lights across Dolly Parton’s namesake theme park here in the Smoky Mountains.

In a mad sprint just after Halloween, they add more than 650 evergreens, including a 50-footer that serves as a canvas for a light show about a polar bear. The steam train that whistles through the park is topped with a giant wreath; Santa stuffies appear as balloon pop prizes.

By early November, Heidi Lou Parton, Dolly’s niece, is onstage, surrounded by glistening firs, harmonizing on “You Are My Christmas,” a song written for her father, Randy Parton. She was all of 4 when she made her debut at Dollywood, singing background vocals for Randy, one of Dolly Parton’s 11 siblings. Now 37, Heidi Lou Parton has been performing at Dollywood ever since, including nearly a decade of Christmas shows, most of them alongside her father, aunts and cousins.

All of her earliest memories are at Dollywood, she said one afternoon between gigs. “It’s an oasis for me.”

You don’t have to be a Parton to hold Dollywood close, especially during the holidays. Generations of families have made it an annual tradition to visit this 160-acre entertainment complex, 35 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee, which has transformed, over three decades, into a Christmas attraction to rival Radio City’s Rockettes — with fewer kicklines, but far more fingerpicking.

“Christmas in the Smokies,” its signature show, has been running since 1990, with a live orchestra and Appalachian storytelling, a flatfoot dancer and a fiddler. The park serves as the setting for “Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas,” the star’s latest NBC special, now streaming on Peacock, which gives a glimpse of several Dollywood musicians, such as Addie Levy, a 20-year-old mandolin, guitar, fiddle and upright bass player.

“There is something for everybody during all the four seasons,” Dolly Parton said in a video interview in September, already offset by candy-pink pines that matched her manicure. “And of course, Christmas is the highlight of it all.”

“We make almost as much money now, from Thanksgiving to the first of the year, as we do the whole rest of the year,” she added (a bit of showbiz hyperbole, but the park does have some of its busiest days in that period).

Parton, 76, has been a cultural force for decades, an empire-builder whose business ventures include baked goods and dog T-shirts (Doggywood, y’all!), and a rare social unifier whose philanthropic reach has markedly increased. Last month, Jeff Bezos gave her $100 million to add to her already robust charitable giving; among other endeavors, she founded the Imagination Library, which distributes free books to children. Early this year, Dollywood announced a new program in which the 4,000 employees across all its attractions — including part-time and seasonal workers, even a temporary Santa — could have 100% of their college tuition paid for by the company. They are eligible on their first day of work.

Dollywood, which was founded in 1986, when Parton went into business with Herschend Family Entertainment to rebrand and then expand their existing amusement park, is the largest employer in its rural county. “We want people to have opportunities,” said Parton, whose title at the park is dreamer in chief. “The employees to feel proud to be working there. You don’t want them to feel like they’re just there to serve you. You also, in turn, want to be able to do some things to help make their lives better, and to serve them.”

That’s in part why she wanted to do her Christmas special there — “to just show off who we are and what we have there at the park,” she said.

“They’re good-looking people!” she added with a hoot.

A few days spent there last month, darting among the topiaries of butterflies (Parton’s signature creature), revealed a crosscurrent of her fan base: retirees looking for a homey glimpse of yesteryear; church groups who appreciate the park’s roots in Christian culture; overstretched families looking for a more affordable theme park adventure; mother-daughter bonding outings, gay couples and girlfriend crews with spangly earrings and coordinating T-shirts. Add in reindeer antlers and kids in tinsel and pajamas, and it’s the holidays.

Watching the string band, Linda Lay, 60, who runs a family farm business and sings bluegrass with her husband, David Lay, leaped off her feet in a jig. “When the music’s good, I just get up and dance,” she said. “To us, there’s two kinds of music,” added David Lay, 64, a mustachioed, overall-ed fourth-generation farmer, who harmonizes and plays guitar. “It’s either good, or it’s bad.”

Dollywood’s business was long built on repeat visitors — season-pass holders that came from the region, screaming through the rides in the summer (there is also an adjacent water park), pumpkin-spotting at the harvest festival in the fall. But since the pandemic, Dollywood’s leaders found an uptick, sometimes even a majority, of single-ticket buyers in their nearly 3 million annual attendees. Now on pace for a record-breaking season, they have been working to sell the park to people like Carrie Shea, 23, from Satellite Beach, Florida, who was decked out in full Dolly regalia — fringed white boots, a pink-rimmed cowgirl hat — from the apparel shop Dolly’s Closet (tagline: “her style, your size”).

“I’ve loved Dolly since I was a little girl,” said Shea, who works in retail. “Just being around everyone else who loves Dolly — Dolly has such a great moral code, she’s such a woman of empowerment. There’s just pure love walking through.”

While you can get a flick of glitz by stepping onto her old tour bus, don’t expect over-the-top camp; there are no rhinestone-encrusted Dolly statues here. The star’s aura is represented more subtly, with a working chapel named for the doctor who delivered her, say, or a small plaque commemorating her uncle Bill’s work as a conservator of chestnut trees.

Her music and influences, though, are easy to find. Dollywood entertainers are devoted practitioners of bluegrass, folk and other Americana musical styles not often heard in theme parks. Even if you don’t seek them out, you encounter them at the park, in outdoor trios and roaming banjo players like Parker Collins, a 15-year-old with a deep Southern twang and a virtuosic pluck.

Come Christmastime, he does his own speeding rendition of “Jingle Bells,” dueling banjo-style. “Usually I get excited, and I start playing fast,” he explained.

As an institution, Dollywood stands alone in showcasing these heritage mountain sounds to vast audiences, said Roy Andrade, director of old-time music and a professor at East Tennessee State University, which operates the first Appalachian studies program in the country. “In providing a venue and supporting and encouraging young budding musicians, they are contributing to the health and survival of this music,” he said.

Some of his students gig at Dollywood. “Our students like playing there because it pays well,” he said, “and it’s a bit grueling — you’re playing all day. You really get to work on your chops. After two or three hours of playing, you’re warmed up, anything can happen — it’s a nice creative space.”

The community it offers, in and around artists, is also vital. “This music has always been learned knee to knee,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 way it’s transferred between people.”

Addie Levy, the young musician, felt it, when she visited Dollywood as a child. “I used to tell my parents I would sell Dippin’ Dots if I could work here,” she said. She started performing there at age 12 in a bluegrass duo. Now she plays at Dollywood and its affiliated resort hotel, DreamMore. Her debut solo album is out next year, including songs she wrote in the break room at the hotel, where a corridor is lined with images of Parton’s 50-plus studio albums.

“I’ll walk through her album hallway and think wow, maybe one day I’ll have three of these,” Levy said. “You just get inspired when you see her looking over you. You’re like, look Dolly, I’m writing this song — I think you’d like it.”

‘If someone doesn’t have a smile, give them yours.’

Dollywood emphasizes what’s called “streetmosphere,” especially the one-on-one interactions guests have as they meander through areas like Rivertown Junction, with a replica of the log cabin Parton grew up in, and Craftsman’s Valley, where they can buy a hand-tooled belt from a magnificently bearded artisan, or blow their own glass ornaments.

Disney’s streetmosphere is more about a hug from a branded character, often hidden in a plush suit. But Dollywood prides itself on making its employees accessible to visitors — conversationally, temperamentally — whether they are costumed singers and dancers, or cashiers slinging cinnamon bread. (I was persuaded to buy a loaf and a roll, plus supplementary icing.)

Those points of connection, whether with a person or a song, are what keep visitors coming back. “We call them ‘moments of truth,’” said Roger White, a longtime entertainment manager.

Parton’s magic is that — beneath the wigs and plastic surgery, and the unshakable boob-joke persona she has honed over more than a half-century in show business — she still exudes authenticity.

An average person might go mildly batty listening to piped-in Christmas tunes for 10 hours a day, five days a week, for two months, but among the theme park staff are genuine believers. “I put up 30 Christmas trees at my house,” said Chance Smith, a performer turned entertainment manager.

He’s outshone by Parton herself, whose home in suburban Nashville, Tennessee, features a Christmas tree in nearly every corner, according to Steve Summers, her longtime creative director. “It’s like a theme park inside,” he said, with colors and ornaments to match each room’s décor. (Think parakeets and vintage cars. The kitchen tree is hot pink.)

Summers is a graduate of Dollywood, too: a tall Ken doll of man, he started there as a singer and dancer, duetting with Parton regularly, before she plucked him out to oversee her costumes (300 looks a year) and aesthetics. “If you do know Dolly, you know that behind the scenes, she is a force. And I appreciated that,” he said in an interview in Parton’s Nashville production offices, where the lyrics for her hit “9 to 5,” handwritten in her neat cursive on a yellow legal pad, hang framed by the door.

“He’s just been the best thing that ever happened to me,” Parton said.

Over the years, Dollywood acts have gone on to “American Idol” and Broadway. Country star Carly Pearce debuted there as a teenager. But some artists are content to stay at the park.

Take the Chicken Lady.

In rainbow glasses and a headset mic, some rubber poultry — “my emotional support chicken” — in her apron pocket, Miss Lillian, as her character is formally known, is a local favorite. With a sprig of holly in her hat, she improvises songs on her ukulele. (“What’s your name?” she asked a tween who sought her out one rainy day. “Grace? Oh, we have Grace in this place!”)

“I’ve been here almost 20 years,” said the Chicken Lady, whose civilian name is Connie Freeman Prince. “I’ve seen a lot of children grow up.”

Like many Dollywood performers, Freeman Prince has serious credentials — a bachelor's in fine arts in theater; TV, movie and voice-over roles. She does a mean Judy Garland impression and once worked as a Dolly impersonator. She met her husband, a sound designer, and got engaged “on park,” as employees call the grounds. “A lot of people get engaged here,” she said. “A lot of people have different parts of their lives shared here. And I’m in a point in my life when I say, ‘Dear God, just put me where I can be a light.’”

In more than a dozen interviews at the park, there was one mantra from the boss that I heard repeated over and over: “Dolly always says, ‘If someone doesn’t have a smile, give them yours.’”

“The littlest thing you do can change someone’s day,” said Nathan Forshey, a performer for 17 years, whose latest role is the town crier. “What you do matters. That’s what this place has taught me.”

‘If she’s still asleep at 3 a.m., it’s a miracle.’

For all its good-heartedness, Dollywood can be notably lacking in diversity, especially onstage.

When Caleb Brown started in 2018, he noticed he was one of only two performers of color, among dozens of cast members. Though he felt supported himself, it was something he brought up immediately, first with the other actor — who said “that it was also a concern for him” — and then with management, he said, in an effort to dispel any sense that Dollywood’s appeal was limited to white country fans.

“I think there’s a lot of people like me who would benefit from this place so much,” Brown, 27, said. In 2021 he won a Brass Ring award — the Oscars of the international attractions industry — for best performer.

Some visitors felt alienated by the park’s traditionalist choices: the holiday shows center on straight family stories, with mostly white actors. “When people celebrate Christmas, they can celebrate in different ways, and families can look very different,” said Zaki Baker, a mother who came often with her young children. “It seems like they have a narrow perspective.”

Park leadership said they make tweaks every season, including to popular shows; they recently added a new song to “Christmas in the Smokies.” In a statement, Tim Berry, Dollywood’s vice president of human resources, said the company believes that “a diverse workforce makes us more creative, flexible, productive and competitive,” adding that “our diversity encompasses differences in ethnicity, gender, language, age, religion, socioeconomic status, physical and mental ability, thinking styles, experience and education.”

For years, Parton’s brand has been about inclusivity and acceptance. Lately she has come out more forcefully in support of the gay community and movements like Black Lives Matter. In 2018, she changed a separate attraction known as the “Dixie Stampede” to the Dolly Parton Stampede.

To fans like Shea, the Florida visitor, every section of the park seemed imbued with Parton’s spirit, including an aviary showcase for birds of prey, created by the American Eagle Foundation. (“I was like, oh my God, Dolly cares about the eagles!”) But behind the scenes, John Owens Dietrich, a former choreographer and director for the Rockettes, who teaches at New York University, has also had an outsize influence in creating movement and songs for the park, and coaching performers through a grueling schedule of as many as six shows a day.

It was intimidating at first. “If you do a show 200 times in two months, every now and then you might trip on your own mouse tail,” said Kelsey Lane Dies, who plays a mischievous rodent in a child-oriented Christmas production. “You just have to let it go, because you have to get back onstage so quickly.”

Dies, 28, who trained at a theater conservatory in New York, was one of the first employees to take advantage of the college tuition program. She’s studying organizational leadership, with an eye toward eventually moving off the stage. “Had this program not existed, I very likely would never have gone back to college, unless I won the lottery,” she said.

The industriousness and quality control at the park comes from Parton herself. She has sat in on auditions; she wrote the material for the autobiographical shows her family members long performed; she’s there on opening day every year, and at the introduction of new rides (though she doesn’t partake herself — she gets motion sickness). The park is now building another resort: She’s in the meetings to select the drapery.

“You can’t outwork Dolly Parton,” Summers said. “Nobody can. If she’s still asleep at 3 a.m., it’s a miracle.”

Perhaps as a counterpoint to all the evident busyness — and to the sensory onslaught of most theme parks — Dollywood invites visitors to pause and listen: to the strum of an instrument, and a sweet Christmas bell. To the squawk in the bird sanctuary and the burbling creek by the old mill. To each other, and to their surroundings.

“That’s why I love this place,” Heidi Lou Parton said. “There are secret places you can go to, and you can hear the mountains.”

Dolly’s voice lingers, too. A cursive-print sign at the park’s exit bears her all-embracing message: “I will always love you.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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