Every family has their traditions that are part of their visit to Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas. For some, you can’t leave the park without visiting Santa or riding the Dollywood Express while singing Christmas carols on Klondike Katie. For some families, like my own, their Christmas tradition is making sure to catch a showing of Dollywood’s “Christmas in the Smokies.” The show, which is celebrating it’s 31st year at Dollywood, is for many families the cornerstone of their Christmas celebration at the park.
“Christmas in the Smokies” tells the story of a family from the Smokies in the 1800s that celebrates their son coming home to enjoy the holidays with his family and friends after being away in the city. The family celebrates both the traditions of home and church as they share the true meaning of Christmas with the girlfriend he’s brought home for the first time.
As a long-time fan, I have often wondered what it takes to put on the elaborate 50-minute stage show four to five times a day with very little turnaround time between shows. The cast always makes it look so easy as if they are bringing my childhood Christmas snow globe to life with every show.
As it turns out, the backstage choreography is as precise as are the on-stage dance numbers.
“We practice the stage transitions and changes in rehearsals right along with the cast,” said Chris Sanford, the ‘Christmas in the Smokies’ stage manager. (He also is a former cast member!) “It’s an important part of the rehearsal before and after we are here on the main stage.”
If you get a chance to see “Christmas in the Smokies,” one of the first things you’ll notice is the beautiful set pieces, including the iconic log cabin in the mountain where the family is waiting with open arms to welcome their beloved son home for Christmas. The log cabin has been the setting for all 31 seasons of the show but Sanford said that in 1997, the cabin received the upgrade that is on the stage today. It is now a moveable set piece that beautifully transitions as the show moves from inside to outside in the Smoky Mountain snow.
“The cabin is as much of a cast member as the rest of the crew. I often find myself telling the cast that this stage is what people remember, even as casts come and go throughout the years,” said Sanford, who has been involved with this reiteration of ‘Christmas in the Smokies’ since 2016.
The cast members responsible for making these cabin transition must have perfect timing, because if one is off, the log cabin will not close properly.
Fans of the show also will find Easter eggs from years past if they look carefully at the set. The old rocking chair that “Ma” used to sit in during “Heirlooms” when the show was staged at Showstreet Palace is sitting on the front porch of the cabin, still part of the family’s treasures. The old family Bible that once was featured in the show during the “Hail, Favored One” number sits in a place of honor on the fireplace. Sanford showed the Bible proudly, which held notes and memories from casts of the past, including script notes and cue reminders.
I also was shocked to find out that while there are 13 performers on stage and nine musicians, the backstage crew consists of only Sanford and David Lee, the assistant stage manager. “We have a crew of five out behind the audience running the lights and sound, and it’s just the two of us helping backstage.”
Sanford and Lee are the ones who work the moving train in the opening number as well as transition the set from inside the cabin to outside, along with other cast members. “It’s actually part of some of the performers’ tracks. They help with set transitions and are responsible that certain props are in the right places,” said Sanford.
This means that not only do the show’s four swings have to know their parts on-stage, they also are responsible for making sure they know what props they are in charge of as well. So, when you watch the show next time, know that when Billy (spoiler alert) proposes, the actor playing the role is responsible for making sure he has the ring and is ready for that moment, regardless of what role he played during the last show.
It’s obvious that the cast and crew love staging this production as much as those of us who visit Dollywood love to see it. It’s a labor of love that takes months to plan for, weeks to rehearse and two days to build the perfect set, including the beloved log cabin home. Next time you sit down in DP’s Celebrity Theater, ready for your annual viewing of this Dollywood tradition, maybe you’ll notice some of the special moments the backstage magic makers do to bring this living Christmas music box to life.