Where are they now? All over the place!
That’s where Dollywood’s alumni performers are! One of the unique opportunities guests of Dollywood have is to make a special connection—a friend even—with performers from various shows throughout the park.
As we enter into the 35th season, Dollywood continues to be a leader in the theme park entertainment industry. In 2018, they set a record by winning the Golden Ticket Awards for “Best Shows” 10 years in a row. This category was then retired.
But, that’s only natural since the park’s namesake and Dreamer-in-Chief, Dolly Parton, is one of the world’s most-awarded entertainers.
Each year Dollywood offers more than a dozen regular-season shows featuring more than 200 talented vocalists, musicians and dancers! Some performers are native to East Tennessee while others have relocated from different parts of the country to shine on the Dollywood stages. Those of us who have been coming to the park since we were… well, kids… will always remember shows like the electrifying “Fire on the Mountain” or the high-energy romp through the ‘50s in “Let the Good Times Roll.” Today, we love shows like the iconic “Dreamland Drive-In,” “Country Crossroads” and the spirited “My People, My Music.” The productions are so good that you want to watch them over and over, creating special connections with the “stars.” At Dollywood, the performers are warm and friendly and make you feel like you’re old high school chums. As time passes, however, performers tend to move on to new ventures. And when our favorites are gone, if you’re like me, you may sit back and wonder, where are they now? Who’s that new guy playing Danny Dugan?
So what does happen to our favorite park performers?
I caught up with several of the alumni during the past few weeks and was excited to hear what they were up to since leaving the Dollywood stage!
Some continue to work at the park, just in a different “office.” Paige Bales, who I remember for her beautiful tear-jerking ballad, “Heirlooms,” in the show “Christmas in the Smokies,” has been at the park for more than 25 years. She now serves as Dollywood’s Director of Entertainment and enjoys adding new elements to the shows in-between seasons. The same can be said for Justin Bradley and Chris Sanford. Justin performed on several different stages at the park and now resides as senior manager and show producer for shows like “Christmas in the Smokies,” among others. Spending several seasons as a singer, dancer, and choreographer, Chris found his niche backstage and now leads as a stage manager for various park productions.
Others seek to brighten the world through their own music. Holly Norman, a fan-favorite, left Dollywood for Nashville to work with Dolly’s creative team at Dolly Parton Productions and is now a singer/songwriter who has released three independent albums. Holly said that she considers Dolly to be her “guardian angel” and is thankful for her influence on both her professional and personal life.
Tryphena Layman, once a “cookie-seeking mouse” in the holiday show “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” is enjoying motherhood and singing at the Country Tonight Theatre in town. She loved to meet guests and share memories at the park. She recalled one performance when another dancer’s shoe flew off of her foot and into the lap of an audience member. She said that after the show, the lady who caught the shoe was thrilled and wanted an autograph.
For nearly three decades, Scott Self sang and danced in almost every theater in the park. Having performed in 18 shows throughout the years, he may be best remembered as the angel Gabriel in “Christmas in the Smokies.” Now, Scott works as a worship leader and men’s ministry coordinator at Pathways Church in Sevierville. He told me that “Dollywood was his training ground” both as a performer and as a creative carpenter (he also built stage sets, buildings and Dolly’s parade floats). When asked what makes him, as an artist, so memorable to Dollywood super-fans, he wasn’t sure, but he said, “We couldn’t do on stage what we do without the energy and support from the fans.” He noted that “being able to deliver a song like ‘The Lord is with You’ that takes the audience on a journey” is what he hopes to be remembered most for. He loved singing that song because it was always a gentle reminder that God can give us peace when we accept the path he puts us on.
Steve Summers, Creative Director at Dolly Parton Enterprises, also spent many years at the park. As one of Dollywood’s first feature performers, he loved being able to give creative input on set designs, musical arrangements and even costumes. Dollywood loved his input, too, and used him to design the Chasing Rainbows Museum. Dolly took note of his passionate work and soon he was in Nashville with her. Today he does for Dolly what he did for her theme park, but on a slightly larger scale.
There are literally hundreds of entertainment alumni that could tell their stories and share their expression of love and thanks to the Dollywood fans, but like a good show, this blog can’t last forever. Holly Norman compared Dollywood to a great stepping stone that helped her make life-long friends and find her passion. I think most of us would agree that Dollywood is a place where strangers suddenly become friends, memories are shaped and shared and stepping stones are added to our journey.
RECOGNIZE THESE NAMES?
Janelle Arthur, an American Idol top-10 finalist and singer/songwriter who is making quite a name for herself in Nashville, got her start at the age of 8 portraying little Dolly in the show “Paradise Road: The Life and Songs of Dolly Parton” at Dollywood.
Carly Pearce moved from Kentucky to East Tennessee when she was 16 so she could perform at Dollywood. After a few years, she discovered her calling and headed to Nashville. In 2019, she won the CMA New Artist of the Year award.
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Suzy Bogguss moved to Nashville in the mid-1980s to become a singer. She soon had the opportunity to perform a three-day audition for Dolly Parton, who was looking for talent for her new theme park. In 1986, Suzy became Dollywood’s first female featured performer. She credits Dolly and Dollywood for much of her success as a country music recording artist.