by Jim Reyland
“We’ve gotta have a great show, with a million laughs … and color … and a lot
of lights to make it sparkle! And songs—wonderful songs! And after we get the
people in that hall, we’ve gotta start ‘em in laughing right away! Oh, can’t you
just see it?”
—Patsy Barton, Babes in Arms
They may not have been saving an orphanage, but what’s been happening on a small hill in Bellevue for the last fifty years is nothing short of remarkable. In 1967, when Howard Wolfe’s “Magic Stage” descended from the Barn’s ceiling like a spaceship, it kicked off a ground-breaking production of Any Wednesday, and Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre was open for business. Over the years, the lights would dim a few times, but the Barn wouldn’t stay down for long.
When Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre opened in September 1967, it was originally part of a chain of twenty- seven dinner theatres spread across the country. This syndication of presenting theatres used a common touring show produced in New York. The actors would travel to Nashville and then stay on-site during the run. Today, after fifty years of operation, Chaffin’s Barn, along with the Barn Dinner Theatre in Greensboro, North Carolina, are the only two remaining.
Emmy-winning actress Cherry Jones (Transparency, Erin Brockovich, and The West Wing) was an early Chaffin actor who lived on-site during the run.
“I’ve never gotten to live in any other theatre I’ve performed in. Being an actor and director, you know that for a young actor just beginning, the notion that you were actually going to get to live in the theatre was too good to be true. The only drawback for me at the Barn—the only one—was the serving of drinks before the show. The night my family came, I splashed hot coffee on my poor younger sister. My words in the moment have been repeated frequently in our family: ‘Susan, thank God it was you.’”Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre turned to local productions in the mid 70s. Less than a decade later, the great Brian Russell would begin starring in what would become dozens of productions at the Barn.
“I was doing Groucho: A Life in Revue with Martha and Brian Hull. It was a packed house, but there was one lady (elegantly dressed in red, head to toe) that got a little, shall we say, out of hand. By the second act, she was loudly cursing the actors, her companion for the evening, and her neighbors at the adjoining tables. Martha and I were seated on a sofa parked at the A/ZB corner doing a scene, and whoosh . . . a rocks glass passes in between us, crashing across the way in front of C section. Needless to say, she was escorted out.”
One of the finest actresses Nashville has ever produced, and unwitting target of that flying rocks glass, is Martha Wilkinson.
“I started working at the barn as an actor in March of 1988 … I was a merry murderess in Chicago! The Barn is my family. I attribute the majority of my success in Nashville theatre to the support and trust from John Chaffin. He has always believed in me, and for that I am most grateful.”
Martha and assistant artistic director Bradley Moore are leading the Barn charge these days, both behind the scenes and on the stage. In 2017, Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre is going strong.
The Next Fifty Years
Perhaps to coincide with its 50th Anniversary, Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre recently changed hands, from longtime owners John and Janie Chaffin to new owner Norma Luther. Luther has amazing plans for Chaffin’s Barn. A successful businesswoman, she feels like a “kid in a candy store” as she began as an actress in her early life and has always had a strong affinity for theatre. Her ideas for the theatre are sincere and solid so, as to stability, she says, “I’m here to make sure the Barn is here for the next fifty years.”
If you’re a Barn regular, you know. If you’ve never been, treat yourself.
Attention playwrights: The Barn is looking for non-published, full-length, two-act plays for Clash of the Playwrights. Deadline for script submission is May 31. Check their website for details.
On the main stage at Chaffin’s Barn in 2017: Beau Jest April 27 to June 4, Sister Act June 8 to July 23, and Smoke on the Mountain June 15 to July 23. And ask about their money-saving 2017 season and sampler memberships on sale now— a savings of nearly $500 at www.dinnertheatre.com.
Handmade – Friendships Famous, Infamous, Real and Imagined by Jim Reyland is available at Amazon.com. Or get an autographed copy and support a 2017 high-school tour of his award-winning play STAND at writersstage.com.