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Live theaters look to the future after a difficult year

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Posted at 12:09 PM, Jun 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-16 12:09:16-04

No matter where you’re from, there’s a stage of a live theater that’s a beloved part of your community. Those stages have suffered through the coronavirus pandemic.

“I like to make people laugh,” said theater owner and performer Chris Macpherson. “I like to make people smile.”

Recordings of stage shows on old VHS tapes and stacks of DVDs are truly Macpherson’s home movies.

“It’s in my blood,” he said. “I grew up on that stage. My parents, Pat and Don Macpherson, started the theater in 1977.”

The mountain town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a little somewhere of nostalgia, sweets and shows. In the middle of the bustle, you find a bit of old vaudeville in Macpherson’s Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre.

“We’re one of the longest-running businesses in town,” he said.

For the nation's performers like Macpherson, the stage is family, the cast is family, the people who come to shows are family. That’s why the “for lease” signs on the building now are so hard.

“Pretty rough for me, especially,” said Macpherson.

During the pandemic, Macpherson said safety guidelines meant they could only fill about 30 of their 169 seats. He applied for grants that did keep his cast paid, but he said it wasn’t enough.

“We just came to the realization we’re not going to make enough to open up the following season,” said Macpherson.

Macpherson’s struggle is the same as what so many live theaters faced in the pandemic all across the country. In San Antonio, Texas, the Sheldon Vexler Theatre suspended its shows indefinitely after 22 years. In Elmsford, New York, the Westchester Broadway Theatre closed after 46 years. Chaffin’s Barn in Nashville, Tennessee, permanently closed during the COVID-19 crisis. The dinner theater had been going since the 1960s.

“So many other performers out there weren’t allowed to perform during this time, and that’s their livelihood as well,” said Macpherson.

To help with reopening live theater, the Actors’ Equity Association tells us they’re asking for $9 billion for the National Endowment for the Arts.

With vaccinations and capacity limits being lifted, there is some good news out there. In Chicago, the Mercury Theatre announced its forever closure last year only to reverse the announcement now and say they are coming back.

Macpherson said that won’t be the story of Sweet Fanny Adams.

“We’ve leased it out to another company,” he said. “It’s no longer going to be a theater.”

Macpherson said parts of his theater live on.

“Few things I just couldn’t bear to get rid of, so I turned my loft into the lobby,” he smiled. “We have our vintage couch. This is one of our original brochures from 1977.”

Lights were out at Sweet Fanny Adams on a night that would usually have a show. Macpherson said he’ll one day return to performing in neighboring Pigeon Forge, a place of so many stages. For now, from his theater, Macpherson shared one last home movie.

"This is the final video I'll be doing from Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre,” Macpherson said. “Remember the good times. Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre will live on in your heart. It will live on in my heart. This is Chris Macpherson signing off from Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre."

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