A Boone drama inspired a theater of dreams in Arden
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO CAPTION: Paul Trueblood, General Manager of the “Thunderbird” production, on the phone, drumming up business. Photo by June Glenn, Asheville Citizen-Times, 1952.
“Forest Amphitheater, nine miles south of Asheville, will become one of the most popular entertainment centers in Western North Carolina,” George McCoy wrote about the new venue in the booklet for the premiere of “Thunderland: The Story of Daniel Boone.”
Outdoor drama had been big in North Carolina since 1937, when “The Lost Colony” was staged in 1937 in Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island.
In 1950, “Unto These Hills” began attracting crowds with its pageant of Cherokee history in Cherokee; and, in 1952, “Horn in the West” dramatized Revolutionary War events on the Daniel Boone Amphitheatre stage in Boone.
“Horn in the West” still runs, as does “Unto These Hills” with a 2006 rewrite to represent Cherokee culture more accurately (for instance, ballet-style dances were replaced by authentic Cherokee ones).
The script for “Thunderland” also betrayed a colonist’s skew, and cast white people as Indians. It built up to the second of two acts, which opens with the mourning of Daniel Boone’s son, James, tortured to death by Indians opposed to the settlement of Kentucky; and proceeded to the sale of Kentucky to Richard Henderson, Boone’s new employer.
Henderson’s purchase of territory between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers had been based on a sham agreement with the British government. However, as Robert Morgan writes in his biography, “Boone,” “Henderson knew the value of precedent and primary claim...(and) once he had attracted thousands of settlers by selling them parcels of land at bargain prices, who was to get him out of Kentucky?”
Henderson’s portrayal in “Thunderland” is less cynical.
Outdoor drama suited the epic way America thought of itself in 1952. The manifest destiny of its founding years matched the international expansionism of the post-World War II period.
Boone, despite being Henderson’s tool, was a larger-than-life and sympathetic figure, whom the Indians loved. His triumphs and tragedies were practically Biblical.
“Destiny pointed a dramatic finger at Daniel Boone’s cradle; even on the day of his birth,” “Thunderland” playwright Hubert Hayes wrote in his “Story of the Play.”
Boone’s mother, Sarah, “a devout Quaker, had turned to the Bible, to find a name for him,” and had come upon this passage in the Book of Daniel: “And he shall cause them to rule over many, and shall divide the land for gain.”
Hayes was not only full of American folk pride, he was an Appalachian spokesperson, born in West Asheville. His first play, “Tight Britches,” about a Great Smoky Mountains community, opened in Asheville in 1933 and went to Broadway the next year. He served as the manager of the Asheville City Auditorium from 1945 to 1954.
The 1950s was a gateway year for tourism in this region. In 1952, the Cherokee built its historic village; and Hugh Morton purchased Grandfather Mountain.
Colleges and universities began instituting Appalachian studies programs. Southern Appalachia represented, to promoters and appreciators alike, an unspoiled English-Scots culture and an area in need of economic uplift and investment.
For the music for “Thunderland,” Hayes collaborated with Lamar Stringfield, who, in 1928, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral suite, “From the Southern Mountains.”
Stringfield, like Hayes, had many Asheville connections. Born in Raleigh, he moved with his family to this region at age five, his father serving as pastor of churches in Barnardsville, Burnsville, and Asheville before establishing a permanent home in Mars Hill.
Stringfield attended Mars Hill College; and, after service in World War I, studied flute and music with Emil Medicus and Joseph DiNardo in Asheville. After further studies in New York and Paris, and after his Pulitzer, he returned to North Carolina and organized the North Carolina Symphony.
He is credited with composing the music for Paul Green’s “The Lost Colony.” The “Thunderland” score was a late career masterpiece.
The local production was also a fundraising boon for “the college in the sky,” Asheville-Biltmore College, precursor of UNC Asheville.
Perched atop Sunset Mountain on Fred Seely land, it was looking to grow out of its junior college function and become a four year liberal arts college.
Sunset Mountain Attractions, Inc. was formed, with former mayor Clarence E. Morgan as president; and, “after inspection of a number of proposed sites,” McCoy wrote, “a 61-acre tract was leased from Biltmore Estate. On a portion of this tract, at the northwest intersection of Long Shoals Road and the French Broad River, the Forest Amphitheater has been built. Surrounded by the forest, provision was made to seat 2,300 spectators.”
Escape to the forest remains a driving force in people’s lives, as does a feeling of not having enough “elbow room,” to use Boone’s phrase, and being under siege.
“Thunderland” ends with three scenes titled, “Attack!”; “Victory”; and “Daniel and Rebecca Boone’s departure further west.”
For lack of funding, the drama lasted just one more year. Forest Amphitheater no longer exists, though its parking area access road has become Thunderland Circle, serving Sunshine Chevrolet.
A copy of the script of “Thunderland” is held in the North Carolina Collection at Pack Memorial Library.