Friday, December 5, 2008

"Memories of Opryland"

One thing that eased the move from my former "camping spot", i.e. San Antonio, to the present "camping spot" of Nashville was viewing it as a return to a former stomping ground. And indeed it's been sweet to see and be again in places that meant much to me during my earlier residence. (Even if some place names have been changed -- see my initial posting.)

Except that I shall never again see or be in one location of extra special significance. You see, dear reader, it no longer exists. It was Opryland.

Opryland USA (its full name) was a theme park originally built (early 1970s) to enhance the visit for folks traveling in from a distance to the Grand Ole Opry in its new home (successor to the Ryman Auditorium). Because the radio show was a musical one, the highlight of the park was not to be the rides or games or food, but the shows. Live music shows.

My first visit to Opryland was around 1978, and right away I fell for the place! I'd already been to Disneyland as a little boy, and to Six Flags Over Texas as a young adult when it was the only Six Flags park. Later I visited such theme parks as Busch Gardens (Tampa), Astroworld (Houston) and Sea World (Orlando and San Antonio). Plus Opryland's own spin-off in S.A., Fiesta Texas. Of ALL these theme parks, Opryland remained always my very favorite. Because of the live music shows!

In summer 1991 and again from holiday season '94 to end of '95 I worked as a ticket seller (admissions cashier) at Opryland USA, and from 1996 to '97 as tour coordinator for Grand Ole Opry Tours. The tour company's office was in a two-story plantation home-like building (we Opryland employees called it "the Big House") just outside the entryway to the park gates and the Grand Ole Opry House. During these periods of Opryland employment I stored up plenty of fond memories of my favorite theme park. Too many to share here!

All those fond memories came to vivid life again as I watched a special TV program done by and broadcast on Nashville's local PBS station. Sweet memories mingled with deep pain. It's a pain I've carried since Gaylord Entertainment Corp., the national umbrella organization that in the 1980s took over WSM and its Opry, the park, the hotel and all the rest, announced that it would close Opryland USA forever and replace it with a shopping mall. As if Nashville needed yet another mall!

The PBS show, "Memories of Opryland" was a fitting and I believe fairly accurate chronicle of a now-vanished institution that produced fun and entertainment for local youngsters and out-of-town visitors alike, plus provided employment for folk like yours truly and a starting place for many professional music performers. Indeed, country music star Chely Wright is one of the many former Opryland employees, managers and patrons interviewed during the TV program. Chely got her start as a performer in the park's country music show, which she credits with giving her a strong sense of the primacy of the audience (over ego). Listening to Chely and the others reminisce about their experiences at the park was so sweet, because they expressed almost exactly how I feel about the old place and the old job there. One fact of particular note (to me, at least) is that "experts" predicted that the park would draw no more than 500,000 or 600,000 visitors its first year -- and it actually hosted 1.2 million!

Best of all, without ignoring the rides and other elements that made Opryland "Opryland" the PBS show correctly asserted that the unique and primary element of this theme park was the live music shows. Six Flags (Over Texas) had its rides, Disney its animation -- and here in "Music City" was a park with LIVE music shows. Not live performers singing to recorded accompaniment, but live singers AND live musicians! This is exactly why Opryland USA was my fave, why I miss it so painfully and why I know it can NEVER be replaced. Not even if they tore down that infernal mall and tried to rebuild the park. It simply wouldn't be the same!

But my heartfelt thanks go to Nashville's PBS station for doing this show "Memories of Opryland" which captures the "musical magic" of once upon a time on the banks of the Cumberland River, in "Music Valley" (of "Music City") next to the "new" Grand Ole Opry House. Rest in peace, sweet music-filled memories!

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