Chucky Jack trackless train would shuttle folks from Gatlinburg to the nearby Hunter Hills theater.
Remember When, Lost Smoky Mountain Attractions – Hunter Hills Theater. Gatlinburg is widely known as a national vacation destination offering something for every taste. Surrounded by the America’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains. This was the home of Hunter Hills theater for decades.
We hope you enjoyed reading Lost Attractions of the Smokies: Porpoise Island – a fascinating blend of Polynesian culture in the mountains of east Tennessee. For this article, we’ll be introducing you to Hunter Hills Theater – an amphitheater just down the road from Pigeon Forge in Gatlinburg. If you have been coming to the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area for many years between 1956 – 1977, you may be familiar with the former location of the theater. Highway 321/East Parkway was called highway 73 “back in the day” and about 3.5-4 miles out the highway is Gatlinburg-Pittman High School, Anna Porter Public Library, The Gatlinburg Community Center, Boys & Girls Club and Rocky Top Sports World. The theater was located to the right of all of these facilities and predated the high school by more than decade.
Chucky Jack play bill from Hunter Hills theater.
The idea for a theater was first envisioned by Mr. R.L. Maples and his wife Wilma, owners of the Gatlinburg Inn still in existence on the parkway in Gatlinburg. The location was decided on in summer of 1955 and work began by clearing trees and cutting a road in. Work was suspended during the fall and winter of 1955 and picked back up in February 1956. Construction went at a fast pace and by June 1956 rehearsals were being held. Mr. Maples wanted the theater to be a cultural attraction for locals as well as visitors to the area – a very forward thinking man!
Hunter Hills theater cast in Gatlinburg.
The theater was named for Dr. Kermit Hunter who was the writer of what would become the theater’s first show as well as the very popular, nationally known and critically acclaimed Unto These Hills outdoor drama about the Cherokee Indians performed even today in Cherokee, NC. Dr. Hunter decided to make this play – the theater’s first – about Tennessee’s history from 1780-1800 when it was till the State of Franklin (prior to statehood). But as he went along, his focus changed and began to center on the life of Governor John Sevier specifically (Tennessee’s first governor, Indian fighter and proponent for statehood as well as lender of his name to our county and county seat Sevierville – pronounced “severe”) whose Cherokee nickname was “Nolichucky Jack.” He shortened the name to Chucky Jack and it became the first play to debut in the new amphitheater the summer of 1956.
Here are some interesting stats about the theater:
1956 payroll included 125 people – 85 of which were cast members
There were 45,000 theater attendees just in 1956
There were 2501 seats in the theater
Technically the theater was pretty advanced.
There was a revolving stage that allowed for 9 scenes to be prepped and set for fast and quiet changes
There were individual mirrors for 100 people in the dressing rooms.
Seven banks of floodlights were installed requiring 11 miles of wiring
All told the investment in the theater was about $150,000 equaling about $1.4 million today.
Some students would stay with local families for the summer and later the theater even rented the Gatlinburg-Pittman High School as a dormitory. Later on during some renovations, the theater expanded the dressing rooms to include dorm rooms for students for the summer shows.
Aerial photo of Hunter Hills theater in Gatlinburg
The play would run 6 days a week except Sundays from June 22-September 1. Tickets ranged from $1.00-3.00 per person and all seats were reserved. Auditions were held and several heads of drama and speech departments from local colleges and universities served as judges.
Publicity was national and well-received – the theater advisory board had hired a PR person. One of the more impressive publicity stunts was that the Great Smoky Mountains Historical Association bought a trackless train to transport theater goers from downtown Gatlinburg to the theater. It continued to run until 1959 when an accident caused the train to overturn resulting in 8 injuries including the driver. Several lawsuits stemmed from this accident and costs from repairs contributed to the theater ending the Chucky Jack run.
In 1960, several different groups opted to rent the facility for their own shows such as the Washington Ballet who performed Swan Lake, Etalage and Raymonda plus The Nutcracker Suite, Sylvia and Chinese Nightengale. The mid-60’s continued to bring in more theater troupes who performed other classics such as Tosca and Oklahoma!.
Hunter Hills theater in Gatlinburg.
In 1966, the Maples’ gifted the theater to the University of Tennessee who took over – a gift totaling about $300,000 by that time. The first production was Annie Get Your Gun. Successful productions continued under the theater department of UT until the mid-1970’s. 1977 saw the performances of Jesus Christ Superstar, Indians and Smoke on the Mountain. Weather was always a factor in outdoor theater settings and the summer of 1977 was especially wet causing the cancellations of some performances. Additional dates were added for August but even some of those were cancelled due to rain.
In 1978 UT Chancellor Jack Reese announced that the University could no longer financially support Hunter Hills Theater. Weather as well as other financial concerns prompted the decision – the theater was always running in a financial deficit. Many students and supporters wrote to the University pleading for the continuation of the theater, it’s importance to theater students, residents and visitors. Supporters continued to hope the theater would reopen at some point but it was not to be.
Many current local residents participated in performances at the theater as UT students or during the Chucky Jack years and many of us locals remember attending those shows. It was a wonderful and unique venue and a precursor to the many theaters we have now in the area.
We hope you enjoyed this little trip down memory lane, thank you for reading it and hope you will check back for more Lost Attractions of the Smokies in the future!
HeySmokies.com would like to thank our contributor Christina Wolfenbarger. Christina is a writer, historian and librarian. We hope you enjoy her Smoky Mountain memories as much as we do!
Big thanks to the Pigeon Forge Library for their assistance and archive access!
Photos from the Pigeon Forge Public Library archive collection.
Hunter Hills Theater information from “A History of the Hunter Hills Theatre, 1956-1977” Gary Buttrey’s Master Theses, University of Tennessee – Knoxville