Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Donk's Theater: A Place of Wonderment


The house lights dim and then there is some ruffling of the star spangled curtain. A hand sticks out between the curtain separation and the spotlight switches on. Then a tall white-bearded man wearing bib overalls emerges onto the stage. The crowd explodes with applause as Uncle Jimmy Wickham Smith starts off yet another show at Donk’s Theater in Hudgins, Virginia in Mathews County. As he has done for 39 years, “Uncle Jimmy” greets the audience with his infectious smile and warm friendly welcome. Then he will tell a few of his favorite stories, like the one about how he was born or the time he took a duck into the movie theatre or about the time Dolly Parton came to sing at the Virginia’s Li’l Ole Opry and gave him a big hug. Uncle Jimmy recalls that hug made a big impression on him, in fact it was two of the biggest things that ever happened to him. By the time Uncle Jimmy has told his stories the crowd is warmed up and laughing. At that point, he will ask the crowd, “Are you ready for some music?” The audience roars back its answer, the big blue curtain opens and another Virginia’s Li’l Ole Opry show has begun.

It all started with a dream. Uncle Jimmy’s daughter Lynda Smith recalls riding in the back of the family car every Sunday morning on the way to church. The route took them past Donk’s Movie Theater which had been closed for 5 years. Uncle Jimmy thought it was a shame it was not being used. Lynda said for at least two years, every time they passed, he would say the building would make a great country music theater. Finally one day in 1974, he approached Mary Dunton, the owner of the idle Donk’s theater, and struck a deal to use the theatre for country music shows. He volunteered to do all of the maintenance and repairs in exchange for a rent of $50.00 a month. His idea was to do a small version of the Grand Ole Opry in Mathews.

Uncle Jimmy’s Smith sisters, Jessie Lee and Harriett Ann Smith, performed regionally in the 1930s and 1940s. They taught their young siblings to play and sing. So it was a natural for them to band together to bring their country music to Donk’s Theater.

All of the Smith family, friends and some partners worked to get the place cleaned up and ready for a show. Uncle Jimmy was the youngest of eleven children in a family that loved to sing. The family worked the farm in Moon, Virginia, growing and selling everything from eggs to cattle to hay. Uncle Jimmy’s father raised and trained horses and worked as a line judge at horse races around the state. The Smith’s farm always had horses for recreation. Through the hard work of Jimmy Wickham Smith, and his partners, sister, Harriett Ann Farmer and niece, Joanna Mullis, the show opened in June of 1975 at Donk’s Theater. At that time, the Country Jamboree played every Saturday night. A year later, Betsy Ripley became part of the partnership.

After a time, big name country music talent started appearing in the show. Joanna started booking Nashville talent like Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagner, and Joe and Rosalie Maphis. Lynda said they would arrive in their big Silver Eagle buses and play with a local band. Most of the time, the talent would stay in the homes of Harriet Ann Farmer or Joanna Mullis. Lynda fondly remembers their visits as a thrilling part of her childhood. In fact Dolly Parton appeared in two shows at the Virginia’s Li’l Ole Opry. Lynda recalls her aunt telling her how charming and wonderful it was to work with Dolly Parton if even for just two shows.

Lynda Smith started singing in 1976 at Donk’s, which by then was nicknamed Virginia’s Li’l Ole Opry. She was two years old when she first appeared on stage. In fact, she has a recording of her first performance during which she sang “Daddy’s Girl”. Lynda said she stood on a Coke crate to reach the mike as her dad played guitar. Lynda has been singing there ever since. Lynda’s brother, Richard, known affectionately as “The Wild Man”, plays drums and appears in shows at the Opry. Lynda said that as a child growing up, Donk’s was a place of wonderment. While all the adults were busy cleaning and getting the place into shape, she was playing in the nooks and crannies she discovered while exploring the old theater as a child. Her brother started being a part of the show at about the same time she did and shared her childhood playground. All of the friends and family got together to paint the stage backdrop and begged borrowed what they needed to do a show. The massive star studded curtain was made by the crew from fabric donated by a local embroidery shop.

Lynda recalls that as young children, she and her brother Richard would come to the theater in their play clothes then change into their fancy stage clothes to perform. Then after they had sung their two or three songs, change back into their play clothes and go outback of the theater and play kickball or football. Uncle Jimmy worked as a telephone engineer for the telephone company for over thirty years. The rest of the time he worked doing everything from hosting the show to repairing the plumbing.

Lynda Smith is now in charge of putting the shows together, booking the talent, setting up the schedule, choosing the songs and the hundred and one details that go into creating a new show every two weeks. Lynda does this in addition to raising to young boys and working as the General Operations Manager of the Mathews Land Conservancy.

The show is not a big money maker. It depends on sponsorships and the gate to pay expenses. It is a legacy of country music carried out by Jimmy Wickham Smith, Harriet Ann Farmer, Joanna Mullis, Betsy Ripley and the succeeding generations of family and friends, all sharing their love of music and the fellowship of singing and playing together. Lynda Smith brings an energy and enthusiasm to the show that is infectious. Lynda not only sings several songs during the different shows, but she sings along with the performers, ready to pick it up when some of the younger performers stumble. When her brother Richard comes on stage, the air is charged with the electricity he brings to his performances. In a recent skit with Steve Motley, he did the John Belushi part of a Blues Brothers song while Steve did the Dan Aykroyd part. Anthony Lee Wood did a show last May during which he sang a stunning duet with Lynda Smith of the song You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.

The music is provided by the house band, the Shades of Country. Dedicated artists, young and old, have made the Opry their passion. The dedication is obvious. Young performer Leigh Ann Abbott recently appeared just a few days after being injured in a soccer game. She had to be carried up to the stage and walked on using her crutches. Despite her infirmity, she belted out two songs.

Lynda recalls her brother at one time wearing high-waisted white satin pants and a sequined teal jacket while he did his Elvis Presley impersonation. Lynda said it always tore the house down. She credits her brother with being her mentor and teaching her about performing without her really knowing how much she was learning. Lynda’s mom runs the ticket booth and joins in singing on some of the shows.

The Virginia Li’l Ole Opry is a uniquely wonderful institution that brings together talented, fun loving people who love to sing and entertain with people who enjoy country music. It appeals to young and old alike. The joy it brings to the audience is evidenced by the clapping and singing along to old favorites. The talent shows make it possible for young performers to showcase their talent. Talent show winners often wind up as regulars on the various shows. The annual Christmas show is a part of the Christmas season for generations of folks living in Mathews, Gloucester, Richmond and Middlesex Counties. Next year the Opry will be celebrating its 40th year. There are plans in the making to have it be the best year ever for Viginia’s Li’l Ole Opry.

Lynda says, “We do what we know, just like we were sitting around our living room singing and playing.” It is obvious just talking with Lynda that the Opry is a labor of love and a passion she shares with her own family and the family that is Virginia’s Li’l Ole Opry.

For a period of about ten years, Lynda Smith had her own band. She and the band performed as the opening act for some famous country artists and gigs around Virginia. She also has created a music production company.

Donk’s is a National Historic site and is recognized by the National Historic Registry. For more information and a schedule of shows, go to their website at www.donkstheater.com or call for tickets at (804) 725-7760.

A Saturday evening at Donk’s is a must see event for the whole family, and one that is bound to become a family tradition. Donk’s is a special place and talking about people like Uncle Jimmy, Lynda Smith and the Shades of Country brings to mind something Johnny Cash once said about being in the business of country music. “This business I’m in is different. It’s special. The people around me feel like brothers and sisters. We hardly know each other, but we’re that close; somehow there’s been an immediate bonding between total strangers. We share each other’s triumphs, and when one of us gets hurt, we all bleed - it’s corny, I know, but it’s true. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. 
It’s great. It turns up the heat in life.”