My daughter was one of the first employees of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater Attraction (yes, you need all those words) when it opened in Branson—1996, as I recall. It’s advertised as unique, and for a fact I’d never seen anything like it. The audience sits in long rows before plank tables with a sawdust arena serving as the stage. The two sides of the horseshoe-shaped seating area are designated North and South, and the servers dress in blue and gray uniforms.
The show, like every Branson show I’ve seen, was noisy, corny, and various: trick horse-riding, musical numbers, broad comedy, and animal acts (like ostrich races and buffalo “stampedes”). At the beginning, the entire cast, including servers, marched out to “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Then the servers scattered and raced to the kitchen to bring out the first course, which they slammed down on the long tables that made up their section. Audience participation took up the space between show numbers, carrying on a “friendly rivalry between north and south” with events like chicken-chasing and toilet-seat horseshoe tosses. Servers also performed as cheerleaders, stirring up their side to cheer louder than the other. (My daughter says it was a real workout–she was always either running or yelling.)
It was dumb. It was also really fun.
Last summer Alysha Harris, culture writer for Slate, visited the original Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and was appalled. Two considerations: Ms. Harris is black, and the week she attended the show was right around the time of the fracas in Charlottesville. That said, her review was harsh. She actually bought two tickets, to experience both sides, and noted that the Southern side was definitely more boisterous. Though there were very few African Americans in the audience, everyone she talked to was friendly and cheerful. Meanwhile a bizarre retelling of history played out before them, based on the “lost cause” myth of the gracious southern way of life that’s Gone with the.Wind. Her review ended this way:
Dolly’s Dixie Stampede has been a success not just because people love Dolly Parton, but because the South has always been afforded the chance to rewrite its own history—not just through its own efforts, but through the rest of the country turning a blind eye. Even though the South is built upon the foundation of slavery, a campy show produced by a well-meaning country superstar can make-believe it’s not. We’d prefer to pretend, to let our deepest sins be transmuted into gauzy kitsch—and no one blinks an eye because that’s what they truly want.
And don’t forget, “Birth of a Nation was once the biggest box-office hit of all time, and Gone with the Wind still is.” Ms. Harris published her review in August and requested comment from Dolly Parton’s corporate office. The PR department replied that they were considering, and this week they announced the removal of “Dixie” from the name of the attraction. Ms. Harris sees the chiseling of Dixie as a start, but notes that the friendly rivalry theme is still offensive, even more the “fantasy of the Lost Cause.”
I have no investment in “Dixie Stampede” and whether they keep the name is of no concern to me. I appreciate that Alysha Harris’s perspective is far more weighted than mine—even though the ol’ plantation part of the show felt squirrely to me, too—and would just put forward a few points. For the sake of conversation, not rivalry, friendly or otherwise.
- The south is not built on the foundation of slavery. I’ll grant that it was (even though the vast majority of southerners in 1861 did not own slaves), but it is not now. The bloodiest war in our history destroyed it, and the southern economy, at a cost of half a million lives at least. Unfortunately the war did not end racial oppression, but those old roots have shriveled and though racist attitudes sadly remain, times have changed.
- Likewise, Birth of a Nation can’t be mentioned without being in the same breath condemned. Once it won Oscars. Now 12 Years a Slave wins Oscars. Times have changed.
- The slap-happy ending of the Stampede show, that we’re all friends now, is kitschy but true. We are all friends now, even if the political rhetoric is superheated at the moment.
- Does the typical ticket-buyer to Dolly Parton’s Stampede still buy the Lost Cause myth? I doubt it. If a few die-hards remain in the audience, they won’t remain long. Old myths are dying out and new ones taking their place, like the environmental spiritualism of native Americans and the innate wisdom of every ethnic group but white Europeans. Real history is complicated and tangled, and myths don’t help us sort it out on any side.
- Finally, the audience isn’t there to see their deepest sins transmuted in gauzy kitsch. They are there to have a good time.
What I truly want is reconciliation, desperately, for the sake of “my people” and “your people.” That won’t happen unless we give each other a little grace. Slavery was indeed our deepest sin and the Civil War was a great tragedy. It also occurred 150 years ago. There may be a time and place to not take it so seriously–or something like it may happen again.