A Mountain Theater
It’s Branson-style music meets von Trapp-like dynamics at American Mountain Theater (AMT) in Elkins, where Kenny Sexton, his wife Beverly, her sister Susie, and their adult children, family, and friends put on more than 200 live music and comedy variety shows in front of more than 30,000 visitors every year. The theater opened nearly 10 years ago and, today, is a cultural gem in a $2 million, 12,784-square-foot brick facility in Elkins’ historic rail yard.
Born and raised in Elkins, Beverly and Susie have been in show business ever since they were young girls and regular cast members of the Wheeling Jamboree. "Bev and Susie have been playing and singing music since they could talk," Kenny says, a bona fide musician himself who's been playing piano for gospel quartets since he was 12. "My heart's desire was always to make a living in the music business." His dream has come true with what he calls their "almost to the extreme" family owned and operated theater.
The sisters made their way from West Virginia to Nashville, as part of The Heckels music group, and then on to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, just 40 miles from Branson, where they ran a theater and eventually crossed paths with Kenny. He'd found his way into the music business, after practicing as a certified public accountant for 36 years, by purchasing a show similar to AMT's that he'd done accounting work for. He ran that show for a few years, retired for a while, got back into accounting, did a little farming, and in the meantime, Susie moved home to Elkins. "One day, Susie called us and said she was going to start a music show. She had a vision of being the only theater in West Virginia that featured Branson-style music." She got people together, opened the theater, filed for corporation in October 2002, and by 2003, the Christmas Spectacular was live. Kenny and Beverly helped as much as they could from Arkansas, and in 2006, Kenny took on full-ownership of the theater and its new facility in the historic Elkins railyard. He and Beverly moved to West Virginia in early 2007, and by that July, American Mountain Theater was officially open in its new facility.
AMT has seen nothing but growth in its 10 years of business. The Christmas show is one of the most popular shows every year, Kenny says, "partly because everyone wants to get in the spirit and partly because it is a very seasonally limited show." In their first year, AMT did 12 Christmas shows; this year, they have 25 shows scheduled. They often perform to sold out crowds on the weekends and expect the 31,000 people they had in the audiences in 2011 to take a massive jump this year to a total audience count as big as 60,000 to 80,000 attendees, particularly because of the new TV show they aired nationwide earlier this year.
On New Year’s Day 2012, the AMT family ramped things up when they launched a weekly music show on RFD-TV, a network that reaches more than 41 million homes across the country. Airing Sundays at 7 p.m. EST and Thursdays at 6 p.m. EST, AMT’s TV show harkens back to the Saturday afternoon music shows you used to be able to watch decades ago. It’s a lot of work to produce the live TV segments, all of which are produced in-house, but "it's been worthwhile," Kenny says. "Ever since we started AMT, I always had it in the back of my mind to get on TV for the purpose of promoting our venue and our town as a destination. I never really had time to think about it, though." Then in 2011, with just one call to an RFD-TV program director, Kenny sent a DVD of the show, waited less than a month, and had a call back from the vice president saying, "Yes, yes, yes, we want you." Kenny says, "We went from not existing on air to being one of the top 10 shows on RFD."
The show has certainly garnered the family and their variety show more attention than they ever could have anticipated and just in time, too, as Kenny says, "The area of Elkins is poised to explode." He and his daughter, Meggan, vice president of operations at the theater, have been working since 2008 on developing vacation packages with area businesses like hotels, restaurants, and the trains, to bring people into the area for overnight trips and longer stays. "Travelers can call the theater and we will book every single part of their trip for them," Meggan says. "It has been a hugely successful endeavor for us. We find when people want to go on a trip, they want a nice itinerary but don't want to think about what they want to do, so we take care of it for them." AMT's vacation packaging revenue is up 178% from where it was at the same time last year, and visitors have taken such advantage of the service that AMT has expanded their partnerships to Weston, Tucker County, Canaan Valley, and even the Green Bank area. "We really try to cover the bases and spread the wealth as much as we can," Kenny says.
The family gets a lot of "who's playing tonight" inquiries because people don't necessarily understand what the family does at AMT. The theater boasts its own in-house cast of professional entertainers with years of experience in the industry. "They are absolutely top notch entertainers, some of the best in the business," Kenny says. The cast puts on live music and comedy variety shows, including everything from Johnny Cash to the Doobie Brothers to Michael Jackson, as well as country, bluegrass, and gospel music and comic skits and impersonations. The season runs April through December, with exceptions in November when the cast is rehearsing for the Christmas show. In May, the shows run Thursday through Saturday, and June through September, visitors can catch a show Wednesday through Saturday. In the fall, AMT opens six days a week.
While the family's ultimate goal is to bring people in for the ever-popular Christmas Spectacular, History of American Music Show, and Southern Gospel Concert Series, Kenny says, “The best way to get people here is to promote Elkins. We want people to come visit, see what the town is doing, enjoy a show, stay overnight, and ride the Durbin and Greenbrier railroad.” The TV show helps, having brought people from all over the country. Kenny says, "We hoped for that but had no idea how successful it would be.”
Visit AMT online for ticket pricing and a full calendar of showtimes.