This is a story about a story.
The story is “Unto These Hills,” the live outdoor drama held in Cherokee every year since 1950, now ready to kick off its 2019 season on June 1.
To say it’s been a success is quite an understatement; more than 6 million people have seen “Unto These Hills” during its uninterrupted decades-long run.
The story of “Unto These Hills” recounts Cherokee history up to the Trail of Tears. The original script written by Kermit Hunter has seen revisions over the years to update it for cultural sensitivity and historical accuracy, but the latest revamped version largely sticks to his script, written to be performed live under the stars.
It’s a gripping, emotional and sometimes tragic tale. But the story behind the story is just as fascinating.
It’s fair to say “Unto These Hills” has been a family affair. The longest-running performer, Lizzie Hull, spent more than four decades onstage, with various members of her family being fixtures in or around the production for additional decades.
It’s tough to calculate how many people have performed in the show, as the cast size has ranged from well over 100 down to around 50 and currently stands at around 80. Multiply that by 70 years and it’s a safe bet that you’ll bump into someone associated with “Unto These Hills” on a stroll through Cherokee.
Famous alumni of “Unto These Hills” reportedly include “Smallville” actor Michael Rosenbaum, who played Lex Luthor; sitcom star Polly Holliday of “Alice” fame; Ben Jones, who played Cooter on “The Dukes of Hazzard” before winning a seat in Congress; and Adam Richman of “Man vs. Food.”
Live theatre always has its risks.
Live theatre outdoors in the Great Smoky Mountains carries an extra challenge, one that depends on what mood Mother Nature is in on a given night.
“A few years back, around 2010 or 2011,” said Cherokee Historical Association Executive Director John Tissue, “we were rained out most of the week of July 4, losing four of six nights at the peak of the season.”
Then there was the earthquake.
Western North Carolina is no stranger to small temblors, and during a climactic battle scene during Tissue’s first season in Cherokee a little more than a decade ago, he was manning the box office when he heard “a monster crash. I thought a tour bus had hit the box office. I ran outside and it was dead silent – not a bird chirping, no sound but the show. The Cherokee Police called and asked if I needed help evacuating, and I wondered from what. That’s the first I heard it was an earthquake.
“My grandmother happened to be in the audience for that show, and she asked how we got the sound of the battle so real. I said it was the magic of the theatre.”
Speaking of the audience, that’s also a family affair when it comes to “Unto These Hills.”
The production began during the age of the great American family vacation, when folks traveled by car to spend a few days at various destinations. “Textile mills in Georgia and South Carolina would rotate and take two weeks off in the summer, and about half would go to the beach and half would come to the Smokies,” Tissue said. “The postwar baby boom generation, that was our audience. We still have that core group. The average customer is between 45 and 65. We still get a lot of people coming down the corridors from Cincinnati to Knoxville. A lot of the traditional audience comes from traditional Cherokee homelands.”
The “Unto These Hills” fan base also has an international flavor. “Germans and the English have a huge fascination with native Americans,” Tissue said. “And lately we’ve seen a lot of Chinese visitors at Oconaluftee Village. It’s not a huge chunk of the visitor base, but it’s been fairly regular.”
Tissue said that while some tourists ask stereotypically uninformed questions regarding Cherokee – such as “where are the teepees?” or “where is the reservation?” – what has stood out for him is how people connect with the story of the Cherokee on a deeply emotional level.
He has a ruined suit to prove it.
“One lady who saw the production for the first time was so moved by the story of the Trail of Tears, she was hugging everyone she could,” he said. “She was crying and hugged me and left her mascara on my jacket.”
Keeping up with changing cultural mores while honoring historical and cultural accuracy, all while packing the story in a fast-paced drama, has been a labor of love, but one that’s paid off, Tissue said.
“The story of the Cherokee is more than the story of the trail,” Tissue said. “It’s the tale of a living, breathing, expanding culture.
“And it’s a story extremely important, a story about human rights and what happens when people are discriminated against. There’s no better illustration of how that can go wrong than the Cherokee. We’ve been down this road, and we’re doomed to repeat history if we can’t tell that story.”
Looking down the road, Tissue hopes to see improvements and expansion of the Cherokee cultural district, and perhaps even a venue not subject to the whims of the weather.
But for now … well, it’s showtime.
UNTO THESE HILLS: A PRIMER
DEBUT: July 1, 1950.
AUDIENCE: More than 6 million.
VENUE: 2,100-seat, newly renovated Mountainside Theatre.
2019 SEASON: June 1 to August 17.
SHOWTIMES: 8 p.m. nightly, closed on Sundays. 10 a.m. matinees on July 17, 20, 31 and August 3.
ADMISSION PRICES: Adults $28; children 6-12 $18; children 5 and under free.