October 9, 2008

Accountant Gets Large Return on Musical Theater


FYI * Shows at the American Mountain Theater, 49 Martin St., Elkins, begin at 7:30 p.m. and run Mondays through Saturdays in October. Tickets are $22. Call 800-943-3670 or visit www.american mountaintheater.com.

ELKINS - Funny man and sometimes money man Kenny Sexton has struck on an entertainment formula that has him laughing all the way to the bank.

The 30-year certified public accountant from Arkansas runs a music theater in the middle of this town's historic railyard that fast became a hit with tourists and is steadily catching on with locals.

American Mountain Theater's high-energy cast covers country, pop, patriotic, bluegrass and gospel tunes and performs several original tunes penned by members. There are comedy sketches and comic impersonations of pop icons and country music stars.

The revue reaches full steam this month, when it plays every night except Sunday to accommodate leaf peepers enjoying autumn's splendor. After October, it's back to weekends only until the Christmas shows, which are the most popular.

In January, the troupe takes the show on the road to Canaan Valley Resort. They will perform eight shows at the ski retreat.

"It's a good way to cover our overhead in wintertime," Sexton said.

In season, the theater sets up packages with the Durbin- Greenbrier Railroad so tourists can ride the train and then take in a show.

"I call this show a Branson-style show, a Pigeon Forge style show," Sexton said. "It's a G-rated, family live music and comedy show. We don't have anything off-color."

Nancy Weese and her daughter, Heather, both of Elkins, have seen similar shows in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

"This is better," Nancy Weese said after a recent performance. "It's hard to believe you're sitting in Elkins."

Open just 14 months in its new $1.7 million 527-seat auditorium, American Mountain Theater is "meeting or exceeding my projections for this year, which means we will actually make a little money," Sexton said.

Sexton, an accountant, said the operation broke even last year despite having opened in July instead of May. Last year, the theater was the state's No. 1 motorcoach destination with 131 tour buses parking at its door.

"This year we will approach if not hit 250 groups," Sexton said.

Sexton has his eye on more than the bottom line. It's a family business.

During intermission, the performers operate the souvenir sales or stand in front of the stage to meet and greet the audience. After the show, they form a receiving line in the lobby to shake hands as the crowd leaves.

More than that, half of the cast is related in some way.

Sexton's wife, Beverly, and Beverly's sister, Susie Heckel, the theater's founder - both Elkins natives - are in the cast. So was their father, William "Pee Wee" Heckel, who died on Father's Day. Jeremiah and Joel Franks perform alongside their father, musical director Denny Franks. The remaining cast members are Ishah Marie, a singer and dancer from Nacogdoches, Texas; fiddler John Cochran; Davis & Elkins adjunct music professor Seth Maynard on bass guitar and vocals; and West Virginia Wesleyan College music professor Mark Hamrick on lead guitar and vocals.

Sexton and Denny Franks sing, emcee and play piano and play off each other in comedy bits. Joel Franks plays drums and sings. His brother Jeremiah sings, plays acoustic guitar and does tons of comic impersonations - Michael Jackson and John Travolta included.

All have extensive performing backgrounds.

"These are not amateurs who work here," Sexton said.

Denny Franks has 12 years under his belt at the Pierce Arrow Show in Branson, Mo. Before that he worked for Wayne Newton and Roy Clark. Early on, he sang the third vocal part in PeeWee Heckel's trio, The Heckels, that included Beverly. They were regulars on the Wheeling Jamboree and had RCA recording contracts. Susie Heckel has been on the Grand Ole Opry.

The Sexton Trio sings many of the 150 original gospel songs penned by Beverly Sexton, who has had several become hit recordings for other artists. And Jeremiah sings "In This Light," a song written by his father and submitted to "American Idol" to be the spotlight tune.

Sexton is not new to entertaining or to the music theater business.

"I had a show like this in Eureka Springs, Ark., a tourist town 40 miles from Branson, the world capital of live music shows. There are over 100 shows going at any time."

Sexton had Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down Music Theater for three years until he sold it and moved on with his life as a CPA.

Then Beverly's sister, Susie, started this show.

"She calls me in 2002 and I told her she was nuts. I don't see how in the world it can work. We began to help her. First I helped her get the corporation set up because I was a CPA. Then we decided to buy her some brochures to help her out. My wife and I got drawn in financially."

In 2006 Sexton suggested Susie move the show six miles into town and he found land in the middle of West Virginia's new tourism boom - the historic Elkins railyard where a hotel has gone in, a railroad museum is to be built and a railway-themed restaurant is planned.

Originally published by FOR THE DAILY MAIL.

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