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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Jack McClanahan involved with Trail since beginning

Jack McClanahan (center in the orange shirt) plays Devil Judd. (photo by Ron Flanary)
Jack McClanahan (center in the orange shirt) plays Devil Judd. (photo by Ron Flanary)

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 01, 2015

"It was the heaven-born site for the unborn city of his dreams, and his eyes swept every curve of the valley lovingly. The two forks of the river ran around it- he could follow their course by the trees that lined the banks of each- curving within a stone's throw of each other across the valley and then looping away as from the neck of an ancient lute and, like its framework, coming together again down the valley, where they surged together, slipped through the hills and sped on with the song of a sweeping river." — John Fox Jr., The Trail of the Lonesome Pine

This passage describes John (Jack) Hale's feelings about Big Stone Gap, Virginia, but it could also describe Jack McClanahan's love for his hometown.

McClanahan has played every male role in "Trail of the Lonesome Pine," is the president of the Lonesome Pine Arts and Crafts Association, and works tirelessly to develop sustainable opportunities in the region. He's only the second president of the organization. Barbara Polly served as its president from 1963 until January of this year. "We couldn't have carried it on all these years without her. This has been her life's blood," he says.

He was a child when his parents helped get the drama started and was in the first cast. "I felt obligated to carry forward with the things my parents had spent half their lives with," he says. "I guess that's why they asked me. It's so much a part of our heritage."

McClanahan remembers the germination of the drama. "Virgil Q. Wacks had a variety show at 9 on WCYB every Sunday morning," he remembers. "He had a little Super 8 movie camera, and he filmed every new gas pump at any little gas station and every little minute detail. My father was commissioner of revenue for Wise County. Virgil Q. came in up there and said, "Jack, there's an outfit down in Kentucky that's wanting to make an outdoor drama of that book John Fox wrote. That needs to be in Big Stone.' That was in the fall of 1962."

In December, McClanahan and his parents went to a garden Christmas show organized by Clara Louise Kelly. "The gym was full of flower arrangements. Viewing it from a child's eye view, I can see my mama poking pappy in the ribs going "Tell her, tell her about what Virgil Q said.' That got the ball rolling."

At the new year, his family went to the Tolliver House which was "a mess." A group got together and began to fix the house. They also got in touch with John Fox's sisters about adapting the book into a play.

"They had been so disgruntled with the "Hollywoodization' of the movie from the book, that my parents almost had to sign an affidavit that they would stay strictly by the book," McClanahan says. The 1936 movie varied greatly from the book and "it left a horrible taste in the Fox family's mouths."

His parents and their friends contacted Earl Hobson Smith, an English professor at Lincoln Memorial University, to write the play.

That occurred in the summer of 1964. They built the stage, the backdrop, which still stands today, and a tunnel area behind it in 32 days.

"You can't realize history when you're living it," he says. "I was just 14 at this point and every church, every civic organization pulled together and pulled this thing off. It was just a crystal moment to see everything coming together. Thereafter, I spent every summer with it, growing up. The first year, I didn't even want to be on stage. I was happy working with the sets and moving scenery. A guy had a small part and he had to be gone, so I did three nights of Willy that year. I did that role for three years, and then Young Dave and Bad Rufe. I've done all the male characters, but my greatest interest was being back stage."

"I do love it in honor of my parents. My mother ran the Tolliver House for 35 years, and she didn't even drive. She was responsible for getting the volunteers down there. We lived two miles out of town on a farm. I don't know how we did it. We came home at night after the show, sat on the front porch and broke beans. She'd can all day with one ear on the phone, trying to get people down there to man the house all summer long. Somehow we did it. We didn't take vacations, just worked the farm and the garden. As I look back on it, I do not understand how we got all that done, but somehow it all came about.

"Others have come and gone, and we've sustained. It's been through the dedication of Barbara Polly and Clara Louise Kelly. I give credit to them," he says.

This is the 52nd season of "Trail of the Lonesome Pine," which is the official drama of Virginia. "I've heard there's 106 outdoor dramas going on, and this is one of the top five oldest being continually produced. And it's all done by volunteers. I think it's a yearning to tell the story, a yearning to participate in something that's bigger than any individual, and something that's become such a tradition.

"I know that it's been waning as far as the number of participants in the play. In the early "70s, we'd have 150. Now we're lucky to have 50. In this push button world, we stand in front of a microwave and holler hurry. I think one of the biggest reasons for the demise of outdoor drama is air conditioning. We go from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned work place or school, and we've grown to expect our entertainment to be air conditioned. The days of sitting on the front porch to catch an evening breeze is an endangered activity."

However, "The Trail's" venue seats 335 and is still going strong.

McClanahan isn't on stage this year, but he'll be working backstage. He says that his favorite roles have changed with age. "I thoroughly enjoyed doing Young Dave. For the past several years I've been playing Devil Judd (June Tolliver's father) and I feel like I'm getting too old for that."

He doesn't have a great deal of time to devote to it this season not that that will stop McClanahan. His current project is to develop trails as an economic engine to provide something for visitors to do and to encourage tourism. He is hoping that the community can capitalize on the excitement from "Big Stone Gap," the movie. "I'm looking for things that are sustainable after the movie is over. I'm looking for things that we can have long term, that people can come to visit and see and experience," he says.

Whether it's offstage or onstage, McClanahan (whom most people call Jack Mac) will be working diligently to preserve the culture and heritage of his community and to ensure that it thrives in the future.

>> June Tolliver House is a registered landmark and museum

Topics: Theatre