“From performing for an audience of two or three to one of standing room only in three short years is nothing short of a miracle. It is a miracle that I am truly thankful for,” said Susie Heckel Teter, founder of the American Mountain Theater. “There were trying and meager times, but I had a God-given vision of what I could do and what he wanted me to do, and I would not give up. I felt that God had already warned me of this — the hard times — but with the vision he had given me, I knew my efforts would eventually meet success. With the help of my family, hard work and the achievements of this past season, I believe we have reached the first level of success. While I want the theater to prosper and become an important part of the local economy, my real purpose is to bring to those who come to see the show a fun-filled couple of hours where they can forget the burdens of daily life and perhaps receive an inspiration from God as well.”
Heckel Teter’s dream began to take shape in October 2002 when she incorporated the business.
“When I began my journey toward the accomplishment of my dream, I had no idea where I would find a theater,” Heckel Teter said. “I went to my father-in-law, Lloyd Teter, and told him of my ambition. I asked him if he had, or knew of, a building somewhere that I could use. He told me if I could come up with the manpower, resources, supplies and equipment to bring the building up to code, I could use the building located along the Beverly Five-lane that the Army Reserve had recently vacated.”
She and her husband, Jerry, and anyone else they could commandeer, worked day and night getting the building ready. It took them nearly all of 2003 to complete the work and were finally ready for their first performance in late November.
“I’m not sure exactly when we gave our first performance there,” Heckel Teter said. “About half of those shows were our regular format and half were of the Christmas format.”
During that first brief season and those that followed in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the AMT cast gave approximately 104 performances in the old theater. The last show performed there was on Oct. 31, 2006.
“We planned to have a Christmas show that year, but things were beginning to take shape for the construction of our new facility in the Elkins railyard, and there just wasn’t enough time to do it all. We cancelled the Christmas shows.”
The theater had no money for advertising and most learned of the performances by word-of-mouth.
“The several times we performed to an audience of only two or three, we performed as though it were a standing room only crowd,” Heckel Teter said. “We gave them our very best as we would have to a full house. I firmly believe that our desire to perform our best for everyone paid off.”
At the time, Kenny Sexton, AMT president and producer who is also married to Heckel Teter’s sister, Beverly, said, “My wife, Beverly and I were in Arkansas with no intention of coming to West Virginia to go into show business. Every evening after a performance, Susie would call and give us an update on the evening’s attendance. During those times when there was hardly anyone in attendance, I would think, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ Then in 2005 and 2006, attendance began to pick up and Susie kept telling us that it was going to work. In 2006, we became convinced and made the decision to come to Elkins and ‘give it a try.’ My experience with show business in Arkansas had convinced me that I had a good entertainment product. It would be a matter of keeping it operating until the public was convinced.”
According to Sexton, construction of the new theater began in November 2006. Work was sporadic during the remainder of the winter because of inclement weather. Finally in early summer, the weather began to cooperate and on July 27 the new $1.7 million facility received its certificate of occupancy and later that evening opened for the first public performance. Most of the attendees for those early shows were tour groups arriving by bus. The local community still had a “let’s wait and see” attitude. While attendance of the locals was beginning to increase slowly, it wasn’t what Sexton wanted. He continued to search for ways to convince the local populace that the show was one of extremely high-quality, family entertainment. The “wait-and-see” attitude changed on Nov. 10, 2007, with the celebrated grand opening, which included Gov. and Mrs. Manchin’s reception. In addition to the governor and first lady, invitations went out to other dignitaries and community leaders throughout the state as well as many local invitations. From that evening until the close of the season, the theater filled.
I asked Sexton what he could tell us about the upcoming season without giving away any trade secrets and he said, “Exciting. We are excited about this year’s show. This year’s cast will be about the same as last year; no one quit and no one was fired. We are looking for a utility musician, however. Last year Buddy Griffin from Glenville State College helped when he could. He said he’d love to be in the show again this year but his responsibilities at the college won’t permit it.
“Beverly has written two new gospel songs,” Sexton said, “one of which Susie will sing, that is an emotion feature titled ‘When Your Baby Has a Baby.’ It’s about being a grandparent. We tapped another great songwriter, Albert E. Brumley, for one of his gospel songs that we’ll use to close the first half of the show.”
“We’ll have some of the best music ever,” Beverly added.
I asked if Jeremiah (Franks) would be up to his usual antics. Sexton said he would be doing something with a kitchen appliance again this season but he wouldn’t say what.
When asked what he’d like to accomplish this year, he replied, “Last year we had 131 buses come to the theater. This year, we are looking to have over 300. We already have more booked for the upcoming season than we had all last year. I would also like to see what I call the retail business (individuals in groups of 12 or less that come on their own) flourish.” Sexton said, “With nearly 2 million people in West Virginia, and all those in the population centers along the East Coast a short four-hour drive away, we should have three to four times as many retail customers as bus groups. We would like to see 30,000 visitors this year.
“Being close to the excursion railroad provides easy and convenient access to another wonderful venue of entertainment, too,” Sexton said. “When I began construction on the theater, I didn’t realize that the railroad was going to be right at our front door. I was uneasy about how the folks running it would accept us. I approached them about doing joint advertising and they welcomed us with open arms.
“We are facing some hurdles, though,” Sexton said. “Being close to the Holiday Inn (Express) is a great advantage, but we are going to need more motel rooms — soon. The opening of the new Hampton Inn in May will be a big help. Tour groups are used to destinations that have plenty of spacious accommodations and they want them close by. After an evening of dining and entertainment, they don’t want to take a long bus ride to get back to their hotel/motel room. Some days we have five buses — that’s 500 people. I’m already having tour companies asking about bringing people in but they say they can’t get rooms. If there aren’t rooms, people aren’t going to come.
“Completion of the West Virginia Railroad Museum (now the proposed combined WVRRM and Mountain State Forest Festival Museum) will also be a great addition to the area,” Sexton said. “That will provide yet another venue of entertainment that’s close by. Completion of the restaurant that’s under construction will provide a convenient place to dine. I think we need more gift shops, too. People love gift shops where they can purchase mementoes of their visit. These are growing pains of the kind we look forward to.”
The 2008 season will open on Feb. 29.