When I was young, I worked two summer seasons in the box office at the outdoor drama Tecumseh. That was many years ago and while I have been to some shows since, it had been a long time since my last visit.
The show is celebrating its 50th season this year and I knew I had to go back.
Driving up the lane to Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheater felt a little like going home. I spent a lot of hours there. At lunchtime I often just sat in my car in the tiered gravel parking lot. I would eat lunch and read while savoring the quiet. This was a far cry from the environment I experienced for the rest of my workday.
That’s because I sat in a small box office with typically four or five other people and the phone rang constantly for most of the summer.
We were one of the most popular outdoor dramas in the country at a time when there was some truly stiff competition in the industry. I spoke to people from all over the country and often all over the world as they called to purchase tickets.
We kept a list of the states and countries where people came from every year and it was impressive.
Although it always surprised me that local people didn’t really support the show as much as it seemed they should. After all, it tells the story of their past – of the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and Chalahgawtha, the place that white settlers would call Chillicothe. I was more likely to speak with someone from another state than from Chillicothe or the surrounding area.
Some of the actors were from Ohio but most came from other places. It was a large cast – a mix of professionals who traveled and college students who returned to class when the season ended.
Those were good times. My friends in the box office made a good team and they introduced me to modern country music. George Strait’s Blue Clear Sky always takes me back to that little room with stools that faced out into a pavilion that would be packed most nights of the season.
However, this was the job that taught me to hate the sound of a ringing phone. I could recite our rain policy in my sleep. Things weren’t computerized yet so the tickets were kept in these big wooden custom ticket holders on the wall – we used paper seating charts to keep track. By mid summer, we were busy on weeknights and selling out the weekends. The theater seats 1600 people and, by the end of the season, we were standing room only.
Yeah, those were good times.
Everything is computerized now so those old wooden ticket holders are gone but the box office looks mostly the same. The gift shop hasn’t really changed and it felt like a bit of a time warp.
I made a day of it starting with the afternoon backstage tour. Three cast members took turns showing us around the stage area, demonstrating weapons, showing us hand-to-hand combat techniques and talking about how the fake blood works. I always recommended this tour to anyone bringing youngsters to help prepare them for the potentially scary battle scenes.
You also get a closer look at the manmade pond that is an important part of the set. There are fish, frogs and even dragonflies. After dark, you’ll likely see some bats circling too.
The performance starts at 8 p.m. so it’s near dusk at showtime and almost completely dark by intermission.
The best thing about this theater is that the stage wraps up along the sides of the seating. This not only expands the performance area but also makes the audience feel fully immersed in the action. It also means that almost every seat has a great view and a different perspective.
People always called the box office looking for the best seats but I always wanted a different seat than I had before. Hint: the only seats I don’t like are the ones close to the stage. They’re too close and it’s hard to appreciate all the stuff happening off to the side. Personally, I prefer the middle to back of house for the best perspective.
You can’t take pictures during the performance so you’ll have to trust me when I say the show is pretty spectacular. It tells a compelling story and is visually impressive. A couple of scenes give me chills every single time.
By the way, it was written by the great Allen Eckert and narrated by the one and only Graham Greene. His voice is iconic.
What I didn’t realize is that we are fortunate they made it to 50 years. Several years ago, they were in financial straits, had lost a lot of employees and the future was not guaranteed.
The Scioto Society, the nonprofit that owns the operation, brought in a former producer named Marion Waggoner to help figure out how to save the show. Marion was the show’s revered producer when I worked there. They eventually hired Brandon Smith away from the Lost Colony down in North Carolina. Brandon is a local guy who was also with the company when I worked there. He is the current producer.
I cannot imagine the literal blood, sweat and tears that many, many people have put into reviving Tecumseh and keeping it going. My hat is off to them. I am grateful to still have it here and need to make a greater effort to support it more regularly.
If you’re thinking about going, better act now! The season ends soon! Click here for tickets and for details. They also periodically host other plays and live music so be sure to look out for those events too. Finally, there is a ton of fun stuff to do in Chillicothe and the surrounding area. Make a day or even a few days and enjoy the area.