If country music has a sacred place, it’s the Grand Ole Opry. One country reference book compares it to the importance of the Vatican to the Catholic church. The Opry’s role in the development of and continuing popularity of country music, as well as Nashville’s establishment and growth as the music’s primary home, is unmistakable. That’s not even counting its status as the world’s oldest continuously running live entertainment show. For over 90 years, it’s been broadcast over WSM Nashville, with a nighttime reach that covers over half the United States.
This year’s offering from the talented seniors known as The Mature Mob mines this territory with A Night at the Opry.
Patty Natale, the show’s director, cites a trip to Nashville last year as inspiration: “My sisters and our husbands went to the Grand Ole Opry. Even though we’re not big country and western music fans, we enjoyed the show tremendously. We turned to each other and said, ‘This would make a great play for the Mature Mob.’ When we got home, we listened to the Opry’s archives to get ideas. We discovered it wasn’t just country, there was a variety of other styles, like gospel, blues, rock and folk music...from Elvis to Joan Baez. They just have fun and they love everybody. The Opry does not discriminate.”
It’s that upbeat atmosphere that Patty seeks to re-create, saying, “This is a relaxed format, where everyone in the cast and chorus can be themselves, sing to their heart’s content and have fun.” Patty acts as the show’s hostess, “Calamity Patty,” and with her husband, Joe Natale, co-wrote the script. The disc jockey, who makes announcements and introductions throughout the show, is played by WMAY talk show host Jim Leach.
Despite the Opry’s wide array of musical forms, the dominant music here is, as expected, country, with classic tunes, many of which have also long established themselves with pop audiences, such as “Crazy,” “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Stand By Your Man” and “Welcome To My World.” Gospel music is also represented with the likes of “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and “Church in the Wildwood.”
There’s also “Amazing Grace.” But it isn’t in A Night at the Opry just because of its status as probably the most-beloved hymn ever. It’s also a tribute to four veteran Mobsters who have died in the past year. Don Bailey directed 10 shows for the Mob, including last year’s “A Salute to Broadway.” Just over a month after that show, he died. Deanna Langheim and Julia Sutton, between them, appeared in over 30 shows; Dorothy Nydegger, a member of the tap-dancing “Shufflin’ Seniors,” tapped her way through three shows. “Amazing Grace” and this show, are dedicated to them.
This is the Mob’s 26th season and, while individual country songs have been part of many of those shows, one devoted to country is a Mob first.
From its beginnings in 1991, the Mature Mob, besides providing an outlet for seniors who can sing, dance, act and clown, has raised money for Senior Services of Central Illinois. As with all nonprofits, SSCI and the Senior Center found rough going in the last couple of years because of the state budget crisis. With that having finally been resolved earlier this summer, things have improved slightly. SSCI and the Senior Center recently reopened on Fridays after nearly two years of four-day-a-week operation.
But they still need money and, as it has for the last quarter-century, the Mature Mob provides an entertaining way of raising it, while celebrating the music and rich history of the Grand Ole Opry.
This Mature Mob show is Will Burpee’s 11th.