There's but one business for the 2,800 folks in this Smoky Mountain foothill town to pursue--and it ain't makin' moonshine.
It's tourism. The town gets lots and lots of tourists--about 4 million a year. Pigeon Forge is one of two places in Tennessee to be officially given Premier Resort City status by the state General Assembly.
But the other day, entrepreneurial concerns were cast aside momentarily while residents celebrated the return of a local lady who hadn't been around for a spell. All up and down Highway 441, motel marquees carried variations on a familiar theme.
"Hello, Dolly. . . . It's so nice to have you back where you belong. . . ."
Her return was particularly exciting around these parts, for Dolly Parton, who rose to superstardom singing about her Tennessee mountain upbringing, had big plans for Silver Dollar City, one of Pigeon Forge's biggest tourist attractions.
The 1880s-themed mountain village features Disneyland-type amusement rides, an open-air theater, mountain food restaurants, live shows and a church. Smoky Mountain artisans hammer on horseshoes, brew lye soap and fashion old-time black-powder rifles and pistols. Visitors can buy the wares of glass-blowers, basket weavers, broom makers, blacksmiths, saddle-makers, not to mention handcrafted buggies from the resident wainwright. There's even a 50-foot tower where molten lead is poured to make authentic buckshot.
The official purpose of Parton's visit was to rechristen Silver Dollar City with a name she'd carried around ever since she spied the famed "Hollywood" sign spread across a Los Angeles hillside. She always thought it would be great if she could get up there some morning and change the H to a D.
It would be a dream come true for Parton who always wanted a theme park where she could preserve her Smoky Mountain heritage and help out the folks back home at the same time. When it opens after its initial expansion (see box) in May, Dollywood is projected to generate $5 million to $14 million in its first year. And bigger plans lie down the road.
But as far as local residents were concerned, money wasn't the main point. Sentiment was.
Contrary to the old saw, "You can't go home again," Parton could, and did.
"Whatch'all cooking?" Parton asked three women in period dresses who were stirring a steaming kettle full of water and apples. Dressed in blue jeans, boots and red plaid shirt, she worked on the grounds of her theme-park-to-be, filming commercials promoting Dollywood and Homecoming '86, a statewide campaign.
She worked from neither script nor cue cards, only the basic premise behind the scene. It is a technique few actors or actresses feel comfortable or capable doing. For Parton it appeared effortless.
As the Atlanta-based commercial production crew, extras, well-wishers and interested park employees looked on, she began her second take of the commercial. She flashed a big smile and asked, "So how many hillbillies does it take to make apple jack?"
Laughs were stifled all around.
Every shot was different; every one, the director told her, was "Beautiful! Perfect!"
During one of the breaks, a contingent of Sevier County's movers and shakers arrived--all members of a committee formed to raise funds for a special purpose. The county had voted to erect a statue of its favorite daughter in a location usually reserved for deceased statesmen and Confederate soldiers. The bronze statue, which will be cast by local artist Jim Gray, depicts a smiling, britches-clad Parton, astride a rock, head held high and guitar in hand.
Gray and the group brought Parton a clay mock-up of the statue and a check--the first donation to the statue fund.
They may have represented the local power elite, but their anticipation was that of a fan club as they eagerly awaited.
Cameras dangled from most arms. Local bank president R.B. Summitt, accompanied his wife Pat, a celebrity in her own right. (She coached the 1984 U.S. women's Olympic basketball team.)
"(Parton) really is the kind of person who never forgot about this town," Summitt said.
The same comment would be repeated over and over.
"Dolly cared enough and loved us enough to come back home," Sevierville Chamber of Commerce executive director Ruby Fox said when asked the reasons behind the statue project.
When Parton arrived, she warmly greeted each member and easily joked with the group as their picture was snapped for the local paper. Neither haughty, nor patronizing, Parton easily dispelled the aura of celebrity projected upon her and became just "folks."