Staying Power

December 2015
Written By: 
Sara Sobota
Photographs by: 
Bobby Altman

Calvin Gilmore reflects on three decades of entertainment with The Carolina Opry

On the one hand, he’s old school Myrtle Beach. His theater has been around so long it’s become a permanent fixture in the entertainment landscape; many locals cannot remember a time when The Carolina Opry wasn’t here, back when the lights of the Grand Strand went down with the sunset.

On the other hand, Gilmore represents the cutting edge of live entertainment in 2015. His theater boasts state-of-the-art sound, lighting and technological equipment, and his continually evolving shows such as “Thunder and Light” and “Time Warp” reflect a progressive sense that’s continually monitoring the pulse of his audience.

On this, the eve of Calvin Gilmore’s The Carolina Opry’s 30th anniversary season, the man who started the live entertainment tradition along the Grand Strand has gained sufficient perspective to feel both nostalgia for those early years and perpetual enthusiasm for the future.

“When we came here in 1986, there was nothing on the bypass,” Gilmore recalls. Memories of those early months, when he was an entertainer and businessman fresh from the Ozark Mountains, are still vivid for Gilmore. “When I hear those songs from the very first show, chills just go through me,” Gilmore states. “There was so much depending on that. If we had not made it the first two or three months, then I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. So fortunately, we picked the right songs, the right people. And so when I hear those songs from that show, it just really gets to me.”

Gilmore’s original theater in Surfside Beach, an unlikely endeavor in the small-town coastal environment of the 1980s, played to consistently sold-out audiences, and after a six-year run, the enterprise moved to its current location: a 2,200-seat theater on the north end of Myrtle Beach. As his entertainment presence expanded—and his shows became known around the region for their quality talent and fresh take on music, dance and comedy—so did the scope of his accolades.

The Carolina Opry has hit the apex of state awards for tourism and entertainment, including Most Outstanding Attraction and the Governor’s Cup. Gilmore has been dubbed South Carolina’s Official Country Music Ambassador, and on the show’s 20th anniversary, former Governor Mark Sanford appeared onstage to recognize Gilmore and designate May 31, 2006, as “The Carolina Opry Day.” Meanwhile, Gilmore has reached personal achievement and recognition far beyond his initial grasp, including regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and singing the national anthem at an NBA basketball game and the Fox News Republican Primary Debate for the 2012 presidential election.

The Carolina Opry opened as a live, country-music variety show featuring Gilmore himself front and center as the emcee, and its basic framework has remained consistent over three decades. The idea of a seasonal component, dubbed “The Christmas Show of the South,” was also hatched that very first season, virtually as an afterthought. “We only planned to do it a weekend—one weekend,” Gilmore recalls. “It worked so well we decided to extend it the following year—it was a week. The next year it was two weeks, and then three weeks, and then four … and now it’s two months. It’s our busiest time of the year.”

Today, The Carolina Opry presents an identical format of dance, music and comedy, yet continuous facelifts keep its multiple productions modern and mainstream. In 2004, the theater debuted the first offshoot of its standard show with “Good Vibrations,” which passed the torch this year to the newest production, “Time Warp,” featuring a musical review of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s with state-of-the-art effects and costuming. The “Thunder and Light” show blends a laser light show with performances by the nationally renowned clogging group All That! “The Christmas Show of the South” continues its annual season with regular updates to songs and choreography, and the signature Carolina Opry show is still the theater centerpiece with a recently updated moniker: TCO.

“It’s like I always say about the show,” notes Gilmore, “it’s changed and it hasn’t changed. People might hear those great standard Christmas songs and great standard pop songs and country songs, but they’ll also hear new songs and always experience new special effects. Everything and nothing changes in our shows.”

So what’s the secret of success, especially in a business market that became saturated with entertainment theaters in the 1990s? Gilmore says the answer is simple.

“It always comes down to product: having a good product, a good show,” Gilmore explains. “One of the reasons ours is successful is because the owner is on the stage—a player and coach—and it’s a family business as opposed to hiring someone to come in and put together a show. It makes a big difference.”

The family approach to show business has developed in multiple ways for Gilmore. First, his son Jeff Gilmore and daughter Jordan Watkins Gilmore became involved in production and marketing, respectively, about 10 years ago. Their presence and input has allowed Gilmore to continue playing a dominant role in the show’s content and production, including performing on stage a few times a week, yet also provide him with flexibility to travel to the family’s second home in Seattle.

Another dimension of family is The Carolina Opry’s cast. With a 30-year run, the theater has single-handedly provided some performers with an entire career in the entertainment industry. “We have a few people who have been in the show for 30 years,” Gilmore explains, “and when you’re in the entertainment business, that’s really saying something. We rotated in new talent over the years, but we still have great talent that we’ve had since day one.” Vocalist Rita Gumm, comedian Kym “Bogey” Shurbutt and pianist Rocky Fretz are among the branches of The Carolina Opry family tree.

In addition to the economic impact The Carolina Opry has brought to the Grand Strand, Gilmore has also made a personal impact on the community. Bobby Richardson, former MLB baseball player and national leader with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), became friends with Gilmore through a shared interest in baseball. As Richardson organized FCA events over the years, Gilmore contributed support, influence and connections to the organization.

“He was a conduit that put us in touch with so many people—that helped us so much. In the quiet, humble way he has, he puts people together,” Richardson said.

Dennis McElveen, director of the FCA golf tournament, has a broad view of Gilmore’s impact on the event and the community. “Calvin was involved in this about 17 years,” McElveen said. “He was very supportive—he would come and speak before the tournament, and play, and encourage his cast to come to the awards ceremony after. He is certainly one of the reasons that the golf tournament has been successful for all those years. He’s responsible for helping us raise well over half a million dollars over that time.”

As for the future, Gilmore believes the theater will be in very good hands as Jeff and Jordan continue guiding the reigns of the operation. And as long as The Carolina Opry continues raising its curtain, Gilmore says, innovation will remain a driving force: “You just never can stop. You can’t stop getting better. You can’t stop improving in every way.”