When Phil Drake puts his mind to something, there’s little he can’t achieve. Drake’s company, Drake Enterprises, is one of the largest private employers west of Asheville, and, it seems, owns half the businesses in the region, including The Athlete’s Foot, Dalton’s Christian Bookstore, Dnet Internet Services, Drake Software, the Franklin Golf Course and the Fun Factory.
So while the idea of constructing a 1,500-seat performing arts theater in a rural region like Western North Carolina might seem over the top, leave it to Drake to pull it off. And that’s just what Drake and his wife, Sharon, have done with the Smoky Mountain Center for Performing Arts in Franklin. The soaring, state-of-the-art structure is nearing completion, and will welcome its first performance July 3.
“This is a lifelong desire to do this for his community,” Chris Malone, the lead project architect, told a group of reporters gathered at the facility for a special Media Day last week. “This is an affair of the heart.”
Even Malone seemed in awe of the structure.
“It’s beyond what I thought it was going to be,” he said.
Indeed, the performing arts center is impressive. The auditorium features an incredible 60-foot wide, two-story stage complete with an orchestra pit. The soaring room is equipped with state of the art sound, a phrase the Drakes don’t take lightly — the speakers, Meyer M’Elodie Line Arrays, cost thousands of dollars each and are among the best on the market.
“Since we’re doing a lot of music groups, sound is most important,” said Effie Rosbert, a set builder who led a tour of the facility last week. “This is clear, perfect sound.”
Behind the scenes is a huge backstage area with every comfort a band or touring group would want. One room features a dozen individual lighted vanities for performers to make up their faces. Another room is set aside to allow a band to practice before the show. Several other rooms are simply places to hang out, and one section, open to fans, is where performers will sit to sign autographs.
Nearly 30 acts are lined up through December, starting on July 3 with the Oak Ridge Boys. Other musicians to grace the stage this season are The Charlie Daniels Band, Sawyer Brown, The Isaacs, and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Plays this season will include Aida, The Jungle Book, Annie and the Velveteen Rabbit.
The Drakes seem aware that the venue is quite large for a town the size of Franklin and that filling the space consistently could be a challenge.
“This is Franklin,” said Rosbert. “We don’t know how the market’s going to bear. Some people can’t afford to come to show after show after show.”
The theater’s odds of success, however, may be pretty good with Drake’s magic touch, Malone said.
“A lot of venues like this struggle, but they approach it in a different way than Drake.”