Oklahoma! OK, but Discoveryland could use a spruce-up

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Some long-time friends, a couple of families from our church small group who left Tulsa for other cities some years ago, came back to town this weekend and suggested that we all go out to Discoveryland for their production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! and for the pre-show cattleman's ranch dinner.

I hadn't been in many years. (My wife and older two kids went a couple years ago; I had stayed home with the youngest that night.) I can remember going with my family shortly after it opened, and taking a high school classmate there on a date. When I was first dating my wife, in '86 or '87, we had dinner at Pennington's Drive-Inn (butterfly shrimp and blackbottom pie), then went out to Discoveryland, only to stand under the concourse during a heavy rainstorm that cancelled the performance.

Back to 2010: The dinner was good -- a ribeye steak sandwich, potato salad, baked beans, kernel corn, with tea or water. You pick up your plate at the cookhouse, then walk a ways to picnic tables in a big covered pavilion. We lingered over dinner, getting caught up with our friends, then headed toward the amphitheater to pick up a dessert from the concession stand and find our seats. (Desserts were simple but good -- ice cream with berries or with brownies and chocolate sauce, and snow-cones. They also have popcorn, bottled water and Coca-Cola products for sale. Prices were reasonable.)

We were just in time for the pre-show program, featuring singing, clogging, the two-step (cast members came out to the audience to teach the two-step to volunteers), and the can-can (which embarrassed our four-year-old a bit).

The cast carries a heavy load -- a 30-minute pre-show, followed by a three-hour long performance, with only a short 15-minute intermission. One of my favorite numbers, "It's a Scandal, It's an Outrage," was cut, probably because of the length of the show. I'm pretty sure the first time I saw it performed was at Discoveryland in the '70s, as it wasn't included in the Gordon MacRae / Shirley Jones movie version. The singing, dancing, and acting was all very well done. The leads have beautiful voices, as do the supporting cast members. The baritone who played Jud Fry not only had a rich voice but conveyed a menacing undertone that hasn't always been there in other productions. The older gentleman who played Judge Carnes (Ado Annie's father) stole every scene he was in.

One of the very best parts of the show came near the end as most of the lights were off, and you could look up and actually see the stars. There is something special about watching a performance under the stars, listening to the crickets and tree frogs singing in the blackjack oak trees that surround the stage.

I would love to single out cast members by name, but there were no programs available -- a problem with the print shop, my wife heard. Although the evening was thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable, the lack of programs was one of a number of logistical and maintenance problems that need to be addressed.

The seats are comfortable, but the ground beneath is dirt and grass. Granted that it's been raining, and my own yard could use some attention (thanks in large part to the nutgrass that appears to have been introduced in the fill dirt used after our curb and street were rebuilt -- any good suggestions for nutgrass control?), but I don't expect to see a huge dandelion and a big stalk of johnson grass under the seat in front of me. It was also difficult to find a flat-enough place to set down a bottle of pop or a box of popcorn where it wouldn't spill.

There were problems with the sound system: distracting feedback when certain cast members spoke or sang, and at times what should have been background crowd chatter drowned out the main dialogue.

According to my wife, the ladies' restrooms were fine. To Discoveryland's credit, they converted one of the original two men's rooms into an additional ladies' room, so there's a 3-to-1 female to male restroom ratio.

The men's room, however, had a hole in the drywall where the door handle hit it (no doorstop), a floor drain that appeared to be rusted-out, a jammed paper towel dispenser (had to pull non-perforated towels off a free-standing roll; tricky with wet hands), no toilet paper dispensers, and a bit of drywall cut away in one of the stalls. There were no low urinals (for people my four-year-old's height); the soap dispenser was far too high as well. Worst of all, the urinals were too close together, which slowed down the line as people hesitated or deferred rather than squeeze in shoulder-to-shoulder.

I note all this not to condemn the folks who run Discoveryland, who no doubt are doing the best they can to maintain a 35-year-old facility and put on a high-quality nightly performance during a tough economy.

I wonder, though, about Discoveryland's invisibility to Tulsa County's decision-makers. Here is an attraction that last year drew visitors from all 50 states and 57 foreign countries, an attraction that capitalizes on one of the most widespread and positive associations people around the world have with the state of Oklahoma. Hundreds of millions in Tulsa County taxpayer dollars have been spent on attractions that are supposed to bring in visitors to spend money, and yet no one thought to put a tiny fraction of that money toward maintaining and improving an attraction that already draws visitors from around the world.

We have a great aquarium and air and space museum and zoo, although there are better examples of each in other parts of the country. Other cities get the same acts that play the BOK Center, and other cities have minor league hockey, arena football, and basketball. But there's nowhere else you can see Oklahoma! in Oklahoma, under the stars, with a professional cast. Why not ensure that visitors from around the world get a proper "Oklahoma hello," with a facility that matches the quality of the performance on stage?

There's a chunk of Vision 2025 money -- $2 million -- that was supposed to go for infrastructure for an American Indian Cultural Center that would have been located on River Parks land on Turkey Mountain west of the river in Tulsa. Nearly seven years after the money was approved, it doesn't appear that any progress has been made toward making the AICC a reality.

A small fraction of the AICC funding could give Discoveryland a major facelift -- new sound system, new restrooms, seating area improvements. With a bit more you could add a year-round exhibit on the history of the musical, the play on which it was based, the historical and cultural setting (Indian Territory just before statehood), the careers of Lynn Riggs, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein, and the history of Discoveryland itself, thus truly fulfilling Discoveryland's designation as the "National Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!"

But, you object, Discoveryland is a for-profit business, and it would be improper to use tax dollars to subsidize a private businesses. We've already used Vision 2025 money to subsidize American Airlines and downtown housing development by three for-profit private developers, not to mention the ongoing and massive indirect subsidy to for-profit concert promoters and for-profit sports franchises known as the BOK Center.

Oklahoma's best hope for attracting visitors is to take the uniquely Oklahoman aspects of our history, culture, climate, and topography, and turn them into places that visitors can, well, visit.

I'll repeat something I submitted to Mayor Bill LaFortune's visit summit back in 2002, something I've been harping on since the Convention and Tourism Task Force in 1999:

Tulsa's unique qualities -- call them distinctives or idiosyncracies -- how can we raise awareness and pride locally and use this as an asset in our dealings with the rest of the world? I get the impression than some civic leaders are embarassed by our oil heritage, our Cowboy and Indian roots, and the strength of religious belief here -- so our tourist brochures trumpet the ballet and Philbrook and Utica Square, and downplay things like western swing music, the gun museum in Claremore, and ORU. When a German tourist comes to Oklahoma, he doesn't want to see the opera, he wants to see oil wells, tipis, old Route 66 motels, and tornadoes. Some adolescents go through a phase when their greatest longing is to be just like everyone else. If we're going to set ourselves apart, we have to stop trying to blend in as a modern city like every other, stop treating our quirky folkways as things to be suppressed and hidden, and celebrate them instead. It's nice to have the same cultural amenities as every other large city, but it's the unique qualities that will win the affections of our own people and capture the imaginations of the rest of the world.

We have this great gift -- a groundbreaking Broadway musical, packed with unforgettable tunes, choreography, and characters, and it's named after our state (although it nearly wasn't). Let's make the most of it.

MORE:

Discoveryland website
Wikipedia entry for Oklahoma!
Musicals 101: A good summary of Oklahoma!'s "firsts"

UPDATE 2010/07/22:

Liz Beall Eubanks writes with some perspective:

The owner of Discoveryland, William Jeffers, uses the profits to fund his Christian camp that ministers to primarily Indian children. It's on DL's property, way back in there. He lives pretty meagerly and probably does not want to take anything away from his ministry to pour into DL. It's a hard call. I doubt the gov't would want any tax dollars to be used to further a Christian camp and I also doubt Mr. Jeffers wants any tax money with strings attached.

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1 Comments

When I lived in Tulsa almost 20 years ago, I always felt that Tulsa was ashamed to be part of Oklahoma. Kinda like the rich guy that is embarrassed by his poor parents and past.

I agree with you 100% and thanks for reminding me that I need to see this show. Hmmm Maybe soon.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 11, 2010 12:28 AM.

Brogdon blitz, Saturday, July 10, 2010 -- and the bystander effect was the previous entry in this blog.

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