published Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Dollywood lead is Cleveland singer’s first big role

Eli Beard’s song-and-dance experience was limited to high school and college show choirs when he auditioned for a Dollywood job in January.

But on his first try, he landed one of the male leads in the theme park’s premiere musical “Sha-Kon-O-Hey!”

The $1 million production is billed by Dollywood as the “largest and most elaborate in the theme park’s 24-year history.”

“This is the first major production I’ve ever done,” said the actor in a telephone interview. “The show is wonderful. Audiences are absolutely thrilled with it. I couldn’t be happier.”

Beard, the son of John and Tracy Beard of Cleveland, is a graduate of Bradley Central High School and Cleveland State Community College. The 26-year-old was encouraged to audition for Dollywood by Karen Dale, his choral instructor at Cleveland State.

According to Paul Couch, Dollywood director of entertainment, more than 2,000 people audition each year in hopes of landing a Dollywood gig. This opportunity was important enough to Beard that he missed his college graduation to be onstage.

“Sha-Kon-O-Hey!” is derived from the Cherokee name for the Smoky Mountains, “Land of Blue Smoke.” Dolly Parton wrote the eight songs featured in the show. Beard said he sings in seven of those eight, performing various supporting characters in addition to his main role as James McMahon.

The musical is set in the Smoky Mountains in the late 1930s. A storyteller assists members of a family who are reluctant to leave their mountain home after the government has bought their land. He teaches them about Sha-Kon-O-Hey, a magical realm within the mountains.

The musical incorporates stories of generations of folks who have called the mountains their home — Irish settlers, railmen, lumberjacks, Cherokee, even moonshiners — to describe the rich heritage of the Smoky Mountains.

“James McMahon is Scotch-Irish, a little spry, very playful, lighthearted and comical,” said Beard of his character. “My character helps assimilate the family’s grandmother to Sha-Kon-O-Hey.”

Beard is testing the waters with this Dollywood role to see whether acting is a career choice he’d want to pursue.

“I will always be a performer and search for venues to act, dance and sing,” he said. “But as far as a lifelong career, I’m still making decisions because there is the consideration of supporting a family at some point down the road.”

Beard said he believes he has grown as a performer from this summer experience.

“I have found it’s a pleasure to get to work in such a professional atmosphere. I have learned, and I have gotten the experience I came seeking. I couldn’t enjoy what I do more.”

Contact Susan Pierce at or 423-757-6284.

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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