On June 9, 1947, after almost two years of frustrations common in the business of construction, Wilton “Donk” and Mary Dunton opened to the public the grandest building (commercial) in Mathews – DONK’S THEATER – which Mr. Dunton proudly named after himself. The large screen, which was later redesigned for Cinerama; the 504 comfortable upholstered seats; the heating and cooling system; the projection room and sound equipment; and last, but not least by any means, the acoustic materials used, were the finest available.
From the day it opened, till after the last show on Saturday night, October 3, 1970, twenty-three years later, it faithfully served the community. Oddly enough, the title of that last movie was “Nashville Music”! Then it sat – unused – for the next five years. It was then that Jimmy Smith, a young Mathews County native, began to realize a dream he had been nurturing for a long, long time.
Since early childhood, Jimmy had been exposed to music, being the youngest in the family of eleven singing Smiths, and he had acquired a special love for country music. He took advantage of an opportunity to visit the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960, and again in 1970. After the second visit – and maybe even before that – he began to entertain thoughts of providing a place in Mathews where people who love to ‘pick and sing’ could gather for that purpose. The years passed, but the thoughts kept nagging. Often when he would drive past Donk’s Theater, which was still not being used, the dreams would run amuck. “Wouldn’t that be a perfect place for country shows? It has a stage and everything…!” However, it seemed too far-fetched and he would put it out of his mind – for a while! But, finally, early in 1975, with the necessary support from wife, Carolyn, he made up his mind. If “Miss Mary” (Donk had passed away in 1968) would consider leasing her building, and if he had a couple of partners, he would try to make those dreams of his come true. So, he approached “Miss Mary” with his idea and she was willing. The he acquired his partners – Sister Harriett Farmer and niece Joanna Mullis – and the ball was rolling!
The first Saturday in April, and each weekend thereafter until opening night (everyone had full time jobs and could only work on weekends), the doors to the building were thrown open and there was a frenzy of activity. It was cleaned and painted, curtains and drapes were made, damaged seats were repaired and reupholstered, the plumbing was put in first class order, an entirely new lighting system was built and installed. It was also equipped with a new sound system suitable for stage shows, the lobby was paneled and a new concession stand was put in. And on the marquee under Donk’s name, another sign went up…THE COUNTRY JAMBOREE!
All this was accomplished entirely by the Smith Family, even the smallest ones, and friends who volunteered. The doors were always open and rarely did anyone even stop to look in without lending a hand at something before leaving. Members of the Mathews Choral Society, who were planning to put on a musical there in the fall, were also faithful workers.
Eventually, everything began to fall into place. The opening date was set. Joanna, Talent and Production Manager, began booking shows. Harriett, Publicity and Public Relations Manager, set the advertising wheels into motion, and Jimmy, President and General Manager, was busier than ever, taking care of all the final details pertaining to the opening of a new business.
JUNE 14, 1975, OPENING NIGHT, saw crowds at the corner at Hudgins that you wouldn’t believe! The place was alive again and the theater was filled to capacity and overflowing. Since that night the original name of the weekly Saturday night shows has been changed. A new sign has been put up on the marquee under Donk’s name and the theater has gained a reputation far and wide as the home of “Virginia’s Lil’ Ole Opry”.
On May 7, 1977, radio station WYVA in Yorktown, VA, began broadcasting an hour –long weekly show of request music, made up entirely of recordings from the live shows at Donk’s. That popular little show was aired every Saturday afternoon until March 4, 1978, when WYVA began broadcasting each Saturday night show LIVE from the Theater. Also in 1978, a house band, the Shades of Country, was added to the show and Betsy Ripley, Joanna’s sister and Jimmy and Harriett’s niece, became yet another partner in the business.
Of course, from time to time, like any other small business, Donk’s has its share of minor problems and frustration. However, at show time, when the lights go down in the auditorium and the band strikes up the first notes of its theme song, and there is a burst of spontaneous applause from an expectant and appreciative audience – things of that nature seem to slip away and be forgotten.
Today, the business is run in much the same way as it was started. With Harriett’s passing, Jimmy’s daughter, Lynda Smith, joined with Jimmy, Joanna, and Betsy, and took over the Talent and Production Manager position in 2006. And, although the building itself is now gone due to a winter storm in early 2016, the show still continues thanks to the many amazing fans of the Opry.
Indeed, since that time years ago, when a young man’s dream of such a place in Mathews was first born…the “Lil’ Ole Opry” has come a long, long way. Surely, there will be many changes to come, but the future looks bright!
We hope you’ll come to see us! The Opry LOVES company!