Uncle Jimmy’s Dream
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 and talent 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. Then 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, And 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 Li’l 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. Huge increases in the audience continued for Virginia’s Lil’ Ole Opry. Tickets were $2 for adults and $1 for children. The place was packed. Everyone knew we were on to something.
Ernest Tubb, who recorded “Walkin’ the Floor Over You,” was the first Nashville star to appear at Donk’s. It amazed Mathews County that Nashville stars found their way to the 504-seat (not counting the occasional overturned bucket) theater. Included in the group have been Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton.
Of course, from time to time, like any other small business, Donk’s has its share of minor problems and frustrations. 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.
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. In 2015, with Jimmy as the long-time emcee, the business celebrated its 40 year anniversary with TWO special Anniversary Shows that brought back past talent from near and far, large crowds and excited audiences!
Sadly, in January 2016, Donk’s Theater collapsed during an ice storm. The sadness of losing such a special place to so many was felt far beyond Mathews County, but especially to Lynda who thought of it as her second home. To this day, she still dreams about it and often walks the aisles and stage in her mind. The reality of how blessed they all were to have had it for so long AND to have been spared an immense tragedy had the collapse happened during show time, replaced the heavy sadness, and, like her dad many years before, Lynda set out determined to start a new Opry in a new location.
There was no lack of community support for the effort, which fueled the passion to move forward and, after securing Mathews High School’s Harry M. Ward Auditorium by special permission from the Mathews School Board, the shows for 2016 were set in motion. Having no place to now rehearse, the West Mathews Civic League offered the old Peninsula School in Mobjack and its stage for the Opry. The only fee was one free performance to fund-raise for the historic building…and the Opry folks were only to happy to do it! The outpouring of love and support, both of money and time, was overwhelming and so encouraging, that it was not surprising to see one of the largest crowds ever on re-opening night, April 9, 2016, less than three months after the collapse.
After that year, Betsy and Joanna left the business. Jimmy struggled with dementia for many years and passed away suddenly and unexpectedly at his home in March, 2019. The shows continue to flourish in the large auditorium with Lynda and her mom, Carolyn Smith, at the helm. Richard Smith, Jimmy and Carolyn’s son and Lynda’s brother, proudly leads the house band as the drummer. And they all, along with over 20 musicians, singers, and crew, continue Jimmy’s dream of a small Opry in his beautiful hometown of Mathews, VA.
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 way, endured many obstacles, made many friends, and has been blessed beyond measure, proving that it was never a building that brought us together. It was the people…the band, the singers, the crew, the audience, and the community…and a beautiful love of music.
We hope you’ll come to see us! The Opry LOVES company!