Joan Kisner Lives her Dream
by Jeff Tryon
Long before Joan Kisner created her dream of entertaining visitors to Brown County at her Nashville Follies, she realized a different Brown County dream. It was a Brown County dream she literally inherited from her father.
She first visited Brown County as a girl in grade school. “I just loved the beauty of it,” she recalled. “Even as a child I loved it, I loved the atmosphere. I knew I was going to be an artist.”
“Then my dad, when I was in junior high school, bought property on Sweetwater Lake,” she said. “I was all excited, thinking by the time I was a junior in high school, I would be having all my friends down for a weekend in Brown County.”
But that dream was delayed by one little detail: the first developer of the lakes went bankrupt before the project was finished.
“The lake never got built,” she said. “We’d make this pilgrimage down to see the water, or where the water should be. By the time there was water, he was busy with other things, but I kept saying, ‘what about the cabin?’”
Her father promised to leave her the lake lot, and he did, after building her long awaited cabin there.
“I loved coming down here and just going through the hills,” she said. “I paint a lot.”
She pursued her artistic ambitions by earning degrees in art in Virginia and from Indiana State University, where she also earned a masters degree in speech and theater.
The performance track took her into the theater business, creating musical revues as the entertainment director at Old Indiana Park, a post she held for nine years.
“I had had a place in Brown County at Sweetwater Lake for so long, I wanted to spend more time down here,” she said. “I was doing all the entertainment there, and I’d come down here after the end of the season and I thought, ‘Why can’t I do that here?’”
In 1994, Ms. Kisner spotted a “closed, out of business” sign in the window of a defunct Nashville restaurant, “…and I thought, hmmmmm…”
When word got out among the entertainers she was working with of her plan for a Nashville show house she started getting calls from them, asking to work in the new venue.
“For four years, I never hired anybody outside that cast,” she said. “They came in and they were really loyal. It was wonderful.”
She eventually bought out the park’s stock of costumes, many of which had sentimental value to her going back to the mid-1980s.
The first year she mounted just one show, “High Kicking Country,” plus the annual Christmas show.
“We were in Brown County—the (Little Nashville) Opry was popular—I knew Lloyd (Wood) was down here. I just assumed people probably wanted country music.”
She recalled Wood’s reaction to her idea about opening a competing entertainment venue in the area.
“He was so sweet,” she said. “He said, ‘You know, if there was only one shop in Nashville, who would come?’ I just loved him for that.”
It was an idea whose time had come. Bruce Borders brought his act to town the same year while the Pine Box Theater had started two years earlier. Surprisingly, at one point, Nashville offered over 6,000 available theater seats on a given Saturday night in season.
The Follies’ season is from April through mid-December, during which a group of six to seven performers mounts five different musical shows.
In 1997, the follies moved into the current location, just feet away from the ex-restaurant property where it began. The new theater seats 172 with additional folding-chair capacity of another 20 seats.
“There’s a lot of costume changes, a lot of singing and dancing, it’s a fast paced, high energy show,” she said.
This year’s playbill includes “Jukebox Memories,” “This Is My Country,” “Hooray For Hollywood,” “Shake Rattle and Roll,” and “The Christmas Show.”
Ms. Kisner writes all the shows pulling together the music, costuming, choreography, and staging.
“Most of my shows have a story line that goes right through them,” she said.
Her favorite memories of a decade of Nashville Follies?
“First of all, its the wonderful friends we have made,” Ms. Kisner said. “Some of the season ticket holders are like our ‘groupies.’ We have two ladies from Trafalgar who come every weekend.
“It’s something else—it’s like they’re family.”
When her son Steve married daughter-in-law Joan many of the “family” of fans were on hand.
“Then it’s so nice to hear good comments,” Ms. Kisner said. “Like we’ve had people write in our book, ‘Better than Branson’.”
“You think, we’re doing something to make people happy. And that’s so nice,” she said.
“I love that.”