Scot Haller
May 05, 1986 12:00 PM

In the privacy of her own park, Dolly Parton is riding the rapids for the first time. Seated in a circular rubber raft, she treks on a virgin voyage down the Smoky Mountain Rampage, her shrieks rising and falling with the water level. As the raft goes spinning round and round, she jokes, “Good thing I didn’t eat my meat-loaf sandwich yet.” When the vessel negotiates the next man-made rapid, a wall of water drenches Dolly. But even along this splash-a-second course, Parton protects her packaging: Just as a willow tree branch threatens to tangle with her wig, she whacks it away. Finally the raft returns to the loading dock, where a circle of park employees awaits her reaction. To their visible relief, she gives the ride her squeal of approval: “I got my underwear wet!” she cries.

With a giggle and an expert eye, Parton is auditioning her latest incarnation: the enterprising entrepreneur. This week she officiates at the grand opening of Dollywood, a 400-acre, multimillion-dollar theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., 30 miles from Knoxville and just a few miles from the Locust Ridge cabin where Parton was raised. For Parton’s fans, Dollywood represents an opportunity to pay homage—at $14.20 per adult, $10.95 per child (everything is covered but food). For Parton’s kinfolk, it’s a real employment opportunity. “As often as they’ll open the gates, I’ll be here picking and grinning,” says Parton’s uncle, Bill Owens, who will perform there. And for Dolly herself, who understands the role of an anecdote in image making, it’s the fulfillment of a fantasy she likes to repeat. “A few years back, when I first started seeing the Hollywood sign, I kept thinking how cute it would be if I could change the H to a D—and see how long it would take anybody to notice. It just popped into my mind that it would be a good name for a park.”

Like its namesake, Dollywood juxtaposes the synthetic and the sincere. At the Dolly Parton Story Museum, you can study the singer’s history while you ogle wigs, dresses and other relics rescued from the vault under Parton’s Nashville home. At Aunt Granny’s Dixie Fixins Restaurant—Parton was nicknamed Aunt Granny by her nephews and nieces—you can sample barbecue cooked according to Dolly’s recipes. At the Tennessee Mountain Home, you can walk through a replica of the cabin in which Parton grew up. Standing outside the building, Dolly says, “Our house never looked so damn good, I’ll tell you that.”

For a woman who engineered a crossover from country to mainstream music, creating Dollywood might seem an unlikely monument to commerce and cornpone. After all, this park is named for a woman who won’t even ride her own merry-go-round because she suffers from motion sickness. But Dollywood incorporates two of Parton’s favorite pastimes—show and business—in a beloved setting. “I’ve always been so proud of my people in that part of the country, so glad I was born and raised there,” she says. County fairs were a Dolly favorite. “You always got a day out of school to go to the fair,” says Dolly. “And, boy, that was the greatest day of my life. I was fascinated with the freak shows. We’d crawl under the fence to look until somebody would kick us in the face to get us out. There was the spider woman who was supposed to have been found in the Amazon. Things like the fat lady. I patterned myself after her.” According to Gary Wade, a high school pal who is now mayor of her hometown of Sevierville (pop. 5,000), “For years the street talk has been that she wanted to come back and do something special.” Given her competitive nature, it would be something splashy that might upstage such Nashville attractions as Twitty City and Mandrell Country. “There’s a fire in Dolly,” observes Wade. “She’d like to do them one better.”

When Parton wanted to do business in Sevier County, locals outdid each other. Among her suitors was the management of Silver Dollar City, a historical theme park in Pigeon Forge. Says Parton, “They knew I would be coming in, and that would be direct competition.” Concurs co-owner Jack Herschend, “It was questionable whether two parks could survive here.” For Parton, the deal was savvy and sensible. Silver Dollar City offered her an existing facility and she offered them an invaluable asset: her brand name. “I think there’s a lot of money to be made in this business, period,” says Parton.

To cinch the deal, Parton relied on one of her own areas of expertise—showmanship. Last July she returned to Pigeon Forge to seek financial support from the city council. The meeting site was changed from city hall, which seats 30, to the park’s Barnwood Theater, which accommodates 2,000. “It was an event instead of a council meeting,” recalls Vita Wilson, executive director of the Pigeon Forge department of tourism. Indeed, this civic convocation included a star entrance and a cameo appearance by Parton’s father in the front row. “She came down the aisle and everyone stood up and applauded,” says Wilson. “She had the audience eating out of her hand.” And city fathers asking for her autograph, adds Dollywood manager Ted Miller. “If Clint Eastwood is a politician, she’s twice the politican.”

Parton solicited funds for street, scenic and sewer improvements surrounding the property. In compliance with her request, the state contributed $1.6 million, the city $600,000. At the ground-breaking ceremony last September, Parton mixed pleasure with politics in a more characteristic fashion. After waving to Sevierville Mayor Wade, she told the crowd, “I used to make out with him in the back of a Chevrolet at the Midway Drive-in.” Says Wade, “Everybody loved it but my wife.”

Parton’s homecoming also sparked a few family feuds. “I mean, we’ve really had some doozies already,” says Dolly. “Everybody up here is a relative. I’ve got uncles, aunts, cousins, great-cousins, some not so great,” in a county that boasts 89 Partons (from A.B. to William S.) in the phone book. “This could drive me absolutely mad if I let it,” says Dolly. At the bank and post office her father, Lee, a retired farmer, was mistaken for a one-man job placement service. Says Parton, “My daddy finally said, ‘To hell with it. I don’t hire and fire at Dollywood. Dolly didn’t get to where she is today by not knowing how to run a business.’ ”

For other Partons, Dollywood has restored family ties. At Dolly’s request, sister Stella has staged a musical show featuring sister Freida, uncle Bill Owens and other relations. A local contractor, brother Bobby, built the replica of the mountain homestead, and her mother, Avie Lee, has decorated the interior. “Mama’s having a good time going around to antique stores,” says Dolly. “She thinks we couldn’t open Dollywood without her.”

One family member, however, won’t appear at Dollywood, not even in museum photographs. Parton’s reclusive husband, Carl Dean, a Nashville contractor, has vetoed any likeness of himself in the park. At his request, even a shot of the couple on their wedding day 20 years ago has been replaced with a plaque describing their first meeting in a Nashville Laundromat. According to his wife, “Carl said, ‘I want to go up there anytime I want, and I don’t want somebody coming out of the museum and telling me, “You’re Carl.” ‘ ” Last month he finally consented to one fresh photograph of the couple. “The other day,” says Dolly, “the photographer for the museum came over to the house, and Carl cut some eyes out of a grocery bag. He had on a suit and put this bag over his head and called himself ‘the unknown husband,’—you know, like the unknown comic. That is just his style. He thought it would be fine if I wanted to put that one in the museum, but I thought maybe some people would be insulted.”

Dean makes a down-to-earth contrast to Parton’s high profile. In fact, when he first visited Silver Dollar City for a few days last fall, Parton’s husband paid his own way in. “You don’t have to worry about there not being a real side to Dolly once you meet Carl,” says Wade. “He’s a plainspoken guy,” agrees Ted Miller. But he leaves the business dealing to Dolly. Says Parton, “The only advice he gave me about the park was, ‘Keep it clean. There’s nothing worse than an amusement park that ain’t kept clean.’ ”

If you think Dolly Parton foresakes her mountain manners in the big city, you’ve never seen her lunch in Los Angeles. Although today’s meeting was scheduled for her production offices on Sunset Boulevard, she has impulsively switched the setting to Le Dome, a record-industry hangout next door. “You know me,” she says in that girlish Tennessee twang, “I need to be around food.” For lunch, an hour before noon, she orders a glass of white wine and liver smothered with onions. And she politely informs the waiter, she wants the liver well done.

“Our chef is French and he’s not going to like that,” warns the waiter.

“I don’t give a s—,” says Dolly in the sweetest voice she can summon. “It’s his job and it’s my money.”

For Parton, going Hollywood has occasionally proved tough going. Occupying a corner table at Le Dome, she is hardly the essence of assimilation. Her red-and-white ensemble suggests country, not California, chic. Only her huge, heart-shaped diamond ring might gain acceptance in Beverly Hills. Over the years, Parton found Los Angeles an adjustment, but she also found herself spending more time here. Earlier this year, she acquiesced and bought her first L.A. home (in the Hollywood Hills), although Carl still resides in their mansion outside Nashville.

The shift to Los Angeles coincided with her controversial crossover from country to pop with Here You Come Again. Since that record and her movie debut in 9 to 5, she has found her country fans rejecting her pop records and her pop fans passing up the country records. Her film career has sputtered too. Her last movie, Rhinestone, was a big-budget flop that shook up the executive suites at 20th Century Fox. “I thought Stallone and I would be good together, the way I thought Burt Reynolds [her co-star in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas] and I would be good together,” says Parton. In retrospect, she understands the public’s reluctance about Rhinestone. “I didn’t finish singing a song in the whole movie, and I don’t think people want to see Stallone with his shirt on.”

She intends to correct both career moves through more compatible collaborations with some beloved female colleagues. On her 40th birthday last January, Parton started recording Trio, a long-delayed album with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. That record, which will feature some new Parton compositions as well as some obscure classics, should be released in the fall. By then Parton hopes to be shooting a new comedy that will reunite her with 9 to 5 co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. “For some reason, I have better luck when I work with women,” says Dolly. “I guess I have a good sense of sisterhood.” This is, after all, a lady who recently announced, “It’s a good thing that I was born a woman, or I’d have been a drag queen.”

Turning 40 has affected Parton’s personal if not her workaholic habits. “When you’re 40, you can’t ride the fence anymore,” she says. “You gotta make definite decisions about your life.” As a result of her 1982 gynecological and intestinal problems(she’s never been able to bear children), she no longer neglects her health. Since Christmas, the 5′ Dolly has lost 20 pounds. “I feel better and I feel like I look better than I have in a long time,” she says.

When the waiter returns to clear her half-eaten plate of well-done liver, she tells him, “My compliments to the chef.” Then she makes another special request peculiar for Le Dome: a doggie bag. “My manager will love this liver,” she says. Later she admits, “Hell, this ain’t for him, it’s for me. I just didn’t want to seem like a fat pig.”

Many of Parton’s mountain habits have followed her far away from Tennessee. She still prefers, for instance, to drink liquids out of a tin can, just as she did on Locust Ridge. “When we was kids, we would always drink out of one. It seems to keep things colder. Even at my beautiful homes, I’m always drinking out of a tin can, which drives my secretary nuts. I’m saving coffee cans to drink out of and she’s throwing them out and it makes me so mad.” Any other country customs she has exported? “I still like to pee off the porch every now and then. There’s nothing like peeing on those snobs in Beverly Hills.”

Dolly Parton can go home again, but it requires eight pieces of matching luggage. Back in Pigeon Forge, in a motel suite along Route 441, she is preparing to depart for New York City. In the 22 years since Parton set out for a singing career in Nashville, “This area has really changed—more than anyplace I have ever seen or heard tell of,” she says. Where grazing cows in the side yard were once a sign of success, satellite dishes now sit. As a tourist gateway to the Smoky Mountains, Sevier County seems to boast more water slides than citizens. “You have to go way back there in the hills to find the way we used to live,” says Dolly.

Even as Parton contributes to the area’s commercialization, she laments the changes. “You go up on the mountain, and they’ve started building houses and condominiums,” she says with uncharacteristic melancholy. “All of a sudden, a little place where you had a tree house, there’s a trailer park. You know you can’t stop progress and you don’t really want to, but it’s scary. I know it’s different here now, but it still has to stay the same in my mind because I draw from those memories for my strength.”

Even in her own family, Parton has witnessed a startling evolution. “My mama never wore a pair of pants when I was growing up and now that’s all she wears. It was so funny for me when I first started seeing Mama wear pants. It was like it wasn’t Mama. Now I’ve bought her many a pantsuit because she just lives in them.” Although they tried to live in Nashville, Lee Parton and his wife long ago moved back to Sevier County.

“My daddy just never could adjust to anywhere else, and Mama tried to live in Nashville because so many of us kids lived down there. But she finally decided she’s more into Daddy than she was into us kids anyhow.”

Depending on whom you talk to, the changes in Dolly herself are either cosmic or cosmetic. “That’s a different girl than the one I remember from high school,” says Gary Wade. When Dolly first faced the music industry in Nashville, “she was like a little girl,” reports longtime friend Ann Warden. “Life was a constant surprise, and she was attracted to anything pretty or glittery. She’s more polished now.” But to her family, she maintains a striking resemblance to the rascal of Locust Ridge. “I can only look at her as a sister,” says Stella. “The things she was thinking about when she was a kid was how high she could get her hair and how tight she could get her belt. She’s still thinking like that.”

But even amid this changing Tennessee topography, some constants persist—like people who want to get a glimpse of Dolly. While Parton fusses upstairs, a gray-haired motel maid shyly waits for her in the parking lot. When Dolly steps into sight, the woman suddenly perks up and yells, “Get down here, Girl!” Against the backdrop of this roadside motel, the two embrace. This is no nameless fan. This is the mother of Parton’s best friend from childhood. This is a picture postcard from Pigeon Forge.

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