Family builds Branson-style empire in Elkins

Courtesy photo Kenny Sexton, at left, sings with niece Jesse Wanless and his wife Beverly Sexton at American Mountain Theater in Elkins. Started by Jesse's mother, Susie Heckel, the theater now is owned by Kenny and Beverly Sexton.
Courtesy photo A pasta dish from 1863 Grill in Elkins
Courtesy photo Jeremiah Franks, 32, of Elkins delights crowds as part of an American Mountain Theater show.
Courtesy photo A room in the recently constructed Isaac Jackson Hotel in Elkins. Kenny and Beverly Sexton are part owners of the hotel.
Courtesy photo The 1863 Grill, which the Sexton family included when they built the new Isaac Jackson Hotel, features Kansas City style barbecue, a favorite of the Sexton family. The meat served at the restaurant is smoked on site in a large smoker behind the restaurant.
Courtesy photo Jesse Wanless sings with her father, Denny Franks, on accordion and expert fiddler Greg Thompson during an American Mountain Theater show.
Courtesy photo Jesse Leigh Wanless, a 37-year-old mother of three, belts out sweet tunes during an American Mountain Theater show. Wanless performs songs made popular by Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton as well as southern gospel standards.
Courtesy photo A double room at the newly constructed Isaac Jackson Hotel in Elkins.
Courtesy photo Chips and queso appetizer at 1863 Grill in Elkins.
Courtesy Photo A suite in the Isaac Jackson Hotel. Each room features comfortable furnishings and Bath and Body Works toiletries in the bathrooms.
Courtesy Photo Performing at the American Mountain Theater are Susie Heckel, at left, her daughter Jesse Wanless, and Heckel's sister Beverly Sexton. Heckel was inspired to start the state's only Branson, Mo.- style theater and got it up and running with the help of her sister and brother-in-law Kenny Sexton, who now own the theater in Elkins.
Courtesy Photo The Isaac Jackson Hotel, completed last fall, in Elkins.
Courtesy Photo The Isaac Jackson Hotel, completed last fall, was the brainchild of Kenny and Beverly Sexton, who own the American Mountain Theater in Elkins. The couple found there weren’t enough rooms for travelers to come to their shows and decided over coffee one morning to get help to take on the project.
Courtesy Photo Hand cut and battered onion rings at the 1863 Grill in Elkins.

Nestled in the foothills of Randolph County, a family is building on a dream.

The Sexton and Franks families started with their show — a Branson, Mo., style variety show — and built from there. They now operate the newly constructed Isaac Jackson Hotel, the 1863 Grill restaurant and the American Mountain Theater, all of which are within walking distance of each other in Elkins’ railyard district.

The 500-plus seat theater was about half full for the first performance of the season, but every song or skit earned a hearty round of applause from the crowd. The somewhat silly comedic skits earned chuckles and full-on belly laughs. Feet could be heard tapping along with the jaunty bluegrass tunes and hands went up in praise as the performers delivered uplifting gospel hymns.

Kenny Sexton, who owns the American Mountain Theater, with his wife, Beverly, said it started with a vision and a phone call. The couple were living in Kenny’s home state of Arkansas when they received a call from Beverly’s sister, Susie Heckel.

Susie had a vision from God to start a Branson, Mo., style variety show in Elkins, Kenny said. Branson-style shows are family friendly variety shows that feature a range of music — from bluegrass and gospel to oldies from the Mamas and the Papas and James Brown — impersonations and comedy. It would be the only one of its kind in the state, she’d told him.

Elkins natives, Susie and Beverly started performing gospel music together as children with their father. With their singing group, The Heckels, they performed on the Wheeling Jamboree radio show and on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. They know music.

And so does Kenny, a 59-year-old Arkansas born accountant who has been playing piano since he was a boy. He played for several years with gospel groups.

“I just had this desire in my heart to make a living in the music business, somehow,” Kenny said.

With 47 years at the keys, he’d say he’s doing alright.

But Kenny was skeptical when Susie told him about her vision.

“I told her, ‘That’s crazy. It won’t work,’” he said, recalling the conversation.

Kenny previously had run a successful Branson-style show in Arkansas. Kenny, while running his own accounting practice, performed with a gospel group at the Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down music theater in Eureka Springs, Ark., before buying the theater in the late 80s.

Attendance at shows doubled in the three years he owned the Ozark Mountain theater. But a wealthy man came along and told Kenny that he wanted to buy the theater and that if Kenny didn’t sell he’d build a theater up the road. So Kenny sold and went back into accounting.

When Heckel called in 2002 with her idea, Kenny and Beverly offered their help and expertise. Kenny set up the corporation and did taxes for the theater. Things were rough at first. Heckel didn’t even have enough money at that point to make decent brochures, he said.

Little by little, he said, the theater group grew. In 2004, Heckel had a small show going just outside of town. Kenny told Heckel she should try to get into Elkins’ growing railyard district where the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley scenic railroad was doing good business. By July 2007 they’d opened the 12,784 square-foot brick American Mountain Theater in Elkins’ historic railyard.

A family affair

Kenny made the trip to Elkins that summer to take equipment to the theater. He ended up staying. Beverly soon joined him.

“I never had any intention of being in the show,” he said with a laugh.

Most of the performers in the theater’s multiple shows, which include the Premier 2-Hour show, Christmas Spectacular, History of American Music, are related by either blood or marriage. The few not related have been playing with the family for years or “adopted” into the family. The theater also holds southern gospel and bluegrass concerts featuring well known performers in those genres.

Kenny runs the show, plays the keyboard, sings and plays the straight-man in the comedic skits. Beverly writes songs and sings. Heckel sings in the shows with the Sexton Trio southern gospel group. Her ex-husband, Denny Franks, also plays the keyboard but isn’t short for jokes in the comedy skits.

The children of the four also have gotten involved in the family business. Heckel and Franks’ three children—Joel and Jeremiah Franks and Jesse Leigh Wanless — all have roles on stage. Joel plays the drums, guitar and sings. Jesse, a mother of three boys, sang for years in Branson, Mo., before returning to Elkins where she sings and dances in the theater’s multiple shows. Jeremiah plays five instruments, but he also is a talented singer and dancer.

He moves like a man who grew up watching and trying to emulate Michael Jackson’s gliding movements on the dance floor. At one point in the show, one of Jeremiah’s characters in a comedy bit is wearing a t-shirt bearing the King of Pop’s face.

They all have a natural ability, but they worked at it, too, the siblings said.

“When we were young they were playing music,” said Jeremiah, 32, of his parents after the theater’s opening show. “That just kind of put that scene into us.”

Jesse, 37, said most of the family has been involved with the theater in one way or another. Jesse and Jeremiah said performing at the theater is a full-time job for them, and it’s one they’re happy to have.

“We’re happy to have jobs and to have people here,” Jesse said. “When we have that feedback from the audience, that’s why we do it.”

“The more hooting and hollering you get makes you want to try something new,” Jeremiah said. “Makes you want to keep going.”

Kenny and Beverly’s children — Meggan and Drew Sexton and Jamalyn Sexton-Beck — have roles both offstage and on.

Meggan serves as the vice president of operations for the theater and handles marketing for the group. She also sings and dances in the Christmas Spectacular and History of American Music shows. Jamalyn also sings in some of the shows.

Drew runs lights and sound for the theater and also works with setting up vacation packages.

Hotel on the hill

The theater started setting up vacation packages in 2008, but found if they brought in the numbers of people they’d hoped, they wouldn’t have enough hotel rooms to accommodate them.

A problem the family kept seeing was that they had people who would want to come on certain dates or groups that would want to bring 50 people, but they didn’t have anywhere for them to stay, Meggan said.

“So what do they do? They don’t come,” she said. “So we got brave/crazy, whatever you want to call it, and got involved in this project.”

“We were trying to get more people into town,” Kenny said. “I tried for two or three years to get someone in the hotel business to either build a hotel or remodel the one on the hill.”

The Elkins Motor Lodge had stood for decades with a motel and several small cottages on the hillside along with the 1863 Grill restaurant at the foot of the hill. Kenny said he and Beverly decided one morning over coffee to find some financial backers and take the project on themselves. The couple are now part owners of the Isaac Jackson Hotel, which is listed on TripAdvisor with 4 1/2 stars.

They started work in May 2013 and had the first building finished by September of that year. The Isaac Jackson Hotel — bearing the respective middle names of Beverly and Kenny’s fathers — was finished by fall 2014. The couple also took on renovating the 1863 Grill restaurant while building up the hotel.

“We did everything on a pretty fast track,” Kenny said.

The hotel is decorated in a woodsy modern style in soft colors, a theme that carries through to the restaurant. The Isaac Jackson also has large meeting spaces with a state of the art sound system. The hotel was decorated by George Conte, who has ties to the Elkins area and has done interior decorating for Hilton and Marriott hotels. With comfortable beds, DirecTV in each room and Bath and Body Works toiletries in each bathroom, the Isaac Jackson a nice place to stay.

The restaurant down the hill is known for three things that don’t really go together but make perfect, tasty sense when they’re on the plate. Under the watchful eye of Chef Jason Fleck, who moved to the area from California, the restaurant serves up delicious Kansas City style barbecue, hand-rolled sushi and cinnamon rolls that have been a staple at the restaurant for decades.

“It’s been a crazy, wild ride for us,” Meggan said.

Kenny said he was “tickled to death” to have a chef with the skill to provide some of the dishes for which the restaurant has become known. The barbecue is smoked on site in a large smoker behind the restaurant. And while sushi isn’t always on the menu, it appears frequently. Alcohol is not served at the restaurant.

Vacation packages offered through the theater often include a stay at the Isaac Jackson or another hotel nearby, dinner at the 1863 Grill or Vintage Restaurant in Elkins, tickets to the Premier 2-Hour show and a scenic train ride.

The season just started for the American Mountain Theater and with 200 shows planned for the year through December, the performers will be busy. Kenny said the businesses do well and that he and Beverly make a “meager income” on top of paying a number of other employees salaries. He says he won’t be retiring any time soon.

“I can’t retire,” he said. “This is such an odd place for us to put something like this.

“We have to build the destination.”

The Premier 2-Hour Night Show starts at 7:30 p.m. and runs Friday and Saturday nights in April. Next month the show will run 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets for the Premier 2-Hour Show, Christmas Spectacular and gospel concerts are $25 for adults age 12 and up. Seniors 55 and older are $23 and children under 12 are $15. Children under 4 are free. The theater is open to individual and group sales.

For more information visit www.americanmountaintheater.com or call 800-943-3670.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at 304-348-1244 or ashley.craig@dailymailwv.com.

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