At Randy Parton Theatre, show goes on without 'star'

ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. — It seemed like a good idea at the time.

This ailing textile town, seeking an economic boost, decided two years ago to build a $21-million theater and pay a country singer named Parton to fill it with customers.

Alas, the singer wasn't Dolly Parton. It was her obscure, striving younger brother, Randy Parton. And that was the beginning of a true country tale of woe in this idyllic spot near the Virginia border.

Randy Parton, given access to nearly $3 million by the city with few strings attached, spent some of it on liquor, two trips to Las Vegas casinos and, in keeping with his good ol' boy image, meals at Biscuitville and Cracker Barrel on the taxpayers' dime.

The expensive economic experiment came crashing down earlier this month when the town's mayor, who had been Parton's biggest booster, confronted him in his dressing room before a show. Mayor Drewery N. Beale accused Parton of being drunk. He had two police officers drive the singer home, but not before Parton delivered a profanity-laced interview to a waiting TV crew.

Parton, the mayor said, was henceforth banned from the theater bearing his name.

That showdown came after the mayor and City Council, miffed by the minuscule crowds Parton was attracting to the Randy Parton Theatre, said the singer had been caught cursing during what the town promoted as a "family show."

The town took over the theater from Parton on Nov. 21. That's when officials discovered credit-card receipts showing that an initial city check to Parton for $254,000 had been spent on, among other things, Las Vegas and New York trips, meals at more than 70 restaurants, purchases at grocery stores and Wal-Mart, and several thousand dollars in "memorandum of understanding" payments to Parton's two daughters.

Only then did townspeople finally discover that what the city had been calling an economic lifeboat might actually be a shipwreck.

"Everybody was so excited about this great economic opportunity that nobody bothered asking any questions," said Jim Garrett, a Roanoke Rapids property manager whose website has mocked the city by publishing anemic theater attendance counts. "That's our money they spent," he said.

A 2005 contract gave the singer access to nearly $3 million, of which $2.4 million has been spent by Parton. The city is now combing through more of Parton's credit-card receipts.

Parton also received an annual "artist fee" of $750,000 and control of the theater. Parton profited from sales of Randy Parton T-shirts, booze in Randy Parton shot glasses and wine featuring Randy Parton's grizzled image.

John F. Moeur, managing editor of the Daily Herald in Roanoke Rapids, said the city gave Parton the keys to the theater, literally and figuratively.

"It was a sweetheart deal," said Moeur, whose newspaper apologized to readers for failing to investigate the contract when it was signed.

Moeur said most residents were starry-eyed when Dolly Parton showed up in November 2005 to promote a yet-to-be-built entertainment district -- to be called Carolina Crossroads -- which the 1,500-seat theater would anchor. She sang songs with Randy before 10,000 fans, but never performed at the theater.

"Dollywood's loss is North Carolina's gain," Parton said, referring to her Tennessee theme park, where her brother had performed.

"Back then, everybody was thinking Dollywood -- that Dolly would be coming back," said Clint Jones, a 27-year Roanoke Rapids resident. "But after a while it was more like, 'Randy who?' "

Moonlight Bandit Productions, run by Randy and his wife, Deb, promised on its website that Randy's "super-talented sisters, Stella, Rachel and megastar, Dolly, also plan to make regular appearances" at the theater.

The theater didn't open until July. The main act has been Randy Parton and his band, Moonlight Bandits.

The original $21.5-million deal was portrayed by local officials as a can't-miss opportunity because it was funded with "self-financed bonds." Under a bond law approved by state voters in 2004, cities may invest in economic improvement projects by repaying bonds with anticipated increases in tax revenues.

But if projects don't increase local tax revenues, cities can't repay the bonds and must cut police, fire or other services.

"And look where it got them in Roanoke Rapids -- the taxpayers were left holding the bag," said Chad Adams, a former county commissioner who works for the John Locke Foundation, a think tank in Raleigh that opposed the bond law.

Unlike ordinary bonds, self-financed bonds do not require voter approval, Adams said. Thus, Parton's deal required only City Council approval.

"This thing should have never been approved," Adams said. "It made Randy Parton the highest-paid state employee in North Carolina."

Carolina Crossroads, the privately financed entertainment district the theater was to anchor, today consists only of the theater and a modest Hilton Garden hotel scheduled to open in January. They are surrounded by barren land next to an Interstate 95 interchange, between optimistically named but empty Celebrity Row and Music Way.

Now Roanoke Rapids is struggling to make the best of a bad deal.

It revised Parton's contract, cutting his fee to $250,000 per year. It spent more taxpayer money to hire a Boston-based management company to take over the theater and a high-profile law firm from Raleigh to take on Parton's lawyer.

The new deal forgives $475,000 the city gave Parton in "good-faith money," and the city assumes $220,000 in liabilities owed by Parton, according to Daily Herald publisher Ronnie Bell. In a struggling city of 17,000, with a median household income of $28,745 and a paper mill as a major employer, revelations about the contract were not well-received.

"You take an economically depressed town and tell people someone here is getting paid $750,000, they come unglued," Moeur said.

Beale, who once wore shirts plastered with "Randy Parton Theatre" logos, has not explained why Parton was granted such favorable terms. He is no longer speaking to the news media. Phyllis P. Lee, the city manager, said Parton's lawyer told officials he was considering legal action against the city.

Beale told the Daily Herald last week, in an article headlined "Parton fiasco,"that the money given to Parton was part of an economic development package to promote the theater. "We thought he would use that money to make some good contacts," he said, noting that there was "a lot of traveling and a lot of eating out that had nothing to do with the theater."

Parton's alleged public drunkenness was the last straw, the mayor said.

Confronted by a TV crew outside the theater after the mayor banned him that night, Parton said, "I've done a good job. I've honored all my agreements. I'm not sure if the smell is the paper mill or politics."

Phone calls and e-mails to Moonlight Bandit Productions seeking comment from Parton were not returned. The Daily Herald has published a front-page column asking Parton for an interview. The paper is still waiting.

Randy's famous sister chimed in Tuesday with a news release that said her brother was being "crucified in the press." She called his show "top of the line" and said he "gave it his best effort."

"Unfortunately," the release said, "now that things aren't working as well as everyone had hoped, everyone is pointing fingers. . . . It's not fair making Randy the scapegoat."

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, the new management company said it had signed performers for coming shows. In the meantime, officials said, Parton's band would perform without him.

The mayor and council huddled in a closed session with their out-of-town lawyers and management specialists. When they emerged, they did not explain how they would repay the $21.5 million, whether Parton would ever perform again at the theater,or whether the town would change the theater's name.

Local wags have suggested slightly altering the RP logo on the theater to RR, for Roanoke Rapids.

And one resident told the local newspaper that he had a new name for the mayor and council: "Roanoke Rapids Bandits."