Home Grown Entertainment
By Deborah Turner
Last week, Weakley County lost one of its favorite sons. Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Arnold died after a short illness. Here are excerpts of a feature written about Ronnie and wife, Martha, in January 2005. It was published in The McKenzie Banner in that year.
GLEASON (2005) — Every year about July, Edgar Floyd of Gleason starts growing his beard because he knows the community wide production of “The Great Pretenders” is just around the corner. That’s when physician assistant J.C. Carey is transformed into a giggling lunatic who makes racy, late night phone calls to the “Margaret” of Ray Stephens fame. The Great Pretenders, a full-scale impersonation of famed characters that over the past ten years has taken West Tennessee by storm, helps to fund worthy causes from civic club projects to Project Graduations.
And it’s all thanks to the ingenuity of two special folks in the tri-counties community: Ronnie and Martha Arnold of Gleason. That the two cater to high school seniors and their parents is ironically the result of Martha’s dealing with “empty nest” syndrome some 11 years ago. After years of life centered around the activities of their son, Kent, when he went away to college, Martha says, “We looked at each other and thought, “What do we do now?”
Because singing had previously been a passion for Martha, Ronnie encouraged her to begin singing once more in order to fill the void she felt in her life. About the same time, the two were returning from Nashville when they spied a limousine and wondered what country music artist might be inside.
With Ronnie a member of the Gleason Rotary Club, the two were also mindful that money needed to be raised to fund a softball field project to which the club was already financially committed. They mused how great it could be if they could stage a major concert in Gleason, but knew the costs would be prohibitive.
It occurred to Ronnie that they could perform the concert themselves, and pretend to be famous performers. He mentioned the thought to Martha and, she says, “once we got the idea, it kind of evolved.”
They started watching their fellow Rotarians, wondering who could best portray which country singers. The gleaned from the Platters hit, “The Great Pretenders”, a name for the project, a title that stuck with the song still performed at the end of each production.
“It’s amazing how people with a little help could really look like the country music stars,” Martha says. “Edgar Floyd made a good Willie Nelson, J.C. Carey was a dead ringer for Ray Stevens and just as crazy, I was really into Patsy Cline, and Ronnie always liked Roy Orbison… We had so much fun with that first production.”
And, Ronnie recalls, “It was amazing the participation we had.”
Used to barbecue chicken sales and similar projects that might bring in $200 for a day’s work, the club anticipated selling 300 tickets at $5.00 each to raise the needed $1500. Instead, says Ronnie, “We ended up having two shows. We sold 1,000 tickets and had great fun doing it.”
It wasn’t the last time the Arnolds were surprised by the popularity of their concept. Ronnie recalls that after a big ice storm in the winter of 1994, they figured the show, sponsored by the McKenzie Lions Club and McKenzie High School Project Graduation, would go on just in case someone showed up.
“There was no electricity anywhere, except where we having the show at Bethel (University),” he says. “We didn’t think anyone would come but we packed the house; we had a great show that year.”
The show proved that the Arnolds’ step-by-step formula for success, that they share with their customers, works.
Another sell-out crowd occurred just after 9-11. The couple procured a huge American flag that was unfurled during the cast’s rendition of “God Bless the U.S.A.”
“That was very, very moving,” says Martha.
The Great Pretenders has progressed dramatically from that first production, when the two juggled cassette tapes between numbers and used homemade spotlights. Over the years, the production has become professional in quality with the Arnolds adding new equipment each year in a continuing effort at improving the set, while also replacing that which has worn out. They’ve added new lights and sound equipment and are especially proud of the confetti cannon that has added pizzazz to the show the last couple of years.
Their second production benefited the Greenfield Rotary Club, a step that has taken them to their current ten to eleven shows per year, having carried on the project themselves when, after a couple of years, it outgrew the club’s ability to keep up with demand.
For both Ronnie and Martha, their greatest joy in the Great Pretenders has been working with the students and parents in fund raising events for Project Graduations in various regional school systems. The events are more special, the two relate, because they represent, for many, the last opportunity for family togetherness and fun before the child leaves home.
“Once that child leaves home they may never have that closeness again,” Martha says, her normally bright smile somewhat wan in remembrance of her own empty nest from which the Great Pretenders was spawned.
On a brighter note, Ronnie relates the project also gives parents the opportunity to “act like a kid again.”
He estimates they he and Martha have met between 7,500 and 10,000 people, mostly students and parents, who have participated in the shows.
“We don’t always remember names but we remember faces,” says Martha, noting they take particular joy in seeing again those they’ve met in productions. “In the six weeks we work with them we develop an incredible closeness.”
Adds Ronnie, “Part of the joy is that it’s not a talent contest; we take whatever they bring us and we’re always amazed… they come and blossom.”
“They spread their wings and shine,” Martha agrees. “We really see the best side of them; we’re always overjoyed with the response we get from the students.”
The Arnolds rave about previously untapped talent that is discovered when students and parents begin practicing for their performances. They love seeing students, who may previously have shunned participation in other activities, realize their potential.
The sheer volume of time and energy it takes to produce the shows takes its toll on the Arnolds’ weekends. Ronnie handles the stage production while Martha performs as emcee and assist with special effects and spot lighting.
“It takes all three hands,” Ronnie says. “And some feet,” Martha adds.
It’s sometimes 1:00 in the morning before they arrive back home to collapse in exhaustion.
“It may take a couple of days to recover,” smiles Martha, “but when the next one comes along and we see the eager faces, we’re ready to go again.”
Many of their shows are repeats from former years. This will be the tenth production at Huntingdon High School and they have been working with Project Graduations at other schools for eight or nine years each. With repeat performances scheduled from year to year in advance, the Arnolds’ schedule has little room for additions. In order to keep the schedule manageable, their goal is to have no more than two practices for different schools each week. They take bookings for both spring and fall shows.
“About the end of April we wonder why we’re still doing this,” Martha laughs.
Besides the Great Pretenders, she says, “We both have jobs and family and that’s about all we can handle.”
“And church,” Ronnie adds. The couple attends First Methodist Church in Gleason. Martha works at the Bank of Gleason while Ronnie is employed across the street from the bank at AMA Insurance Company.
Their son, Kent, now 31, is married to Christy Wilson Arnold, also of Gleason. The pair live in Dickson with their two children, Eric, who will soon be 4, and Nolan Elise, 18 months.
“They kind of fill our lives right now,” smiles Martha.
“In loving memory of Ron Arnold, you were the best,”
Joel Washburn, publisher, Dresden Enterprise