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Many Oklahomans have fond memories of visiting Discoveryland here in Sand Springs to see the musical “Oklahoma!” over the summer.
Discoveryland, “The National Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!” used to attract crowds from all over the country. Tour buses of people would often come through Sand Springs over the summer and stop for an evening at Discoveryland.
Discoveryland is an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by a large, campground-like property. The entire property was made to look like an early 1900s, pre-statehood town. There were little shops and food carts with friendly in-character hospitality staff ready to serve and to help out anyone who asked.
Discoveryland is the name of the actual property, but its claim to fame was the production of the musical “Oklahoma!” every summer for almost 40 years. An evening spent at Discoveryland didn’t mean just watching the show. There was a dinner, dessert, pre-show and lots of other activities before the musical even began. Gates opened around 5 p.m., the pre-show started at 7:30 p.m. and the show started at 8 p.m. The show was almost three hours long, so guests didn’t head home until after 11 p.m.
One of the things that was special about the “Oklahoma!” show at Discoveryland was that it was appealing to all kinds of people, even those who didn’t traditionally enjoy theater. The show features song, dance and romance, but it also has comedy, gun-slinging cowboys and live horses! It was more than just the show, too. When patrons entered Discoveryland, they were immediately greeted by “Oklahoma!” characters. Before the show, guests could have a barbecue dinner and berries & cream dessert. Wagons and buggies rolled around, and children could play games. The pre-show was often authentic Native American dancing. It truly was not just a show, but an experience.
Tirita Montross, owner of Miss Tirita’s Dance & Performing Arts Studio, worked at Discoveryland dancing in the “Oklahoma!” show over the summer for many years in the 1990s, and worked up the show’s ranks to eventually become the company manager, an assistant director and the show’s choreographer. She said it was a combination of factors that made “Oklahoma!” shows at Discoveryland so special.
“It’s the ambiance of sitting underneath the stars and Oklahoma sky, and it’s the musical “Oklahoma!” in Oklahoma, in an outdoor theater,” Montross said.
Discoveryland opened in 1976. The first show to run at Discoveryland was not “Oklahoma!” but was a version of “Oklahoma!” called “Dust on the Petticoat.” “Oklahoma!” however, is what made Discoveryland memorable for so many. The show “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” was put on in addition to “Oklahoma!” for a few seasons in an effort to draw more guests.
With an outdoor production such as “Oklahoma!” there are many special considerations that do not apply to traditional, indoor stage shows. For example, horses carried wagons in from the woods around the stage onto the stage, so the stage manager had to have wranglers on hand to help with the horses. There was also the issue of rain – in Oklahoma it often rains for 10 or 15 minutes then clears, but the actors and actresses were then dealing with a wet stage.
“It was never boring,” Montross said.
It was also very hot most years. It would often get up to 110 degrees in July and August during the shows. The cast members had speakers in their dressing rooms so they could hear what was happening on stage while cooling off in between their scenes.
The people in the show became very close from spending so much time together at rehearsals and performances. Many cast members are still good friends, and there were even a few marriages between cast members, including Stephanie Edwards, a former dancer, and Matt Govich, a former Curly.
Many of the actors and actresses in “Oklahoma!” continued careers in theater. Stephanie Edwards Govich owns a dance studio in Norman, and Matt Govich performed on Broadway and is involved in theater in Oklahoma City and Norman. Travis Dixon is a working actor in Los Angeles. Jason Hargrove is a singer and songwriter in Nashville. Mark Frie is the executive director of the new Broken Arrow Performing Arts Center. Greg White is a musical theatre professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. Jennifer Baker, a former Laurey, is the director of Sooner Theatre in Norman. Kellie Coffey-Koch won Top New Female Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music awards in 2003. And of course, Tirita Montross owns Miss Tirita’s dance studio here in Sand Springs.
“I bet if you asked 90 percent of the cast, even hospitality, they would say they loved their summers at Discoveryland,” Montross said.
A large of portion of Discoveryland’s guests came from tour buses. In the 1980s, there would be 10 or 12 tour buses stop at the show six nights a week.
“There would just be busloads and busloads of people coming in, and they’d be there from 5 to after 11,” Montross said.
Sadly, toward the end of the show’s run in 2011, tour buses rarely stopped in Sand Springs. Tirita credits the rising popularity of nearby Branson, Missouri, as a tour bus destination as one of the reasons the buses eventually stopped coming to Discoveryland.
When the show began, there were 50 to 60 people in the cast. But that number slowly decreased to about 20 in the last few years of its run.
The lead characters in “Oklahoma!” were always unionized actors and actresses in the beginning of its run, and many other cast members were professional actors, actresses, singers, and dancers or were at least in a theater, music or dance program in college. In later years, the majority of the smaller cast were high school or college students.
When Montross started working at Discoveryland, the summer season ran from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, and there was a show every night of the week except Sunday. The season slowly shortened over the years – first to only four shows a week, then to only weekends.
“In its heyday, it was awesome,” Montross said.
Discoveryland officially closed in 2014, and the owners put it up for sale. Its reasons for closing are largely unknown, though smaller crowds and rising temperatures are possible factors.
Discoveryland has new owners as of April 2016. Co-owner Jen Wells said the property was listed for sale online, and she was impressed by its acreage. The property is now a family recreation area – guests can come ride their four-wheelers or dirt bikes anytime or just get outside for a bit. “Hawgtoberfest,” and music and motorcycles event, was held at Discoveryland this past October, and Wells is hoping to start a summer concert series in the amphitheater in the future. A springs music festival is in the works, too. They are planning an Easter egg drop for April 15 this year and already have thousands of eggs to drop. Anyone is welcome to attend. For more information, visit the new Discoveryland website at http://discoverylandok.com/.