Theater owners wear many hats

Published 6:21 pm Saturday, July 27, 2013

Kevin Scott Cutler | Daily News Little Ariel Lewis listens as her mom Dana Lewis (center) and grandmother Angie Lewis (left) rehearse for an upcoming show at Tar Heel Variety Theater in Chocowinity.

Kevin Scott Cutler | Daily News
Little Ariel Lewis listens as her mom Dana Lewis (center) and grandmother Angie Lewis (left) rehearse for an upcoming show at Tar Heel Variety Theater in Chocowinity.


CHOCOWINITY — The mother-daughter singing duo of Naomi and Wynonna Judd created a sensation on the country music scene during the 1980s, and their homegrown Chocowinity counterparts are developing their own loyal following.

Angie Lewis and Dana Lewis, whose family owns and operates Tar Heel Variety Theater in Chocowinity, are among the featured acts during the facility’s monthly variety shows. Those shows are part of the theater’s entertainment line-up, which also includes upcoming concerts by John Conlee, the Malpass Brothers, Dailey & Vincent, Gene Watson & The Farewell Party Band, Connie Smith and the Rocky Hock Opry.

Dana began singing at the tender age of 2 when she belted out Randy Travis’ “Diggin’ Up Bones.” She also frequently performed as a youngster in church, testament to her strong faith and Christian upbringing,

Angie is her daughter’s biggest fan and her best friend. The younger Lewis encouraged her mother to share the spotlight with her.

“Dana had more nerve than I did. I would never get up there,” Angie said of her daughter’s early performances. “I was 42 before I sang for anyone other than my family. Dana can sing everything … bluegrass, pop, country, gospel. I can’t. I’m more the old style country, like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.”

The Tar Heel Variety Theater, then known as the Grand Old Gospel, opened its doors over a decade ago. The theater had been hosting shows for two years before either Lewis stepped into the spotlight as an entertainer. They were hardly resting on their laurels, however; the entire family, including Angie’s husband Ronnie and son Landon, worked tirelessly behind the scenes, dedicated to bringing family-friendly, wholesome entertainment to Beaufort County.

Even now, Dana operates the ticket booth and Angie may serve up soft drinks at the concession stand before ducking backstage to slip into pretty stage costumes in preparation for the evening’s show. Once, Dana even got to play her saxophone during a concert with music legend Chubby Checker.

A year ago, a third generation Lewis joined the family at Tar Heel Variety Theater. Since the owners and their loyal patrons have become family, it seemed only fitting that Dana’s daughter Ariel make her public debut onstage when she was two days old. But the family is determined to let the youngest member find her own way. Dana is the polar opposite of the stereotypical stage mother.

“I want to let her have time to make up her mind if she wants to perform,” Dana said of her young daughter. “I don’t want her to feel like she has to do that.”

In the meantime, Ariel does her part by flashing a wide grin and charming patrons as they arrive for a show. Tucked away next to her grandmother near the front door, she’s a favorite of Tar Heel regulars. And, judging from her obvious enjoyment of the live music, she is developing an early appreciation for fine entertainment, from classic country to traditional gospel. Her grandfather Ronnie and uncle Landon are more than willing to leave the spotlight to the women folks, preferring instead to handle sound, lighting and maintenance tasks.

Ronnie Lewis, in particular, is eager to let Angie and Dana get all the attention. And he says they deserve it.

“I think they’re second to none myself,” he said with pride. “They feel what they sing. They love to entertain, they love to make people happy.”

But he isn’t above a bit of teasing. While others may liken his family to the famous Judds, he can’t resist a little good-natured ribbing, according to his wife.

“We were all in the car, riding along and singing one time,” Angie recalls with a laugh. “Ronnie told us we weren’t The Judds, we were the Duds!”

*The Lewis family is especially proud to be hosting what they are billing as a “Gospel Sing-sation” in the style of the well-know Gaither’s television show in September. After a brief summer hiatus, Tar Heel Variety Theater reopens Aug. 3 with a concert by country music legend John Conlee. For more information about upcoming shows, call (252) 975-2117 or