By Duane Crawford
The Daily Iowegian
---- — As a country music and comedy fan, I’m both honored and saddened to have the opportunity to pen a final tribute to the musical era of Willis and Faye Dickerson. During the past 20 years, I’ve enjoyed writing about them and their faithful musicians, family and friends. Many members of the band, guest performers and fans wanted to voice their gratitude in this article, but space limited the praise the Dickerson couple rightfully deserves. I apologize to them.
On Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, Southern Iowa’s Grand Country Opry and the Hawkeye State’s longest running music and comedy show will close. After 40 years of entertaining thousands of music fans, Willis and Faye will say a final goodbye to their countless followers, band members, guest performers, and close the curtain for the final time. Even though the Dickersons’ band members and fans end the final show with a myriad of treasured memories, there will be hugs, sadness and tears.
To the thousands of heartland music lovers, the immaculately clean, smoke and alcohol- free and air conditioned theater, located near the southeastern shore of beautiful Rathbun Lake, will always be home away from home on summer Saturday nights. Because of the patient, inspiring and humble leadership of Willis and Faye, a family bond was forged with the house band, guest performers and heartland music fans.
Willis and Faye are highly admired by everyone for having a close-knit Christian family with impeccable American values. Besides their humility, they and their children are honest, trustworthy, sincere and patriotic. The Dickersons’ musical success story would not be complete without mention of their talented children.
They all started performing on stages at a young age. Steve played the drums and recalls playing square dances for a couple of dollars, but he also spent many nights on the Rathbun stage. Brent learned guitar playing from Willis, played at the theater and later formed his own band. He hops on stage at Rathbun a couple times a year to perform a duet with Willis. As for daughter Gena, she was only two when she sang her first song. Some of the songs she sang were “Ja-Da” and “Slow Poke.” Though Gena is a highly successful business executive for Hallmark in Connecticut, she comes home once a year to sing on stage. A son, Timothy, passed away in 1975.
Willis and Faye, married on July 17, 1953, are inseparable and are the epitome of a successful couple. While Willis takes care of the music, Faye shies away from publicity and performs the many minute details for the theater. Her kids say she’s an excellent cook and is always baking cookies. Gena’s friends often said her mom made them delicious cookies every time they visited. Faye also sewed many of the kids’ clothes, because she loved sewing. Willis and Faye are both community oriented. Besides being active in 4-H and church, they have taught classes on sewing, woodworking, electrical fundamentals and rope making. They were known for hosting events on their farm, including wiener roasts, picnics and 4th of July fireworks. Willis taught the boys how to make molasses, apple cider and brooms. They have six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Some have performed on the stage.
Willis and Faye, by their own exemplary examples, built the character and spirit of Rathbun. Everyone, house band, guest performers and music fan’s all feel like they’re part of one happy family. Strangers attending for the first time will find a friendly welcome as they arrive in the parking lot. They are greeted with smiles and warm, courteous words from Jerry McIntyre, when he’s not playing drums, or from Larry Opperman, a Vietnam War veteran. When Jerry’s on stage, John Griswold helps with parking. They also work sound and lights when the show starts.
Outside the entrance the American flag proudly waves. The lobby consists of the ticket counter, snack bar and rest rooms. Pictures and other memorabilia adorn the walls to remind everyone of the long, rich and treasured history of the theater. Soft-spoken, graceful and polite, Faye is usually found behind the ticket counter with her able assistant, Linda Opperman. The snack bar is operated by Deb McIntyre and Deb Davison.
As enthusiastic music fans arrive and fill the lobby, they socialize with friends and meet new ones. After the house band concludes their rehearsal, the theater doors are opened and people can easily find their seats and anxiously await the curtain to open.
Two or three guests perform at every show. They are gifted musicians who come from all over the heartland and are common, hard-working, and patriotic folks like the fans. Most have faithfully appeared through the years, and they love the Rathbun crowds.
Willis is the master of ceremonies and plays the lead guitar. He never gets frustrated or seems worried, and he moves the show along at a smooth pace. Sometimes a former member of the house band or someone Willis knows with talent will be asked to get on stage to perform.
Willis, members of the house band, and guests interact like family, and egoisms and jealousies do not exist. There is a spirit of cooperation, genuine friendship and good-natured humor flowing throughout every show. The crowd loves the mixture of comedy and music.
The order in which the faithful house band came to the show is: Willis (1974), Milt Albertson (1981), Cindy Rhoades (1994), Milissa Shineflew (1996), Peggy Wardenburg (1997), Steve Head and Pat Sharman (2002), David Pitt (2003), Doug Davison (2007), Darin Manson (2007), Lonnie “Lonzo” Erwin (2008), Jerry McIntyre (2010) and Sharon West (2011). They all sing.
Milt Albertson says of his 32 years on the show, “I’ve long ago grown to appreciate and be amazed by the talent Willis displays. He and his family are great people and show friendliness, patience and understanding to the members of the band, guests and loyal audiences. Willis and Faye give me and other musicians a chance to have fun. No other couple could have been such a success for forty years. My wife, Karen, and I consider them life-long friends, as well as the countless fans that come to Rathbun.”
On Saturday, Oct. 26, Rathbun Country Music Theater will be packed with faithful members of the music family and no one will want the show to end. Fans and the house band will give Willis and Faye a heartfelt show of appreciation for providing the heartland with fun and music for so many years. They have left an indelible legacy! We wish them many years of health and happiness. For reservations call: (Home) – (660) 344-2310 or theater (641)-724-3505.