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Martha Arnold - "The Great Pretenders"
Home Grown Entertainment in its 10th Year
By Deborah Turner - McKenzie
Martha and Ronnie Arnold founded the Great Pretenders as a
way to raise money for their local Rotary Club and fill Martha's empty
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 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
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."
The late Bob Owen, shown here in Gleason's second Great Pretenders
concert, was the "cheerleader" of the annual project, according to
founder Martha Arnold who says, "He loved it. He would go out in the
crowd and get them cheering and clapping." Owen is one of several
now missed, including state trooper Larry Rouse who, she says,
"really got into his part as Jed Clampett." The 1994 stage was stark
in comparison with today's professional production as Ronnie and
Martha strive each year to improve their product.
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
"There was no electricity anywhere, except where we having the show at
Bethel," 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.
The Arnolds credit Debbie and James Jarrett for their assistance in past
productions as well as Gaylon Biggs who helps out with sound from time to
time, plus Jonathan Chappell who helps with stage and sound.
The part-time endeavor is not for the faint of heart: "The pace is all
consuming," says Martha. "It's a group effort."
After six weeks of at least weekly rehearsals, which may take place at two
or three locations per week during prime season, setting up for an event
takes about four hours, Ronnie says.
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
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 Arnolds rave about previously untapped talent that is discovered when
students and parents beginning practicing for their performances. They
love seeing students, who may previously have shunned participation in
other activities, realize their potential.
Huntingdon High School seniors and parents in 1994 perform
as Barry White and back up singers and musicians.
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
"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."
The Arnolds try to keep their productions within an hour's drive of home,
which means that each year they are forced to turn down performances
outside that range.
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
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.
How long do the Arnolds plan to continue their adventure?
"As long as it's fun and we think we're continuing to reach those goals
we're after," says Martha. "We love the results of what we do."
From Ron and Martha...
"What's our motivation for doing these shows year after year? We
have always enjoyed working with seniors and their parents and feel
that in some small way we are bringing people together in a spirit
of cooperation to form a cohesive group, hoping we can show students
you can have a lot of fun doing a clean, family show without
vulgarity or alcohol.
"Comments from a principal: 'I wish we could do your show at the
beginning of the school year; these kids are different after they've
been in the Great Pretenders, they're closer and have a different
attitude after the show.'
"Comments from a teacher: 'That boy or girl never participated in
anything before the Great Pretenders. He is so happy to be
"Comments from parents: 'I'll have a senior in three more years and
I already know what I want to do. I can't wait.'"
The Arnolds get letters...
"I would like to thank you for being so patient... I was told you
were great to work with and I found out that was very true.
"I remember when you first said things would look so different from
the first practice until the last. I had my doubt but the final
production was great. I think it will be memories our seniors and
parents will cherish forever.
I thought I would be glad when it was over, but after everything was
cleaned up I took a look at the stage and thought it was a little
sad. It just meant to me, I was a little closer to sending my
daughter off into this world..."
"Thanks, I've enjoyed the three times
I've done the Great Pretenders. They have always been good. This was
my last child but I'll come and see future shows."
"Again, there are not enough words to
say thanks for your part in making this year so memorable for us..."
"What you said in cast meeting about
making memories was exactly right. When we look back over the
pictures we took we have great memories. It was lots of hard work
but it was fun... Great Pretenders was a great success, we owe that
to you." Source:McKenzieBanner.com
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