By Bob Hamill
I first meet David Fee in 1985. We were both Cruise Directors (CD) on Carnival Cruise Lines. When a CD goes on vacation or is being transferred, the next CD spends a week on the ship to get familiar with the day to day operations.
David and his partner, Jim Hedrick, were jugglers with a little magic thrown in. I enjoyed their act. It was a bit crazy and they were endearing to the audience. Off stage they were pretty much the same as they were on. There was something about David that you didn’t see in too many people. He was extremely observant and calculated with every move he made. He was inventive and fun to work with. There was almost nothing he would not do.
He was also generous to his staff. David always gave some kind of bonus for doing their jobs well. This would carry over to when he left the ships. Once we parted ways I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. David and “Juggling Jim” got tired of the ship life and took off to find themselves a theater.
David grew up in Oak Ridge and knew the area well. Since the opening of Dollywood, Pigeon Forge was officially a tourist destination. After an exhausting search with the two of them scouting every nook and cranny, they gave up. As they were leaving, the two decided to give a place on the Parkway another look.
It was already a theater. So, it had sound and lights. The venue had metal folding chairs and seated around 325. It was Archie Campbell’s Hee Haw Theater. The place was not in the best shape and doing little business. It was not really on the Parkway, but nestled next to the river. They decided to roll the dice and buy it. It was the best decision they ever made. However, it came with a price.
After a successful season—due to unorthodox promotions, going from restaurant to restaurant giving out flyers, stopping people on the street, displaying a mind reading pig and having hillbillies waving cars into their parking lot—it was standing room only. A decision had to be made.
It had to be transformed into a brand new multi-million dollar state of the art theater seating 800 people, which is easier said than done. I was in contact with Jim and Dave as the barn was being built. Anyone else who was having something constructed would let the contractors do their jobs. Not these guys. Any time I called, they were either painting or building or doing something to help the building along. The barn was quoted to be completed at one price and then suddenly was three times as much.
To finish the job, they acquired more credit cards, as the bank would not lend them any more money. They quickly maxed out the cards. After already investing a bundle, David’s father Gordon remortgaged his house. It was worth it. Almost from the time they opened the doors, The Comedy Barn became the most successful show in town.
Due to its success, Fee/Hedrick Family Entertainment Group now owns and operates The Comedy Barn, Hatfield McCoy Dinner Theater and The Smoky Mountain Opry. They are also the sixth largest employer in Sevier County.
I asked David a couple of years ago why he did all he did. It’s not easy being a father with two children and being responsible for so many employees. He took a moment to think and simply replied, “I like to give people jobs.”