Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Blue Jacket

An abandoned theatre for an outdoor drama that hasn't seen an audience in ten years is set to meet the wrecking ball.

- Visitors, under the supervision of park rangers, tour the former Blue Jacket performance space one last time. 

I can’t say I remember too much about the Blue Jacket outdoor drama production. I saw it once, with my Cub Scout troop when we made the trip from Fairfield to Xenia. I liked it. I appreciated the history, the story, and the behind-the-scenes tour we received. I didn’t care much for the food, though. Maybe that’s why my dad stopped at Taco Bell after the lengthy car ride home all those years ago. We ate our tacos and watched Late Night with Conan O’ Brien. I have to say that part of the story, that memory with my Dad, sticks out more to me than the whole Blue Jacket experience did. That’s not to say Blue Jacket was a bad show, rather, I just can’t say I ever really thought about it ever again.

Then, a few weeks ago, a video started making its rounds on the internet. The amphitheater that housed the show was now sitting abandoned, weeds and vegetation could be seen growing through the seats. As I watched the drone make sweeps over the stage and stands, the memory of that Cub Scout trip came flooding back. I wanted to go see the place again and thanks to the local parks department responding to an outpouring of requests, I wouldn’t have to trespass to the abandoned theatre. They were going to hold a final viewing and for some it was truly a final goodbye.

The Blue Jacket production had lasted for 26 years, giving its final performance in 2007. The show spent 2008 on hiatus and it's parent company filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Ticket sales had tapered off in the last few years and costs/debt had risen. There were also questions about whether the production’s story, that of a white man captured by Shawnee Indians who grows to become their leader, was authentic. While it’s generally agreed that Blue Jacket was a real person, the whole fable which predates “Dances With Wolves” has been scrutinized. On top of all that, the outdoor theatre industry can be a tough one as this article about a study of Blue Jacket's operation details here.

The Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL are not named after the Shawnee Leader, rather, the story behind their name is here

Both my Dad and I only had vague memories of our one trip there nearly twenty years ago, so we appreciated hearing the memories of those who held a more personal connection. Standing in the clearing that was once “center stage,” we eavesdropped as former cast members and employees swapped stories, shook hands as they reunited, or told their children about their days working for the production. One former marketing employee talked about the ups and downs of attendance, another employee stated that the controversy over historical accuracy was overblown. Some stagehands spoke with familiarity, wondering if the tunnel beneath the stage was still there (turns out it was filled with nearly four feet of water). One man just sat on the ground, staring up at the empty seats with a somber look on his face.

For nearly thirty years, this theatre saw many people come through, whether they were guests, cast members, stagehands, or employees. Although it was never something I knew with familiarity, regularity, or emotional connection, it was clear that this place meant something to many. Even if the lights in the rotting wooden towers haven’t turned on in a decade and even if a monologue hasn’t been spoken before a crowd of any size for some time, the Blue Jacket Outdoor Drama Production was once a spot of creativity amongst a relatively rural setting. Maybe the story wasn’t totally true, but it was clear that the people involved wanted to use that story to make you feel something and appreciate the history of what happened in Ohio long ago.

The people I listened to during this last visit: they cared.

The seats in the theatre are relatively new. Despite financial difficulty in its last few years, the production company was apparently able to get a grant for new seats. The baseball stadium-style seats are in great shape and will be salvaged. The concrete they sit upon will also be preserved as best as it can be, just in case there’s a chance for a new amphitheater in the future. The wooden lighting/technical booth structure will be demolished, while the ticketing/merchandise structure will remain. 

- The dining hall is one structure that will be preserved.

Also surviving will be the theatre's dining hall, which was built around the former Frisch’s Big Boy drive-in restaurant covering. When the infamous 1974 Xenia Tornado destroyed the original Frisch’s, only its car hop awning survived and it was relocated to the Blue Jacket grounds.

Property owner, Greene County Parks and Trails, is currently looking at proposals for how to develop the parkland. They’ve got quite a few ideas on deck and the community on that night seemed genuinely supportive, even if it means the theatre must go. They intend to erect a plaque in tribute to the former production.

Starting before, existing during, and surviving past Blue Jacket’s 26 year run is another Native America-centered outdoor drama in Ohio: “Tecumseh!” Located in Chillicothe, this production seems to still be going strong and will soon be entering its 40th season. Given the demise of Blue Jacket, I think a trip to see "Tecumseh!" may be in order.

As for my Dad and I. We ended our second trip to Blue Jacket with another drive home, this one occurring nearly two decades later and under very different circumstances. We talked about the stories we heard and the memories people shared. 

We also once again stopped for tacos. 

Thanks for the tacos (and everything), Dad. 


  1. Wow! What a read. Thank you for taking the time to visit and tell this story. Like you It has been 20+ years since I saw the production. It was my grandparents who took me to see it. Like you the over all production is vague to me but there are a few things that stand out. One is how far I jumped when the first cannon fired from the left of the stage. Not sure how much of a black powder charge they loaded that thing up with but it was a big bang. 2nd The cry of the warriors during the battle scenes. And last there was a moment in the production where Blue jacket was on a horse up on a hillside and they got the lighting just right to make it a silhouette. that moment seemed to take forever that night and it engraved itself in my mind. Like you though the one memory from that night that stands out the most was not in the production. On the way there my grandfather got a little impatient behind a tractor. Even though grandma told him we had plenty of time he floored it the first opportunity he had to pass and a state trooper got grandpa for passing in a no passing zone.
    It amazing when I read this was closing I remembered it was something I saw when I was younger. After you put your personal twist with your dad, I started remembering my day with my grandparents.
    I have said it on here before but no one brings back history like you guys do. I am glad you have brought this blog back to life with regular updates. There are few websites worth clicking on daily to see whats new, but this one is a must stop daily. Thanks again for checking it out and sharing the story.

    1. Wow, Andy, thanks so much for your comment. It means a lot that you enjoy this site and check it regularly. I've been trying to update it more frequently, but you know how life goes. Thanks for checking it out and keeping it up as well as for reading.

      Loved reading your memories from Blue Jacket, it's sparking some for me as well! Totally forgot about the cannons and I now I seem to remember some line about him shooting a fly with his rifle/revolutionary style uniform soldiers showing up.

      Interesting you mention the tractor too, we ended doing the same thing yesterday! But we avoided the trooper haha...

  2. Did they only allow you on to the stage or were you able to go into any of the backstage areas? I was an actor for Psycho Path, the haunted trail hosted on the grounds, for two years in the early 2000s. The start and end of the trail were on the stage and it went entirely through various backstage buildings and open areas. I'm wondering how much of it is still there. I was usually in the final building, which would have been behind the facade on stage left.

    1. No backstage areas unfortunately. It was my understanding that most of the backstage areas were now gone.

  3. Long time since I've written-the memorial plaque has been erected, and I was just out there today. The concession area is still standing, but was locked. The had a play area for the kids, a couple of food stands, and they were promoting Jamestown's festival, plus a car show. I've heard they may allow camping on the site at some point. Hated to see it go, but it was time. I will be posting the few pics I took on fb, keep up the good work!

    1. I forgot to sign......Kelli Mendenhall

    2. Kelli, so awesome to hear from you! Hope all is well! Thanks for the update, glad to hear the plaque went into place.