Amphitheatre closed, state cites safety concerns

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The sun shines bright on My Old Kentucky Home, but on Thursday, the J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre went dark. It’s a sight that is heartbreaking for Johnny Warren, managing artistic director for “The Stephen Foster Story”, who was present last week when the state cut the power to one of Bardstown’s most important and beloved attractions.


The Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet issued a press release on the amphitheater’s closure Thursday afternoon, citing electrical and structural issues.

“An inspection conducted this week by the Kentucky Department of Parks determined that the stage area is not safe for employees or park guests,” the release states. All of the other amenities at My Old Kentucky Home State Park remain open to the public.

The amphitheater was constructed in 1958 and has hosted “The Stephen Foster Story,” a musical performance and Kentucky staple, since that time.

Warren, who serves with the Stephen Foster Drama Association, said they have for years expressed concern about the state-owned facility’s condition.

“We have been aware and we sort of waved a flag of ‘Please Help’ several years ago,” Warren said Thursday. “We’ve had that ongoing conversation with State Parks, honestly in an attempt to avoid a day like today where the power has to be shut off for safety reasons.”

Warren said efforts have been made in the past, including the state sending a crew a few years ago to replace the electrical outlets back stage. That work, however, has been minimal.

“It’s an old facility that has been neglected for a long time,” he said.

In the Thursday press release, Cabinet Secretary Don Parkinson said Kentucky State Parks Commissioner Donnie Holland and his team began the process of alerting the public to potential hazards as soon as the report was reviewed with inspectors. That process includes caution tape blocking off entry to guest seating and signs that read, “DANGER! No public or staff access. Theater facility closed.”

“The safety of our employees and guests is paramount to us,” Holland said in the release.

It’s important for Warren, too.

“Safety is our primary concern. Always has been. Always will be,” he said. “And so, we are aware of the concerns from the state. We had them first. We brought those concerns to the attention of the state and we were hoping for a different solution.”

In a televised interview with PLG TV-13 Friday, Warren said state officials have expressed they do not want the “The Stephen Foster Story” to cease, “and yet very little has been done to keep that from happening for so many years.”

It’s a frustrating situation, and the thought of “The Stephen Foster Story” not being able to perform in the amphitheater — its home — for its 60th anniversary season is devastating, but he believes work is being done to find a solution.

“At this point, we are proceeding as if there will be a solution discovered and we will be able to perform in the amphitheater this summer. That is going to take a lot of work.”

Warren said local and state officials, as well as Stephen Foster’s board of directors are all part of that conversation to find a fix, and that they know the value of “The Stephen Foster Story,” not only to the community but to the state as well.

“The way forward,” he said, “is a temporary solution to get us through the summer. A bigger conversation is how to build a new facility, and they are part of that conversation, too.”

On Friday, after news of the closure traveled across the community, State Sen. Jimmy Higdon and State Representative Chad McCoy issued a joint statement to the media regarding the closure, saying it had shocked residents of Bardstown and Nelson County.

“The beloved Stephen Foster Story has been taken for granted for years by the community and the state. We now have a crisis due to the fact that the amphitheater has fallen into an unsafe condition,” the statement reads in part.

It would take a minimum of two years, possibly more, they said, for planning and appropriations from the state to allow for a new facility to be built, which would be a long-term fix.

“Under that scenario, we would miss at least two summers of the beloved play,” they said.

As for the short term, the state officials said they have spent the last several months looking at what can be done, and said County Judge-Executive Dean Watts has stepped forward and is working on a plan at the local level as well.

“We still have a few issues to work through with the state in order to proceed with a local solution. We will keep you posted on the progress,” the statement concludes.

The closure is not something Bardstown and Nelson County take lightly.

“The outcry of support on social media and to our office and to us individually has been overwhelming and we are so thankful to have a fantastic support system in a situation such as this,” Warren said Friday.

For those looking for a way to help, he said, they can contact Gov. Matt Bevin’s office and elected officials to express their concerns and request that, if the state cannot address the needs, that we as a community be allowed to address them.

Monetary assistance can also be offered through a Go Fund Me account to “Save the Amphitheatre,” which can be accessed through The Stephen Foster Story Facebook page. As of press time, the campaign had risen close to $4,000.

Warren said the drama association can also be contacted through info@stephenfoster.com.

The importance of the amphitheater reaches beyond serving as a performance space for “The Stephen Foster Story.” The drama association recently announced its second show for this summer as “Mary Poppins,” and the theater is used for a variety of performances from the Live at the Park concert series, to a Fourth of July event, and even high school graduations. Those events and others have made a significant impact on Nelson County economically and are a draw for tourists from across the country.

Warren said they need the chance to be able to continue that legacy of something that has been so valuable to the community in so many different ways.

For now, though, efforts still focus on finding a temporary solution to perform “The Stephen Foster Story” this summer “right here where it was created to be. Where it was meant to be. Where it needs to be.”