Archived Arts & Entertainment

A changing audience

“Unto These Hills” first opened on July 1, 1950, as an outdoor drama to celebrate the history and honor the sacrifices made by the Cherokee tribe.

The play features dances and music as it tells the story of early encounters with European explorers, the later betrayal by the U.S. government, the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, and the death of Tsali.

Written by Kermit Hunter, then a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Unto These Hills” went on to become one of the most successful outdoor dramas ever. About 6 million people have come to see the show.

Over the years, “Unto These Hills” was a driving force in the local tourism industry, and the show employed hundreds of actors and technical staff from all over the country. Some famous acting alums have included Michael Rosenbaum, who plays Lex Luthor in TV’s “Smallville,” Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and Polly Holliday, who played Flo in TV’s “Alice.”

There’s an “Unto These Hills” photography exhibit now on display at the Lift Culture House (located on Tsali Boulevard across the street from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian). The exhibit includes a retrospective series of black and white photos of Cherokee actors who performed in “Unto These Hills” as well as framed newspaper clippings documenting the early years of the show.

In the 1970s, “Unto These Hills” enjoyed summer audiences of 130,000 or more. In the past 15 years, however, attendance has fallen from about 100,000 per summer to about 60,000 last season.

Related Items

Bradley, who performed as a dancer in the show from 1985 to 1992, remembers the big crowds, but when he returned again to perform in 2000, he was shocked to see that audience numbers had shrunk so much.

With 2,800 seats in the theater, “Unto These Hills” has six shows a week (Monday through Saturday) for 11 weeks from June through August. That’s 66 shows, give or take a few rain cancellations. With 60,000 people coming to see the show in a season, that’s an average audience taking up about a third of the seats in the venue.

Part of the reason for the decline, Bradley explained, was an economic downturn in the region when textile mills in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia closed. These mills employed workers that would take summer vacations to Cherokee to see “Unto These Hills.” With that audience base gone, the outdoor drama has had to find new customers.

One way might be through the Internet.

Thanks to a more direct approach to selling tickets over its Web site, “Unto These Hills” saw a 50 percent rise in ticket sales in the last month of last season. In fact, from 2004 to 2005, “Unto These Hills” actually saw a 17-percent increase in its ticket sales last year — the largest increase of attendance for any outdoor drama in the country, according to Bradley.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.