Bankruptcy, ill will plague Bryant
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. -- Margaret Cole expected great things when she went to work at the Anita Bryant Music Mansion, a plantation-style showplace with towering white columns and sparkling chandeliers set in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
"There's something about the theater business that just gets in your blood," she said.
The first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night, Cole, a 58-year-old Baptist, felt she was doing something good for the world: Anita Bryant, the show's star, would belt out tunes from her '50s and '60s heyday, but the cornerstone of her act was a lengthy segment in which she preached her Christian beliefs.
Attendance was so sparse some nights that the manager put employees in the seats to boost the cast's morale. Cole, who worked in the ticket office, didn't mind.
"I thank God daily I have a Christian place to work," she told Tennessee labor investigators in August 2000. She scowled at locals who started to bad-mouth Bryant and Charlie Dry, the singer's husband and business partner.
But even Cole gave up on the couple after six months of bounced paychecks and daily promises that God would bring forth new investors. She holds little hope of ever seeing more than $6,400 in missed pay.
Here in the hills of eastern Tennessee, the story is much the same for dozens of others who labored, often for weeks or months without pay, to produce Bryant's jaunty, toe-tapping show, "Anita With Love."
Twenty-five years after her famous antigay crusade in Florida ended a high-flying career, Bryant, 62, is known in three other states for not paying bills. She has spent the past few years in small entertainment capitals across the Bible Belt, gamely attempting a comeback but leaving bankruptcy and ill will in her wake.
It has been a long, difficult slide for Bryant, who, as a wholesome, 30-something singer in the 1970s, was proclaimed the "Most Admired Woman in America" by Good Housekeeping magazine three years running.
Back in Tennessee, the singer's latest foray unfolded in Pigeon Forge, part of a Smoky Mountain vacationland known for its theme parks, rustic lodges and music theaters where second-tier celebrities perform two and three shows a day. Some call it the "Hillbilly Las Vegas."
Many of the 60 or so Music Mansion employees had cars repossessed or were evicted from apartments. The general manager, a retired Army helicopter pilot who served in Operation Desert Storm, lost his good credit rating after unpaid vendors pursued him in court because he signed for deliveries.
"In my opinion, you do not do people like they have done people and live a Christian life," said Margaret Cole, who cannot explain the strange, faith-based hold that kept her in Bryant's service for so long.
"If I owed people like they owe people I would not be able to lay down at night and sleep."
Ashley Matthews, a dancer who is owed $3,200 in back pay, said the hard times left some workers so strapped for cash they stole popcorn and candy from the theater's concession stand so they could eat.
The theater's troubles do not appear to have had the same effect on Bryant and Dry, her second husband. The couple leases a $350,000 home tucked into a mountainside in the Smokies, where a local real estate agent reports they are paying the rent on time. The two-level home sits on a picturesque lake inside a gated community.
"They were always telling us God's going to come through," Matthews said of the couple. "They would attach his name to everything and if we didn't believe them, we didn't have faith. It didn't have anything to do with God. We knew their track record."
Bryant would not be interviewed for this story, leaving Dry to speak for her. During a brief visit with Dry on the porch of their home, the singer -- wearing glasses -- peeked out the door to ask if everything was okay. She spoke in the familiar, throaty voice of the long-ago Florida orange juice ads that made her famous. Then Dry shooed her back inside.
He said the latest bankruptcy is part of the couple's plan to divest of partners who reneged on promises to provide cash for the Music Mansion. He said he and Bryant tried to keep it running with their own money, and now plan to re-emerge with control of the theater and enough money to pay everyone back.
Asked whether his critics in Pigeon Forge should blame his former partners for the troubles, Dry said two words:
* * *
If you were conscious in the 1960s and '70s, you remember Anita Jane Bryant, the fresh-faced Miss Oklahoma who parlayed her runnerup finish in the 1959 Miss America pageant into a career as a singer and pitchwoman.
You remember the slogans she sang on Florida orange juice commercials: "Come to the Florida Sunshine tree" and "Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine."
She also appeared in ads for Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Holiday Inn and Tupperware.
A 1970 survey found that 75 percent of U.S. television viewers knew who she was and what she sold.
Struck by her success, then-Gov. Reubin Askew remarked: "People connect orange juice, Florida and Anita Bryant so much that it becomes difficult to decide which to visit, which to listen to and which to squeeze."
Bryant hit the A-list of American celebrities, touring with Bob Hope in Vietnam, singing at dinners in Lyndon Johnson's White House, singing at the Republican and Democratic conventions, singing at the 1976 Super Bowl, singing Battle Hymn of the Republic at Johnson's funeral in 1973.
She earned a fortune and lived with her then-husband, Bob Green, and their four children in a mansion on Miami Beach.
Her career crashed after her 1977 campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Miami. She felt the ordinance was unconstitutional, that it forced private schools to hire gay teachers.
But the controversy scared away sponsors and promoters. Gay activists launched a boycott of products she sold. Florida growers ended her 12-year run as spokeswoman for the citrus industry. Promoters canceled 80 bookings in one year. And when the shock of those losses led to Bryant's 1980 divorce, she was shunned as a sinner by the same people in the Christian right who had rallied by her side in the fight against gay rights.
More recently, Bryant's name has come up as a fight brews over another of her legacies: Florida's ban on gay adoptions, approved by the Legislature on May 31, 1977, amid the antigay fervor Bryant had generated in Miami.
The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a campaign against the ban and hopes to have it overturned in federal court or in the next session of the Legislature -- much to the dismay of the state of Florida, the Christian Coalition of Florida and conservative legislators.
Though her feelings about homosexuality remain unchanged, Bryant has refused over the years to re-enter America's continuing debate over gay rights.
She has not kept up on Florida's looming battle over gay adoptions, yet scores of people on both sides of the issue recently have sent her e-mail, Dry said.
In arguments that will be used in federal court later this year, the ACLU invokes her name, saying it was Bryant's successful fight to repeal the Miami ordinance that prompted lawmakers in Tallahassee to draft the law banning gay adoptions.
The ACLU notes that the law's passage and the Miami repeal occurred within a week of each other.
"The gay adoption ban is her handiwork," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Most people still regard her work as really some of the worst homophobia the country has ever seen, and that endures."
To help lead the effort, the ACLU has recruited a female celebrity with as much star power as Bryant had in 1977: talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, a gay Miami Beach resident who has adopted three children in other states and wants the option to adopt again -- in Florida.
Bryant, meanwhile, is a lasting, if faded, figure in American culture, still embraced by stalwart fans and still reviled on gay-friendly Web sites.
Former employees of the Music Mansion say some of the male dancers in Bryant's show were gay, but they tolerated working for Bryant to get a paycheck. At parties, the workers said, they mocked her.
Bryant's fall from grace in the 1970s and her struggle to rebound in the 1980s are covered in her 1992 book, A New Day, billed as "a triumphant story of forgiveness, healing and recovery." Since then, she has continued to rise and fall in places like Pigeon Forge.
To this day, Dry said, his wife is misunderstood on the gay issue.
"It's not the gay people (she objects to), it's the sin" of homosexuality, her husband said. "She tried to make that perfectly clear, but nobody would let it come out that way."
Bryant has friends and show business pals who are gay, Dry said. "I've known her all my life. She does not hate gay people."
* * *
Mary Ellen Grace heads the Tennessee Department of Labor office that investigated the Music Mansion's dealings with employees, but gave up trying to collect money.
"It's like the sun set on this place and it didn't rise," she said. The employees "kept saying they were waiting for help from Anita. But Anita never helped them."
In December, the Tennessee company headed by Bryant and Dry filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which is designed to hold creditors at bay until an enterprise can be reorganized. But with the theater closed since the fall of 2000, there was nothing to reorganize. Case dismissed.
Today, scores of creditors seem to be out of luck, though Dry, in an interview last week, painted a brighter picture.
"Those people are going to be paid ... within the next few months," he said.
The promise means little to those who know the couple's recent history: two bankruptcy filings in five years and a host of liens for unpaid taxes and other debts.
Bryant and Dry filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Arkansas in 1997 after piling up bills from a failed Anita Bryant show in Eureka Springs, a tourist area in northwest Arkansas. Among the debts: more than $172,000 in unpaid state and federal taxes.
Bryant also spent part of the 1990s in the nearby country music mecca of Branson, Mo., where the state and federal governments filed liens claiming more than $116,000 in unpaid taxes.
An Oklahoma native who was Bryant's childhood sweetheart, Dry is a retired test crewman for NASA and an affable man with a gift for easy conversation. Locals in Pigeon Forge say he used that charm to string people along.
His plan to re-establish the Music Mansion will never work, they say, given the memory of the theater's darkest days in August 2000. That's when an Irish dance troupe showed up to perform at the Music Mansion while Bryant was said to be on tour. When Dry refused to pay their full fee or provide an adequate per diem, the dancers were left stranded.
Deeply embarrassed, the residents and business people of Pigeon Forge donated food to the dancers. They took up a collection to pay their travel expenses back to Ireland. A local hotel put them up for free.
After that, church and tour groups who paid months in advance to see "Anita With Love" often drove up in buses to an empty theater. To salvage Pigeon Forge's reputation, other theaters chipped in with free tickets to their shows.
As for Bryant's reputation: "That would be an understatement to say that it's not good," said Kay Powell, assistant director of tourism for Pigeon Forge. "It's been a real distraction for us."
The list of creditors in the Tennessee bankruptcy case includes more than 40 employees owed a total of $112,122 by the couple's corporation; the IRS, which is owed more than $80,000; local and state governments, owed $410,000; contractors and commercial lenders, owed more than $250,000; and about 60 retailers and small companies, owed $200,000.
Among the jilted employees is a woman who appears on Bryant's Web site as the president of her fan club. She is owed about $3,000.
The Music Mansion -- once the gem of the folksy Pigeon Forge theater scene -- was auctioned off this month. Only 8 years old, its facade is showing wear from poor maintenance. The landscaped islands on its vast, empty parking lot are overrun with dandelions.
The property was sold to its original owner to partly repay defaulted loans and penalties totaling $11.7-million.
"A lot of people around here really have hard feelings," said Peggy Headrick, a local real estate agent who set up Bryant and Dry in their home. "But I really love Anita and Charlie both, and I think they got caught up in a bad situation."
Dry said he and Bryant plan to make good on their debts by buying back the Music Mansion and making it part of a Christian conference center with a new Marriott hotel.
"It sounds crazy," he said, "but yes."
Something tells Brion Bever that this will not happen.
As the theater's former general manager, it was Bever whose credit was temporarily ruined when he signed for goods and was pursued in court by creditors. When a small sum of money trickled in one week, he said, Dry fired him during a dispute about which employees should be paid first.
Aside from that, he is owed about $3,000, having deferred some of his salary so others could be paid.
Now recovered and in a new job, Bever says he was lied to and taken advantage of, but feels worse about the people who did business with Bryant because of him.
Even so, he has fond memories of the show, as do many in Pigeon Forge. By most accounts, Bryant was talented and energetic. The cast and crew around her were exemplary. And, while some complained about her preaching, it seemed to have an effect on others.
Ministers would come and cry with her. Fans would take her hand and pray after the show.
But on the very best of nights the 2,040-seat theater was only 25 percent full.
"She could still bring a crowd -- a small crowd, but a crowd," Bever said. "A lot of the older generation loved Anita. A lot of the church groups. My mother's minister, for one, thinks that she hung the moon because of the way that she presents herself as being a good Christian."
Bever, for one, will never feel that way, in part because of this: Anita Bryant approached him on the day he was fired and dismissed all that he had been through, he said.
"Anita looked at me and she says, "I forgive you,' " he recalled. "And I'm like, "For what?' She said, "I forgive you and God will forgive you, too.' And she turned around and walked off."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire