Opry food and fun
attracts music lovers
By Candace S. Hughes, Editor
Apache Junction — A wide variety of talent, music, jokes and instruments is among the offerings during the 21st season at Barleen’s Arizona Opry Dinner Theater ending in April.
From classical selections to Broadway tunes to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” to pop such as “Boogyin’ Beethoven” by Julliard trained violinist Kevin Wong (complete with wig), the entertainment pleases most tastes. In fact, about 60,000 attend the Opry each season.
Some of the instruments include an Alp horn on which George Staerkel plays “Amazing Grace” and a saw, also mastered by Staerkel, with a recognizable version of “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
Staerkel, a graduate of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wis., uses as many as 18 instruments in one song. He is the show’s music director and producer, and his wife Barbara is the co-producer.
“Barb is a great idea person. She comes up with a lot of neat stuff and most of the new ideas. Then it’s my job to get it from the idea stage to the performing stage and write the arrangements,” Staerkel said.
Broadway tunes such as “New York New York” by twins Brenda Barleen and Barbara Barleen-Staerkel round out the full range of songs.
Family act entertains audiences
The “girls,” in the show, who are now 45, began singing at age 2 in Waterville, Kan., “where there was always something going on,” says Brenda, who sings and plays the drums as well as managing the Opry. Their first professional engagement was in 1979 at age 17, when the family opened a dinner theater in Estes Park, Colo.
The act moved to Apache Junction in 1987 to open the Opry, and
Brenda lives in Gold Canyon. Barbara, a vocalist, and her husband George, a musician, are snowbirds who travel from Mountain Annie’s dinner theater in Ruidoso, N.M., in the summer, to Apache Junction in the winter.
The twins’ father, 87-year-old “Daddy Lloyd” lives one block from the location on Old West Highway, but is unable to attend shows now due to health problems.
“We experiment with new material quite a bit during the summer,” the 53-year-old Staerkel added. “The stuff that works the best is brought over to Arizona for the show there.”
One of the new selections is a medley of songs using the ‘celebrity’ horns, all playing the original hits recorded on them such as the “Lonely Bull,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “Java,” the ‘Rocky’ movie theme and others,” he said.
New show and album
“Barb has some new stuff and a new album. She’s stretching out quite a bit. She does some Sarah Brightman material including Broadway and light classical and a New Orleans medley combining the songs of Billie Holiday and music made famous by Al Hirt played on his original trumpet,” Staerkel said.
“That has been a crowd favorite,” he exclaimed.
Others include a Johnny Cash and June Carter segment with Brenda singing the tunes, and she’s also featured on a drum solo. Rounding out the family act is Staerkel’s father, who performs some Dean Martin and Louis Armstrong pieces.
Bill Wells, another winter visitor from New Mexico, brings rock-and-roll from the 50s with his Les Paul including a performance of “Mariah.” The musicians aren’t afraid to get silly, and Wells brags that he could imitate Elvis (dressed in a shiny Spandex jumpsuit) without throwing a hip.
Shows alternate, so not all selections are heard every night, and entertainment is updated with the seasons. “The Beatles” have even been known to appear, complete with mop top wigs.
Instruments on display
The audience can enjoy admiring instruments during the intermission. They include an 18-karat gold trumpet played by Al Hirt when he recorded the 1960s hits. Other horns include a Herald trumpet used to open the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with the official flag attached.
In addition, Doc Severinsen’s 24-karat gold trumpet used on his farewell tour is part of the collection.
Other celebrity instruments are a tenor sax used by Tex Beneke to record “In the Mood” with the Glen Miller Orchestra. The 1936 hand-crafted model was the top professional instrument of its kind in the 1930s and is the first “famous” instrument Staerkel acquired.
The audience also may hear tunes played on Herb Alpert’s trumpet, which has interchangeable bells and lead pipes to make different sounds. Staerkel has a CD for sale featuring all the “celebrity” horns.
Others include a 7-foot tall, 90-pound contrabass saxophone used to play a song by the Dominoes. The custom-made instrument comes from the Orsi Co. in Milan, and only 14 have been manufactured with two of those at Disneyland and Disney World.
“Screamer” instrument acquired
A recent acquisition is the legendary saxophone of Boots Randolph, who played “Yakkity Sax” in the 1963 hit. “What a screamer!” Staerkel said of the instrument.
Staerkel communicated with Randolph shortly before he died earlier this year to negotiate a lease of the instrument however, the 80-year-old musician died before sending the terms to Staerkel.
When Randolph’s son discovered the agreement, he finalized a sale of the instrument to Staerkel in a letter: “I hope you enjoy my father’s saxophone. I can only assume as he made arrangements for you to have it that it is going to a good home and that his legacy will be taken into consideration by you as you use it in your performances.”
Staerkel displayed and performed on the instrument in New Mexico this summer, and makes its winter home in Apache Junction where listeners hear “Yakkity Sax” and other Randolph tunes.
The Opry’s collection includes 88 instruments, with about 50 of them on stage at a time, Staerkel said.
Jokes are abundant throughout the show, which includes Ardis Larson bringing a humorous edge to aging as she is helped onto the stage and visits the audience during the intermission to demonstrate flashing ruby-red lips and other toys available for sale. Larson also adds yodeling to the act.
Other jokes include banter about Staerkel’s “acquisition habit” with a spouse questioning how many instruments are necessary and how much the purchases cost.
If you go
Location: Take US 60 (Superstition freeway) to Tomahawk Road (exit 197) and go north one mile to the Old West Highway. Turn right or east and go one-half mile. The theater is on the south or right side of the road at 2275 Old West Highway.
Prices: $27 for adults, children 12 and under $20. Includes dinner and show. Show only tickets are $20.
Times: Though April. Dinner is served at 6:30 p.m. with the show at 7:30 p.m.
Telephone: 480-982-7991 for required reservations Group: 480-215-2396
Web site: www.azopry.com