It’s only a short distance from Interstate 35, but the village of Salado’s Main Street seems worlds away from the unceasing stress of the superslab.
Driving south, we’ll pass colorful retail shops, restored homes and buildings from the 19th century and cross the bridge over Salado Creek. The fabled Stagecoach Inn dominates the right side of the street, but we’ll turn left, to the east, on Royal Street. This Salado sojourn will take us to Tablerock.
Most of Royal and all of the houses that line it are shaded by overarching oaks and pecan trees. The street is narrow, but that doesn’t matter since we’re driving slowly to see the whimsical, one-of-a-kind homes, businesses and bed and breakfasts.
After a stop sign, the road continues until the first entrance to Tablerock, marked “Actors Entrance,” appears on the right. A short distance later, the main entrance to the Tablerock Festival of Salado beckons. It’s a one-lane gravel drive that curves and winds onto the grounds.
Last Saturday, motorists were directed to park in one of the large areas separated from the Goodnight Amphitheater by an arroyo. Stone steps lead the way into the dry creek area, where a catered barbecue dinner is served. Tender enough to cut with a fork, the beef brisket was joined by sausage, potato salad, cole slaw, pinto beans, bread and iced tea.
The barbecue dinner begins about 7 p.m., and by 8 or so, most diners have ambled up the hill to where the main event will play out: the 21st annual staging of “Salado Legends.” Playwright Jackie Mills is a smiling presence at the illuminated steps leading up to the seats. The Tablerock Festival dates to 1979, but it was the driving force of Mills and her epic musical drama “Salado Legends” that enabled the festival and its 15 acres to flourish.
The whole amphitheater and its 440 permanent seats are in shade, and the evening’s unusually cool: a refreshing 79 degrees with a slight breeze. Besides the main stage area in front, there are two other smaller permanent sets, one on each side of the audience. At curtain time, the recorded overture fills the hillside with a musical hint of the play’s themes.
Then there’s the drama itself: 118 actors, a mule team hauling a real old-time wagon between the front row of the wide-eyed audience and the stage, black powder firearms blasting away, not to mention charges of explosives impeccably timed that punctuate a realistic battle scene. Add the authentic bagpiper, Indian campfire magic, actors at arm’s length from seated audience members and you’ve got to admit: dull, it’s not.
“Salado Legends” is the story of Scottish settlers arriving in the area around 1859, Salado College, vignettes of village life, and the Civil War’s effect on the residents. There is, of course, a main love story as well as subplots, and lots of songs and dancing.
With Sam Houston, the Tonkawa tribe, Spanish explorers — even Channel 6 weatherman Andy Andersen and his horse onstage — there are few slow moments. When one of the younger cast members freezes on his line, fellow actors prompt him ventriloquist-like, and it turns out OK.
Mills and director Donnie Williams, of Killeen, are tired but happy: the new building housing the concession stand and restrooms functioned perfectly. Minor quibbles “the Indian’s torch went out too soon,” are met with the truism that “It’s live theater, after all.” The children in the cast laugh and cavort on the grass, the lights are dimmed and the Goodnight Amphitheater goes dark.
Even the heavens seem to smile on this evening in Salado. Directly above Tablerock in the clear night sky, as if on cue, the Big Dipper shines forth.