Incident at Looney’s Tavern Incident at Looney’s Tavern is a fact-based musical drama about events in Winston County following the 1861 Alabama Secession Convention in Montgomery. The drama centers on the actions of Christopher Sheats, the Winston County delegate who ardently opposed secession. In 1993, it was named Alabama’s Official Outdoor Musical Drama. The play was written by Lanny McAlister in 1986 and first performed in 1987.
At the convention, Sheats refused to sign Alabama’s ordinance of secession and became so vocal in his opposition that he was arrested and temporarily imprisoned. Later, on July 4, 1861, in a tavern owned by William Looney, Sheats again spoke against secession at a public meeting composed mostly of Unionists, The crowd agreed to a series of resolutions stating that the people of Winston County had no desire to take part in the war and intended to support neither side. Another resolution declared that if a state could secede from the Union, then a county could secede from the state. This resolution did not pass, but a member of the pro-secession faction, Richard Payne, mockingly shouted “Winston County secedes! Hoorah for the Free State of Winston!” From Payne’s remark was born the legend of the “Free State of Winston.”
As its title suggests, Incident at Looney’s Tavern dramatizes what allegedly happened in the inn that day, because primary sources are scarce. The playwright, Lanny McAlister, was then chairman of the Music Department at Northwest Alabama State Junior College (present-day Northwest-Shoals Community College) at the campus in Phil Campbell, Franklin County. There, he had previously created the long-running Christmas show The Legend of Toyland. McAlister created dialogue and motivations for his characters and incorporated traditional songs and music, folk-dancing, and humor. His script portrays Sheats, who was born on a plantation in Walker County, as a poor man from Winston who becomes romantically involved with the daughter of a rich planter who favored secession. The larger story, however, is factual and most of the participants are real historical figures.
Incident at Looney’s Tavern was originally intended as a one-time-only production by the organizers of the Winston County Tourism’s Free State Festival Committee. It was first performed in the spring of 1987 by amateur actors from Double Springs and Addison and students from Northwest Alabama State Junior College in the parking lot of a local shopping center. It proved unexpectedly popular, and in 1988, after being revised and expanded, it was performed multiple times in a local football stadium. Again, the production was more successful than anticipated and received favorable press throughout the state.
Ticket sales and publicity inspired a group of local families to mount the production on a more permanent basis. They formed Looney’s Tavern Productions, Inc. and in 1989 cleared 80 acres off Highway 278 in Double Springs, erecting the Historic Looney’s Tavern Entertainment Park a few miles from the original Looney’s Tavern site. The centerpiece was a 1,500-seat outdoor amphitheater showcasing a new production of Incident at Looney’s Tavern. The theme park was expanded over the years to include an indoor theater, a golf course, a buffet-style restaurant serving period dishes, and a paddle-wheel river boat on a manmade lake. The play was performed in the amphitheater every summer from 1989 until 2003, when both it and the park closed. During its 13-year run, the production was named as one of the “Top 100 Events in North America” by the American Bus Association and one of the “Top 20 Events in the Southeast” by the Southeast Tourism Society. In 1993, it was named “Alabama’s Official Outdoor Musical Drama.”
In April 2016, Incident at Looney’s Tavern was temporarily revived, with four performances by the Winston County Young Actors Guild held in the Double Springs Middle School gymnasium. This production featured students from Addison, Meek, Lynn, and Double Springs middle schools and Winston County High School and was directed by Alabama Artist in Residence Sharon Fike. The program was funded in part by a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Organizers are anticipating a full comeback of the county’s historical heritage as the Official Alabama State Outdoor Musical.
Bates, Martine G.Chris Sheats: The Man Who Refused to Secede. Birmingham: Seacoast Publishing, Inc., 2004.
Dodd, Donald B., and Amy Bartlett-Dodd. The Free State of Winston. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.