At the Orange Blossom Opry, performers are happy to sing for their supper. Sure, they’re actually paid to perform, but if push came to shove there’s a distinct possibility that they’d be willing to go without a few bucks for one of Estelle Benson’s mouth-watering Southern meals.
Tommy Mara, lead singer for The Legends of Doo Wop, would undoubtedly be in that group.
“I’m Italian and we all know how important food is to Italians,” laughs Mara. “I absolutely love Estelle’s meat loaf. It is just perfect, moist all the way through. And her side dishes and desserts are all so delicious.”
And that does cause a little bit of a problem for Mara, albeit a delicious one.
“The pre-show meal is at 5 and we don’t go on stage until 8:30,” he says. “The problem is that we sit there at the table eating for two hours! There’s no way to just eat a little. Once you start eating Estelle’s food, you can’t stop.”
Good thing for the performers that the kitchen is directly behind the stage, easily accessible by a short flight of stairs.
In addition to Mara’s favorite meat loaf, the pre-show menu can include baked chicken, roasted pork chops or ribs as the main entree. For sides, there are creamed peas, mashed potatoes, stewed carrots, spinach balls and hearty casseroles with green bean and corn being two favorites. Then there are the desserts! Chocolate cake and pies, including peanut butter, lemon and chocolate meringue.
The Orange Blossom Opry Band: (L-R) Dave Howe, keyboard; Jim Troxell, bass guitar; Lorri Gill, vocals; Darell Morgan, guitar and vocals; Tommy Cordell, fiddle; Buddy Davis, drums; and Ray Gantek, steel guitar.
Of course, here’s the sad part—all this wonderful food is just for the headlining performers and the Orange Blossom Opry Band. The rest of us common folks have to make do with the concession stand fare, which while good is not one of Estelle’s delicious meals. Makes you want to start a band, doesn’t it?
Cooking meals for the Orange Blossom Opry performers came naturally for Opry owner Estelle Benson. She owned Estelle’s Country Kitchen in Lady Lake for more than 18 years. Originally from Virginia, Estelle moved to Florida in 1974, and after a few jobs as a waitress, she decided to buy her own restaurant.
“I needed a job at the time and thought I’d rather work for myself than someone else,” she says. “For a long time we were the only restaurant on this end of the county so I got to know everyone and everyone got to know me.”
Here’s what you need to know about Estelle: She’s a petite, no-nonsense, in-charge woman with a quick wit. And she likes to stay busy. After closing Estelle’s Country Kitchen in 1999, she didn’t exactly slip into a quiet retirement. She married longtime beau Earl in 2002, and it just so happened that the two enjoyed spending time dancing and listening to music at the Orange Blossom Opry.
“We were at the Opry the night it was announced that it was closing in two weeks,” says Estelle, smiling at the memory. “On the way home I told Earl that I thought we ought to buy the place. He told me I was out of my cotton-pickin’ mind.”
But the next day while Earl was off playing golf, Estelle called the mortgage holder on the Opry. By the time Earl came home for lunch, Estelle had bought the place.
“He wasn’t too happy about it at first,” says Estelle, “but I needed something to keep me busy. We bought the Opry in May 2004, and we reopened in June. It’s kept me busy ever since.”
The Orange Blossom Opry building originally housed the Weirsdale High School gymnasium. After a new school was built in the 1990s, the gym became a music venue under several different names and owners. It has operated as Haw Hee’s, Weirsdale Opry, The Great American Music Hall and finally Orange Blossom Opry.
When Estelle and Earl bought it, they immediately began renovations. At the entrance to the red brick building, a large outside patio area was added; the lobby and bathrooms were re-tiled; two new air conditioning units were installed; and 628 plush new seats were put in the auditorium. The headliner’s suite was refurbished for the comfort of the stars—country décor, of course—and the walls throughout the building are covered with signed pictures and posters of the acts who have performed there.
So why did Estelle start cooking for these acts? Well, with her past cooking experience and practical nature, she says it just seemed like the right thing to do.
“We spend a lot of time here,” she says, “and we have to eat. So I figured if I was going to cook for us and the house band, I might as well cook for the other performers. We started asking people what they liked to eat when we booked them. Soon the word spread and the meals became a part of the experience of playing here.”
In fact, Estelle points out that now “the minute a performer gets here, they’re in the kitchen and looking for something to eat.” Good thing her kitchen staff, Betty Spencer and Rose Hoffmier, is there to help. It’s hard work feeding that many hungry mouths!
Music is, of course, the heart of the Orange Blossom Opry. In addition to Mara and The Legends of Doo Wop, who perform classic ‘50s and ‘60s music, other 2010 performers have included Ray Price, The Coasters, Mel Tillis, The Bellamy Brothers, Lil’ Jimmy Dickens, Roy Clark, Marty Stuart and Doug Stone.
Estelle makes a plate for country music star Doug Stone.
Estelle and Gloria Wade, her office jack-of-all-trades, have already booked acts through the spring of 2011, too. Audiences will soon get to see Asleep at the Wheel, Ronnie McDowell, Rhonda Vincent, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lorrie Morgan and Crystal Gayle live on the Opry stage.
“We try to book the best performers we can,” says Estelle. “We have great audiences who really appreciate good music and performers.”
Outside of the visiting headliners, the Orange Blossom Opry Band is a fan favorite. The group consists of Buddy Davis, music director and drums; Tommy Cordell, fiddle; Darell Morgan, lead guitar; Ray Gantek, steel guitar; Dave Howe, keyboard; Jim Troxell, bass guitar; and Lorri Gill, lead vocals.
“Our band is very talented and they can play anything,” says Estelle. “They also put on skits, and Lorri is just a phenomenal performer. She does great impersonations of Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. And she’s created her own skit characters that have become very popular with our regular fans.”
On Thursday nights at 7pm, the public is invited to join the OB Opry band for Jam Night. Anyone who wants to sing or play an instrument can participate. Once a month, the Opry also hosts an invitation-only Super Jam. On Friday and Saturday nights, the OB Opry Band plays a show at 7:30pm, often opening on the latter night for the headliner.
Opry keyboardist Dave Howe enjoys Estelle’s famous meatloaf with lead vocalist Lorri Gill.
Now embarking on her seventh season, Estelle still enjoys working at the Opry.
“I love music and cooking,” she says. “This way I get to do them both. I’ve made a lot of new friends and we have a good time.”
On the particular day I met with Estelle at the Opry, leftovers from the previous night were not an issue. As she opened the refrigerator, there were only two slices of meringue pie—chocolate and lemon—looking lonely there among various condiments. An offer of one of the pie servings was not turned down. Each and every mouthful of the luscious chocolate was thoroughly enjoyed. I’m just glad a song wasn’t expected in return.
Want To Go?
Orange Blossom Opry
Corner of SE Hwy 42 & CR 25
Jam Nights at 7pm
Fridays & Saturdays:
Orange Blossom Opry Band at 7:30pm
Tommy Mara & The Legends of Doo Wop
December Christmas Shows
(Call Box Office For Details)