Dry Creek TV show in Parrish braces for the big leagues

srocco@bradenton.comJanuary 19, 2014 

PARRISH -- Les McDowell is an old-fashioned guy in a newfangled world.

He takes calls on his white iPhone -- while steering a horse-drawn stagecoach.

He boasts about snagging Facebook hits for his TV show -- while walking through the muddy, manure-strewn streets of an 1880s western town he built board by board.

"It's because of the Lord that this has happened," he says as he strolls past the town's hardware store. "There's no ifs, ands or buts."

He always had the dream, but never the courage to fulfill it. Until he got laid off as a country radio announcer in 2009, when McDowell began hauling lumber on his 40-acre ranch off Rye Road to build Dry Creek.

The storefronts and facades, the dirt road streets, the local church with pews and a wooden cross all remind McDowell of a simpler time.

When families ate dinner around a table and not a TV.

When neighbors were friends who talked to each other face-to-face.

When, on Sundays, faith was more important than fun.

He was bound to remind a jaded world that chaste family programming could still be made -- and made well.

"I wanted something that Grandma can watch, that kids can watch, that their parents can watch," says McDowell, 60.

That meant no drinking.

No sex.

No Snooki.

• • •

On a hot Saturday afternoon, McDowell, donning a blue-and-yellow checkered button-up shirt caked in sweat and a pair of crisp Wrangler blue jeans, scurried around Dry Creek to film the show's 15th episode.

Each episode of "Dry Creek," now in its third season, has the same underlying theme: fix modern day problems using old-hatted values.

"The same issues we're facing today may have a different name on them, but those issues have been around since time began," said Melvia Kingen, an actress who also works behind the scenes on the show. "The old-fashioned answer still works."

The 30-minute show, reminiscent of old-timey favorites like "Little House on the Prairie," was picked up by cable channel BlueHighways TV and is broadcast to nearly 5 million viewers across the nation. McDowell, a cowboy poet, hopes to get his show to the Hallmark Channel. The big leagues.

But without an army of volunteers (everyone on set is a volunteer), a few donations and a deluge of McDowell's own money, Dry Creek wouldn't be possible.

If McDowell paid for everything, the out-of-pocket cost to produce one episode: some $100,000. This month, when crews film "The Doll," the show's 15th episode, he'll only shell out $6,000.

"We're just scraping together what we can," he said.

Some days, McDowell has nearly 200 people on a scene, all with dreams. Hopeful actors, directors, producers donate their time on a notion that the show will succeed.

Tony Senzamici, a local actor who's appeared on hit dramas "Homeland" and "Army Wives," plays Samuel, a benevolent guy always looking to do the right thing.

Senzamici was lured by "Dry Creek's" valuable, Christian-rooted lessons.

He loves how he can show his kids what he's done and be proud: "I saw the show and said, 'Just tell me what you want me to do.' "

Gene Bicknell, who used to own the largest Pizza Hut franchise in the world, plays Dr. Wall, a Tampa doctor who could cure yellow fever.

"The concept is interesting, and people love westerns," he said. "It's a good chance to show your skills and help out a good production."

McDowell made a Facebook page for "Dry Creek" in 2010. Donations came quick.

A man in Plant City provided the town's first logs. McDowell made 15 trips between Parrish and Plant City to pick up the load.

And when the Parrish General Store closed, McDowell scored some windows from the building.

A contractor heard about "Dry Creek" and sent his crew to work for free for three weeks.

When donations ran out, McDowell would sell something, like his motorcycle.

To feed his crew -- and he always does -- McDowell goes to Walmart and loads up on waters, potato salad, chips and cookies.

"That's how we've been able to afford it," McDowell said. "When we've needed something, it's been there."

With an outpouring of support and a sizeable viewership, McDowell says it's time to take "Dry Creek" to a full hour.

"We want to stay with BlueHighways ... but to get to the Hallmark Channel it's easier to sell a one-hour show," he said.

McDowell might have his perfect episode in "The Doll." He has experienced crew, seasoned actors. The performance and production, he says, are impeccable.

"It's just unbelievable," McDowell said, underneath a maroon baseball cap. "I wake up and it feels like I'm still dreaming."

• • •

McDowell watched behind the scenes as Dr. Wall tried to save a little girl from yellow fever. "Reeeadddy aaaand -- everybody settled? -- ACTION," director Curtis Graham cued.

A nurse entered the cabin where an ailing child was laying in bed. She brought the doc some biscuits for breakfast.

McDowell took a tin of chewing tobacco out of his back pocket. This was getting good.

"Mary did better last night," said Wall, in a honeyed drawl, from a wooden rocking chair. "The next couple hours is gonna tell the tale."

"CUT," Graham interrupted. "Very, very nice. One more time around just to make sure."

McDowell gave a confident nod, then left the cabin to spit over the patio, toward the town's stage line.

• • •

McDowell remembers what it was like to be a little kid, when Dad took him out to Roy Rogers' ranch in Apple Valley, Calif., hoping they'd catch a glimpse of the country great.

Their station wagon pulled up, Roy came out.

"You're welcome to drive on down," he smiled.

"I thought that was so neat and so cool," McDowell recalls.

So when an elderly couple, around 80 years old, pulled up in an old Buick with a newspaper on their lap and knocked on McDowell's front door, he remembered Roy Rogers.

"It was kind of strange, but I'm so proud of what we're doing and so excited. I like to be nice to people and I just take them on back," he said.

But the old couple wasn't just searching for a TV show.

They were searching for another time, a familiar life.

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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