Allan Ledford has been involved in the arts in Chattanooga for decades. He recently retired from the Hamilton County school system, where for the last 25 years, he has taught musical theater and the choral arts at first the School for the Performing Arts and later the Center for the Creative Arts.
The former was initially a magnate program within City High School, but when the city and county merged the school systems into one, CCA was born. Middle and high school students there are selected through an audition process and once selected, they choose a major. The school offers core programs in theater, dance, music, visual arts and the literary arts.
Ledford has also directed a number of shows at a variety of theaters and founded the Choo Choo Kids, a select group of CCA musical theater students who make up a touring musical theater troupe.
Q: I know you are retired, but you are still active in the arts, right?
A: Yes. I’m the music director at Signal Crest United Methodist and I direct at Signal Mountain Playhouse. I’m involved with the theater program at Chattanooga State. I also created Lake Winnepespookah (a Halloween program). I work with the students who provide the entertainment — not the regular concerts, but the other entertainment there — during the season.
I’m also involved with the Breakfast with Santa event coming up.
Q: We’ll come back to that. You also created the Choo Choo Kids, correct?
A: Yes and they have a new director, Jason Whitehead. He’s wonderful.
Q: You’ve been a part of CCA since it began. What was that like?
A: It was really an interesting thing to start. We spent a lot of time traveling to look at what other cities and schools had done. I spent a week at the “Fame” (performing arts) school in New York. We went to several places including Houston and South Carolina. Greeneville, I think.
We wanted to get a good representation. You can’t just model it after New York or Houston.
Q: That’s interesting, and it makes sense. We are not New York?
A: Well, right. You have to fit your community. New York is maybe the Utopia. The theaters alone are something. I spoke with some students there and they knew then that they might never perform in a nicer theater, and that includes if they made it to Broadway.
It was great to see what they offered, but we don’t have 3 million people to choose from.
CCA has done very well. It is not just an arts school. The academics are very important, as well.
Q: How often does a student there decide the arts are not for them?
A: It happens, but not often. That is why in middle school they choose a major and a minor. They might come in focusing on voice, for example, and then they might discover a real passion for theater. Or, it could happen the other way. They’ll say, “I never knew this existed.”
Q: A lot of parents can relate to the idea of the brand new guitar sitting in the closet unused. Does the interview process help determine how serious a kid is?
A: Yes. Very much so. And, most of the kids who apply have been involved at the [Chattanooga] Theatre Centre or they were active in a good elementary school program. As word of the school and what we do has gotten out, people have understood better as well.
It’s about finding the right mix for the kids. I believe most of the kids would have been successful without this type of school, but having it allows them to focus and concentrate their efforts.
Just before I retired, I auditioned incoming students. There was a girl applying for the sixth grade. She was Annie in her school play and she sang for us and she was good. Then she did a monologue and it was good. Then she said, “Can I show you something?” She pulled out something she had written. It was not just a book, but a series of books. She was up to the fifth or sixth book.
Q: We don’t want to give anything away, especially to our younger readers, but you will be involved in Saturday’s Breakfast With Santa event at The Chattanoogan, correct?
A: Yes. When Santa’s helper Carla Pritchard called to ask if I would be involved, my first question was, “Can I enlist the help of some students?” We’ve come up with a very entertaining half-hour show. There is lots of comedy and we will have some tap dancing, a story, Santa will sing a solo and there will be some sing-alongs.
Myself and the elves think it’s fabulous.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...