French fries, religion mix during weekly gospel show at McDonald's

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2002

DAYTON, Tenn. -- On a foggy Thursday night in the town best known for the Scopes Monkey Trial, it's almost gospel time at McDonald's.

There's not an empty booth or table at the fast-food restaurant, where customers fill up on double cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and fried pies while waiting to enjoy a free, two-hour gospel show.

Latecomers, some unable to find a parking space closer than next door at Wal-Mart, are standing and smiling. No complaints, except from some of the other fast-food restaurants in town.

''It's like this every Thursday. They have all the crowd,'' said Hope Velasko, an assistant manager of the empty Wendy's just down U.S. Highway 27.

Over at McDonald's, 77-year-old Gil Kyle wires the amplifiers, speakers and band equipment inside the front window as customers fill the 100 or so seats. His wife, Anna, 70, introduces the acts.

''They like gospel music and we like gospel music and we have the sound equipment. We just set it up every Thursday night and get the groups together,'' said Anna Kyle, who with her husband has organized the show every week for three years.

The music includes ''Southern, some bluegrass and some old-time'' gospel, and draws mostly senior citizens living in this rural community 40 miles northeast of Chattanooga.

''What's any better than singing good gospel music?'' said Margaret Harvey, a nurse who performs with the regular opening act, the McDonald's Singers.

She said the show is open to all denominations and all people. There's no preaching or testimonials, just the fellowship of neighbors and familiar church songs.

''I like it. Love it. It's a way to get the word out about Jesus,'' said Chuck Skiles, an employee at the nearby La-Z-Boy plant who is the lead singer of another act, The Believers. The group includes his aunt and sisters.

Mary Beth Moore, who with her husband owns the McDonald's, said many social activities in a small town like Dayton are closely tied to the churches.

''There really is no where else for them to go to get the gospel music like this,'' she said.

Sabina Kaylor, manager of the McDonald's, said the gospel shows boost the volume of business by about 5 percent to 10 percent on Thursdays, compared to other week days.

While the singing goes on, employees continue working at the cash registers and drive-through window.

Kaylor said the crowd includes retirees who also regularly eat breakfast at the restaurant, which offers them a discount on coffee. But ''the majority come just for the gospel night on Thursdays,'' she said.

Dayton won notoriety in 1925 when school teacher John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution instead of creationism. The trial, known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, pitted two of the country's best attorneys against each other, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but his conviction was thrown out on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Nearly 80 years later, the school system still defends the teaching of religious principles. A lawsuit currently pending in federal court against the school system contends it promotes religion by allowing students from Bryan College, a private Christian college named after William Jennings Bryan, to teach Bible classes at public schools. The lawsuit was filed by a parent.

Rhea County Commissioner Ralph Rice said gospel roots go deep in Dayton, which accounts for the standing-room crowd at McDonald's.

''So many people like to do it,'' said Rice, who with his wife, Janet, are regulars on Thursday nights.

Janice Franklin, who works as a yarn spinner, said she rarely misses Thursday nights and always arrives two hours early to get her favorite seat near the front.

''I just like the different groups and I've made a lot of new friends,'' she said.

The success of the gospel shows has forced other fast-food restaurants to find ways to compete with McDonald's.

Just down the highway, the seats are empty at Hardees on a Thursday. But night manager Barbara Wilson expects the crowd to shift over to her place on Tuesday nights, when she's started offering a special breakfast food menu and gospel music.

Wilson said the concept of mixing gospel and fast food is catching on, although she's not sure exactly why.

''It may just be a Southern thing,'' she said.

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