The 27,000-square-foot log mansion Barbara Mandrell named Fontanel sat empty at Christmas for some 20 years, as the country singer and her family traveled to Colorado for the holidays.
Now, about nine years after Mandrell sold the Nashville-area estate, her daughter Jaime Dudney finally gets to spend Christmas in her childhood home. Fontanel has been converted into a multi-use entertainment attraction that includes home tours, hiking trails, an amphitheater and a restaurant, and Dudney works as its hospitality director. Dec. 5–8, Fontanel guests will be able to take in holiday show Christmas in Dixie, with Dudney acting as host.
“I hope that people take away a tradition, that they want to come here every year,” Dudney said of the holiday festivities.
The lunch and dinner Dixie shows feature a caroling cast of local musicians and school children providing entertainment, with Randy Owen of Alabama performing at the dinner shows. Buffets with cornbread-stuffed turkey, buttermilk mashed potatoes and other trimmings are set up in the mansion’s great room, atrium and dining room, so guests can choose a setting in which to dine and listen. (Each buffet offers the same food, and the talent rotates among the various stages.)
“The food is great, and there’s constantly something going on in each of the rooms,” Dudney said. “You really feel like you are at a holiday party and it’s just family and friends.”
‘Elvis saved us’
Christmas in Dixie was envisioned as Fontanel’s annual holiday show, and Marc Oswald, who co-owns the estate with business partner Dale Morris, said plans are to amp up the production next year, expanding the dates to run November through to the new year and stretching the event into multiple buildings over the estate.
But Oswald said the whole Fontanel experience ultimately traces back to two entertainment institutions: Elvis Presley and Gaylord Entertainment.
Oswald and his partners bought Fontanel from Mandrell in the early 2000s as an investment, and then struggled for a few years to figure out what to do with it. But a trip to Graceland with his in-laws two years ago planted a seed in Oswald’s mind.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said Oswald, who also works in artist management. “We were going to develop it into 24 high-end estates and have (the mansion) be a clubhouse. Then the real estate market fell out and … it’s a bad time to build that. Then we went to Graceland, and (my wife’s uncle) said, ‘You could fit two Gracelands into Fontanel.’ Elvis saved us.”
As he and Morris began putting the plan to turn Fontanel into a public attraction in motion, Oswald called his friend Jack Soden, the CEO of Elvis Enterprises, for some advice. Soden laughed and said the idea was “crazy” but could work if it was done well.
“His thought was that there’s not one country music star’s home you can tour in Nashville, not one,” Oswald said. “It’s Music City USA, and we are 10 minutes from downtown.”
The revamped Fontanel opened to the public in June, the month after Nashville was overwhelmed with floodwaters. The flood had displaced countless convention bookings at Gaylord Opryland Resort, and when those bookings were rescheduled for the fall, they displaced some tour groups that were scheduled for Opryland’s Louise Mandrell “The Gift” Christmas Dinner Show. Gaylord representatives contacted Fontanel and asked if Oswald and his team could put together a Christmas show to handle the overflow of tour groups.
“That was the genesis of Christmas in Dixie,” Oswald said. “We’ve managed Randy Owen for years and asked him to headline these events, and now we will refine it a little bit so we can include … the whole 136 acres.”
A family experience
Dudney said the idea of Christmas in Dixie fits right in with her family’s vision for the holidays.
“Guests are treated like friends instead of tourists. It is a house, and you know some people go to their friends’ medicine cabinets. You could do that here,” Dudney said, laughing. “We kind of hope people don’t open too many cupboards, but you can. It is a touch-and-feel atmosphere.”
Reach Cindy Watts at 615–664-2227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
- What: Christmas in Dixie hosted by Jaime Dudney
Where: The Mansion at Fontanel, 4225 Whites Creek Pike in Whites Creek, Tenn., about 10 minutes from downtown Nashville.
When: Dec. 5–8 at 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. for lunch and 5–7 p.m. for dinner (which is sold out)
Admission: $48 per person for lunch
Info: www.fontanelmansion.com or 724‑1600