Branson? what, where and why is it.

 ... not only Harry Truman came from Missouri

by James Tierney

Why would anyone travel to the southwest corner of Missouri, bordering Oklahoma and Arkansas to see a show? Good question but not easy to answer. You tell people you are going to Branson and they give you that quizzical look and no matter how you try to explain it, they walk away shaking their heads. Remember when celebrities came to Blinstrubs Village in South Boston where we went to see them. OK, maybe you're too young to remember Blinstrubs, but Tweeter Center, Great Woods and Fleet Pavilion? Well, these artists were getting older and tired of traveling and neglecting their family, so they decided to stay put somewhere and hope that WE go THERE to see them.

But why Branson, Missouri? Celine Dion is staying put in Vegas but people GO to Vegas anyhow to gamble, as their primary reason. She is there for a long period of time, not the main attraction but she hopes we choose hers as one of the many shows available to us.

"Build it and they will come". This was the theme of the movie "Field of Dreams" but it could just as well be the theme of Branson, a small community in the Ozarks, about 40 miles from Springfield, Missouri. It was a small hunting and fishing area that attracted some tourists which increased somewhat with the publication of the book "Shepherd of the Hills" who were curious about the people and the area depicted in the book.

It wasn't until the Presley family (no relation to Elvis), who performed in caves, opened up a theatre on the road later known as the "Strip," then more people began coming to Branson, to hear the dynamic guitar strumming and banjo pickin' of the Presleys. The tradition continues every evening as the curtain goes up to a rousing mixture of country music, coupled with hilarious comedy and gospel favorites. The Baldknobbers followed the Presleys onto the Strip which is (Route) 76 Country Road. They were named for a group of vigilantes, respected church going businessmen, who were tired of the lawlessness and the area being a haven for violent criminals. They met at the top of bare hilltops, known as baldknobs. If these names don't ring a bell, how about Roy Clark?

Roy Clark was the first headliner to open a theatre in Branson and was an instant success. He laid the ground work for names such as Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, Wayne Newton, Glen Campbell, the Lennon Sisters, Lennon Brothers, Osmond Brothers, Jim Stafford, Gatlin Brothers, the Platters, and Mickey Gilley. There are now over 40 theatres with 50,000 seats and about 500 shows by 70 acts and performers each week of singing, dancing, banjo-playing, fiddling, Broadway-style revues, magic, acrobats, big band, country, pop, etc. It is called the Live Entertainment Capital of the World.

The mind boggling part of this is NOT that it's in such a remote area, but that there is no gambling and no liquor in any of the theatres. It is in the Bible Belt and thrives on wholesome family entertainment, from upscale Broadway-style shows to down-home country music shows, illusionists, acrobats, and comedians. It's also affordable and appropriate for the entire family. It is rumored that Wayne Newton was asked to leave because his show wasn't up to "standards" for the community. Now do you have the answer to the question at the beginning of this page? If not, you're not alone. There's no easy answer.

The day after arriving in Branson we had a show in the morning, in the afternoon and at night. In the morning Doug Gabriel entertained us with his great singing, guitar playing, and his signature instrument, the piano. His piano rendition of "Exodus" and "Chariots of Fire" was superb. It's no wonder he was voted instrumentalist of the year.

After Doug, Roy Clark gave us a fun-filled, handclapping, pickin' and grinnin' good time and had his fiddle and banjo heated, humming, and howling. He hasn't lost a step since his Hee Haw past and still has that friendly smile and down to earth personality. We reminisced to his hit songs, "Yesterday", "When We Were Young", "Orange Blossom Special", and "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?".

In the afternoon, we were mesmerized by Shoji Tabuchi, world class violinist, and his wonderful, glamorous, astounding, state of the art stage production, rivaling Las Vegas and New York. The scenery and costumes were spectacular, including an extreme culture change from Japanese traditional dance and dress to the Smoky Mountains. Shoji was inspired by Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys. He exhibited his fiddle mastery and incredible talent and versatility as an entertainer in every kind of music, including country, gospel, cajun, big band, showtunes, the fifties and classical, including a chamber music sextet playing six abbreviated Mozart favorites. The theatre is the Showplace of Branson, seating 2000, and reminiscent of grand theatre palaces of the '30s, including restrooms with freshly cut orchids, paintings, antiques, and even a billiard table in the men's room.

That evening we toe tapped to the sounds of the 50's with a song and dance team providing us some nostalgia with over 50 songs, including Motown, Elvis, DooWop, Gospel, and rock and roll. You name it, they played it.

Imagine seeing all of your favorite Broadway shows in one night. The Broadway Star Spangled Celebration is a gorgeous glittering salute to Broadway with a dazzling cast of singers and dancers featuring highlights of Chicago, 42nd Street, Cabaret, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, Grease, Cats, Chorus Line, Hair, Godspell, the Phantom, Les Miserables, etc. It was a fast paced high energy action-packed production with Rockette style dancing, taking us on a musical journey to New York City and Broadway.

Also included in the trip was a dinner/show aboard the 1890's majestic paddle wheel riverboat, the Showboat Branson Belle. We had an elegant meal in a 700 seat dining room and a variety show, with a big band, Russian Adagio Dancers, a ventriloquist with wise cracking talking dogs who also had people from the audience "talking" through him. His lips didn't move.

The trip also included optional tours where people could see the celebrities in which they were personally interested. The Dutton Family are musical geniuses who each played several different instruments, entertaining us with their incredible musical talents, stunning harmonies, hot dance numbers, and instrumental virtuosity in a wide variety of musical styles. They offered an endless variety of dancing, comedy, and music, including country, bluegrass, yodeling, 50's, rock roll, and classical.

A change of pace with Yakov Smirnoff, a very funny "philosopher" who takes us on comical journey, bringing his unique insight into life, family, and these United States. We remember his signature comment when comparing life in Russia to the United States when he first came to this country, "What a country!" His new signature comment when he focuses on the dynamics between men and women is, "You never thought of it like that? You will NOW." He has the audience repeating it.

Jim Stafford has been in Branson longer than most. A transplant from the celebrity circuit, a writer/producer for movies and TV, a regular on the Smothers Brothers TV show, and his own TV show years ago. His talent hasn't diminished as he gave us his zany comedy powered by the clever cogs and witty wheels spinning in his innovative mind. We enjoyed his incredible guitar pickin' and terrific special effects, as well as reminiscing as he played his hits of the past, "Spiders and Snakes", "My Girl Bill", and "Wildwood Weed".

Another option was an IMAX show, with a mammoth screen projecting images so lifelike, you reach for them, that featured the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We relived their experience and their incredible 8000 mile journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Silver Dollar City is a charming re-creation of an 1890's mining town, featuring shows, exciting rides, authentic crafts, and delicious food, in the splendor of the Ozarks. Over a dozen musical groups perform every day, including nationally renowned bluegrass touring bands. Also, there are southern gospel nights and old fashioned barn dances. It has been a family attraction for over 30 years with its friendly citizens, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and entertainers.

Another option was the Ride the Ducks tour, a ride through the Ozark region in World War II era Army land and water ducks, restored military amphibious vehicles. The tour included a trek to the top of a mountain to view a breathtaking panoramic view of the Ozarks countryside.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of what Branson is all about, where it is, and the enormous amount of pleasure it offers to young and old. If you ever wonder where all the better entertainment and talent has gone, you may want to check out Branson.

November 3, 2003

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