The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Best of Branson

April 17, 2012

Branson, at 100, thrives as a major tourist attraction

BRANSON, Mo. — Wheel into town and the eyes come under assault.

It’s as if Donald Trump married an Ozarks girl and took to redecorating her town. Gold meets calico.

Drive through the hills of Branson and signs fight for your attention, mostly touting an attraction more patriotic, more church-loving, more family-friendly, more country than the next.

Even the neon of today is faithful to Branson’s down-home beginnings of a century ago.

This Ozarks crossroads lacks L.A.’s beaches, Aspen’s slopes, Manhattan’s buzz. And it certainly doesn’t celebrate sin like Las Vegas.

Yet part by calculation, part by happenstance and part by the celebration of hillbilly chic, Branson has grown into a prosperous getaway. It drew 7.5 million visitors last year, slightly fewer than the year before. By one calculation, it ranks 25th on the country’s list of most popular tourist destinations.

Missouri’s holiday holler has shown tourism staying power. Even as it celebrates its 100th birthday this spring with a series of events marking its 1912 incorporation, it remains a mild miracle that bloomed into a country music company town.

It’s in the midst of healing the wounds from a tornado that bulled through part of its commercial strip earlier this year. And it’s still adjusting to the last big growth spurt that came in the 1990s.

Its marquee acts, and just as importantly their fans, are aging. The eclectic collection of G-rated attractions in town doesn’t just hustle to draw folks to southwest Missouri, but competes to draw them once they land (now more conveniently at a new airport). And the perception of the city as a place where country music legends still play after their touring days has been watered down a bit.

Still, Branson stands as a thriving budget vacation spot linked to an earlier age and the pastimes and entertainers that came with it. Community leaders feel no embarrassment peddling country sensibilities — maybe even Grandpa’s version of country — even as they try to update to 21st century audiences.

“We feel like it’s a wholesome place,” said Raeanne Presley. She’s mayor and a married-in member of one of the oldest theater families in town. “We’re proud of our country. We talk about faith. We’re about families.”

This big little city makes its dough at places like the God and Country Theater, the Baldknobbers Jamboree Music Show and the Gone With the Wind Book and Film Museum.

Branson’s rise to become a country star changes depending on who’s telling the story. Was it “Hee Haw” that made the difference, “60 Minutes,” or Roy Clark’s decision to settle down?

It’s worthwhile to go back to the 20th century in its infancy and the life of Harold Bell Wright. He’d summered in the Ozarks for a few years on the advice of a doctor who thought the country air would do him good. He was charmed both by the countryside and its folks. He penned a novel based on the people he met.

That book, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” talks about the goings on of Mutton Hollow and Dewey Bald narrated by a city dweller mixing folklore with tragedy driven by social position and love.

It was an instant hit in 1907. By some accounts, it was the first non-Bible to sell 1 million copies in the United States.

The book was so popular that it immediately kicked off a pilgrimage of readers in search of the corn-fed Xanadu. They toured the nearby Marvel Cave, and when the Ozark Beach Dam formed Lake Taneycomo, the area also began to draw fishermen. Branson incorporated April 1, 1912. The completion of the dam that bottled up Table Rock Lake in 1959 just east of Taneycomo made the area even more of a resort spot.

About that same time, the twang of banjos and the deep whistle of jug music began to beckon visitors. The men of the Mabe family began regular performances at a skating rink on the banks of Lake Taneycomo in Branson, mixing hillbilly humor with tunes born of the Ozark Mountains.

In 1960, Silver Dollar City opened by the Marvel Cave with a mock-up of a frontier village and a steam train ride. It would grow, over the decades, to become a modern amusement park with an Ozarks theme.

Meantime, on old homestead from where Wright had drawn his long-famous novel, an amphitheater sprung up to put on a play of “The Shepherd of the Hills.”

By 1968, the then 900-seat place was selling out nightly for a show that even today includes some 70-plus actors, 32 horses, eight mules, one donkey, a flock of sheep and 11 buggies and wagons. They burn a cabin every night. A fight scene in the show puts cast members in the emergency room on a regular basis. Mounting injuries from performances ultimately led Keith Thurman’s doctor to ban him from the play.

Now Thurman is the show’s director and a manager of The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theater, where he’s worked since 1967 and seen several Branson boom periods.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a gradual growth of theaters filled with local talent.

In the 1980s, national stars such as Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, Boxcar Willie and Jim Stafford started to set up shop in Branson and let crowds come to them rather than live on cross-country tour buses. In 1990, Shoji Tabuchi opened a theater anchored on his violin act. In 1994, the Bobby Vinton, Mel Tillis, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride and Lawrence Welk theaters opened.

With that, Branson began to develop a national reputation as the go-to place for country fans.

Thurman says it wasn’t so much that the big-time names brought the crowds, rather that the entertainers followed their fans to Branson.

“All these people that we were drawing brought those stars here,” he said.

In 1991, a “60 Minutes” crew went to Branson and declared it “the live music capital of the entire universe.” There were fewer than two dozen theaters working at the time. Crooner Andy Williams moved in. So did the Osmond family. And Tony Orlando, Glenn Campbell, Charley Pride and a parade of performers whose audiences were more prone to catch a show during a retirement vacation than at the local auditorium.

Now the number of theaters hovers around 50.

It was good news and challenging news for places like Thurman’s. The crowds grew, but so did the competition. Where once the amphitheater regularly drew nearly 2,800 people a night, now the crowds are more typically 800 to 1,000.

“It’s a tough job to compete with some of these big shows,” he said, “particularly when the generation that knew the book has started passing on.”

To compensate for dwindling crowds, the amphitheater built a 230-foot tower for tourists to look over the Ozarks in 1989 and added a stomach-dropping zip ride in 2008.

Indeed, no longer is Branson just a country music thing. Locals concede the audience for the old stuff may be dwindling, so they talk excitedly about Chinese acrobats from the New Shanghai Circus seen at the Beijing Olympics setting up shop in town. There’s a Titanic exhibit.

Likewise, the Sight & Sound Theater opened in 2008 with a 110-foot-wide stage flanked by 50-foot-wings that nearly encircle 2,085 seats. It’s “where the Bible comes to Life” in elaborate musicals. Think Christian Broadway.

“It’s a great place where we know our audience will find us,” said director Earl Grove.

He’s cast his 40 actors from more than a dozen auditions held across the country. They’ll stay, like so many in Branson, for a tourist season that generally runs from March through December.

It’s a town of about 10,500 year-round souls that swells to 60,000 or 70,000 for 10 months of the year. That means it has to have the sewers, the cops and the firefighters for a town much larger than residents could afford on their own.

Luckily, it’s got a herd of cash cows in its hotels and theaters that pick up the tab through the collection of tourist taxes.

Many of the transient workers gravitate to weekly rate motels, a collection of establishments of uneven accommodations.

Last week, 32-year-old Immanuel Gardner replaced a flat tire outside the motel where he’s been staying. The outside is weathered. Inside is a standard motel room with a bathroom, microwave and small refrigerator. Gardner came to volunteer with a local church, and the money he makes working at a department store and a frozen yogurt shop hasn’t allowed him to save up enough for the first and last month’s rent needed to get an apartment.

“But it’s a good place to be,” he said. “I guess Branson has a crime rate of some kind, but you don’t see anything that makes you worry. People are friendly here.”

David Mitchell, an economics professor at Missouri State University in nearby Springfield, said Branson has struggled to build housing for the come-and-go workforce. And while he sees Branson’s economy holding strong for the next decade or two, Mitchell said the city must gradually change itself.

“They’re aimed at an older audience, and at the Ozarks and Ozarks culture,” he said. “There are a lot of people who just aren’t going to find that interesting. ... And a lot of the people who do are dying off.”

The mayor sees things more optimistically. Branson caters to a lot of baby boomers, people, she said “who have both time and disposable income.”

“As things fracture, we keep up with the times,” she said. “We don’t have Britney Spears or whoever the hot artist of the time is, but we’ve got variety. ... We also give people a good value.”

In fact, it was price that brought Kris Simmons to town. Money was a little tighter this year than most, so traveling from Zeeland, Mich., to a Florida resort for his children’s spring break was out of reach. Instead a Groupon deal put him in a lakeside condominium for half price for four days.

“For us, the draw was the resort we found,” the 52-year-old Simmons said. “We probably won’t make it to any shows. ... Andy Williams — my folks had his albums, ’Moon River’ and all that. We just like being in the area.”

Fred Davis moved from Kansas City to Branson a few years ago after retiring from the Marine Corps. Now he’s general manager at a miniature golf course. Business took a bit of a bruise this year from the February tornado, but he said the unusually warm spring has helped.

He gets the worries about Branson falling behind the times, about its shows catering too much to an audience that’s disappearing. But he’s not worried. And he hopes the city never shifts too far from what made Branson Branson.

“Thank goodness,” he said, “Branson is always going to nurture what our society calls wholesome entertainment.”

 

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