The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 8, 2013

Dave Woods: Ventriloquist knows Branson inside, out

By Dave Woods
Globe Columnist

BRANSON, Mo. — Jim Barber made me laugh last Saturday night.

The singer and ventriloquist emceed the annual Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Black Tie Gala. It's a great party and was a fun night of gripping and grinning with Branson's entertainers and business movers and shakers at the Hilton Convention Center and Hotel.

The chocolate hazelnut crunch dessert and open wine bar were pretty good, too.

I've never seen Jim's variety show. That changes tonight. I'll catch the Hamner-Barber Variety Show and have a report next week. It's their 10th season at their own venue, and Jim is excited to celebrate it and Branson's future.

When I decided to preview Branson's spring break season, I decided to call Jim, suspecting that he would have a good grasp on Branson's spring-break attractions, shows and entertainment options.

Besides operating his own theater and a couple of other multimedia companies, he chairs the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and is president of Branson's Show League of Theatre Owners and Show Producers.

"We've got so many great shows that kids love," Jim said. "Their grandparents love it and the parents and the teenagers, too. Branson's one of the few places in the country where everybody can sit down together and enjoy the same show equally."

Jim said he's seen a change in the past few years in spring-break interests.

"I think there's a trend in spring-break destinations now," he said. "There was a report just recently that more people are going to family destinations and spending their spring breaks together as a family, rather than going off to some party beach somewhere."

It's no secret, I am a party beach fan, but when it comes to spring break with the kids, Branson is affordable, close to home and an easy trip.

The father of an 8-year-old girl himself, he should know.

"I might as well be the father of five since she is so active," he said, laughing. "People know that when they come here there is so much for them to do."

The Hamner Barber Theater opened in 2004 and then other popular attractions soon followed.

"Then we had Titanic (Museum Attraction) come in and Branson Landing with all the shops," he said. "There are more outdoor things to do now, like zip lines and even more shows continued to come into town."

The show and attraction choices available during the spring break season are always growing.

"We have about 38 theaters operating in town right now and over 100 different shows to pick from," Jim said of the Midwest's live entertainment capital. "We've got a whole variety of attractions to pick from. We've got mini-golf to zip lines to racing cars and go-carts and water slides. There's so much going on, and it's an exciting time to be here as an entertainer."

A Branson spring-break getaway is an affordable and fun vacation for Ozarks area families.

"It's an easy drive, just a couple of hours away," Jim said. "There are great resorts to pick from and any kind of experience you want. You can stay in a cabin on the lake or a fine, five-star hotel, and we've got everything in between. As far as entertainment goes there's something for the entire family.

The big attraction this year is Silver Dollar City's new wooden, corkscrewing roller coaster, Outlaw Run.

"It's awesome and will bring a lot of people to town," he said.

While Branson has a long history of being a close-to-home vacation destination for us Ozarks locals, with the arrival of Southwest Airlines flights into the Branson Airport this week, families from around the country now have an opportunity to enjoy our backyard spring break destination.

Let them come. I love meeting first time Branson visitors when I'm working there. I feel like a walking travel guide and love offering my show, attraction and dining recommendations to tourists. I've made a lot of friends that way.

Jim credits the rise in national recognition of Branson to the marketing campaigns driven by Branson's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Ten years ago Branson was No. 8, when people surveyed thought-of family travel destinations," Jim said. "This year, when they did that same survey, Branson placed No. 3 nationwide behind Florida and Disney World as a family travel spot. When people think of Branson, they think family vacation. We're happy about that, and we have a great future ahead of us, and I'm happy to be part of it."

Me too.