By Wally Kennedy

Globe Business Writer

BRANSON, Mo. - Chris Lucchi, a key player in Branson's newest theater, the $14 million American Bandstand on Highway 76, wanted to be an engineer.

"I went to MSSC (now Missouri Southern State University) for a couple of years and I was planning on going to Rolla to study engineering. Before I transferred, I decided to work and save some money for a couple of years. So, I leased a restaurant for two years in Branson,'' he said.

The restaurant was called Sammy's Cabin in Mutton Hollow. It's now an office at Celebration City, now part of the Silver Dollar City empire. "That job changed everything. I ended up never going back to school,'' he said.

The restaurant gig led to another restaurant project in Springfield, the Library Bar and Bistro. Two years after that, he built and opened the Old Apple Mill in Branson. It's now called Charlie's Steak and Ribs.

For a period of a few years in the 1980s, he was operating three restaurants at the same time. By the early 1990s and after 12 years in the restaurant business, it was time to do something else.

"When I started, I was single. I got married in 1983 and had children. It's difficult to be in the restaurant business and have a family,'' he said.

In 1995, he bought his first hotel with three other partners. Over the next few years, he would be a partner in five hotels, one in Springfield and four in Branson. Two years ago, he started on Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater.

Lucchi and his partners owned undeveloped land next to the Ramada Inn in Branson, one of the hotels they own. They purchased the Mid-Town Diner and the nightclub under the restaurant. It was called The Down Under.

"The restaurant and nightclub had been there for 25 years or more. Anybody who had spent anytime in Branson had been to The Down Under,'' he said.

Instead of razing the 12,000-square foot restaurant and club, he incorporated it into the design of the theater. The three-story, 950-seat theater added 85,000 square feet of space. It features a gift shop, photo area and a museum.

The museum holds The Patch Collection, a collection of vehicles that are all 1957 models.

"The museum has all kinds of memorabilia. It's like stepping into small-town America in 1957. There's a Main Street with a barber shop and Texaco station, and department store windows with clothes from the 50s,'' he said.

"What's unique about our theater is that we showcase memorabilia from the early days of rock. We have the Dick Clark collection from American Bandstand that appeared from 1957 to 1987 on ABC. Over those years, Clark collected all kinds of rock 'n' roll memorabilia. We showcase his collection in the lobby and restaurant.

"Our acts are original artists who appeared on American Bandstand on multiple occasions. We are the first theater to feature old-time rock 'n' roll acts in Branson. We have the Righteous Brothers, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bill Hailey's original Comets.

"We also have Fabian, Bobby Vee, the Chiffons, Brian Hyland and Chris Montez. These five acts do a show together. Together, they have 30 top 10 hits. The songs are more well-known than their names.''

Lucchi, chairman of the board of the Branson-Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said the theater, which opened April 28, has had several soldout shows and that most every show has concluded with a standing ovation from the audience.

Lucchi, a 1975 graduate of Parkwood High School in Joplin, said his new career in entertainment keeps him busy, but he finds time to come home.

"This is my 25th year in Branson, but I still come back to visit Joplin and my Mom (Mary Lucchi),'' he said.

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