A brand-new show season begins this month at this increasingly popular Ozarks resort town.
By Tom & Joanne O’Toole
Branson, Missouri, is one fine entertainment town. First-timers who have heard about the shows there but have never attended one are in for a big surprise. Extravaganzas with music, dance, comedy, and more are presented morning, noon, and evening, and theaters are spread out over a 5-mile stretch. So many ticket packages, along with discounts, are offered that numerous visitors — who arrive via bus tours or on their own — take in three shows a day. Some claim to have seen four or even five performances.
It’s the experience that brings people back again and again. Most of the live shows have interactive moments, with cast members (and often the headline performer) walking into the audience, shaking hands, encouraging fans to take photos, and announcing the anniversaries and birthdays of those in attendance. They often take time on stage to announce each special organization and bus tour in the audience and where they are from, which evokes a cheer from that group. Sometimes the audience is asked for its input before a show by filling out a card, with that information becoming part of the act.
Many musical shows conclude with hymns, patriotic songs, and a proud-to-be-here tone, after which entertainers sign autographs and pose with fans for photos. Cast members and headliners alike step into the tour buses and thank everyone for coming. It’s this personal touch that fans remember — and appreciate.
If all this sounds good to you, you’re not alone. In 2000, nearly 7 million people visited Branson. This month, the 2002 season begins in earnest, with folks clamoring to get tickets to more than 80 different shows performed in 49 theaters. With 61,714 theater seats, Branson has more seats than New York City’s Broadway theater district.
Branson’s renown can be traced to 1907, when a novel by Harold Bell Wright called The Shepherd of the Hills was published. The book’s fictional characters lived near this Ozarks community, and visitors began coming to town to see the area for themselves. In 1959 a country music show called the Baldknobbers Jamboree, performed by the Mabe Brothers, opened in Branson; it was performed in a converted building near the Lake Taneycomo waterfront. In 1967 the Presley family (no relation to Elvis) built the first music theater in Branson, and the Mabe Brothers followed suit in 1968. Those families still offer shows today.
Silver Dollar City, a theme park 10 miles west of Branson, began in 1960 as an attraction atop Marvel Cave. Around the same time, a few miles east of Silver Dollar City, a local family began staging a pageant based on The Shepherd of the Hills in an outdoor amphitheater. In 1983 Roy Clark opened a theater in Branson, and invited other artists to perform at his namesake for weekend engagements. It was the first theater linked to a celebrity entertainer. The late Boxcar Willie was the first solo performer to move to Branson permanently in 1987. He was followed by Mel Tillis and Jim Stafford in 1990.
A positive view of Branson on the CBS television program “60 Minutes” in 1991 brought national attention to the little town. A year later Andy Williams opened his Moon River Theater and became Branson’s first major non-country act. Thus, the town’s appeal broadened. The Osmond Brothers opened their Osmond Family Theater in 1992, and the Lennon Sisters began playing at the Lawrence Welk Champagne Theatre in 1994. Before long, 76 Country Boulevard was ablaze with marquees.
A number of performers make their homes in Branson, adding to the town’s permanent population of approximately 6,000. The very successful Jim and Ann Stafford have perhaps the most spectacular home in town.
Many of the entertainers perform in Branson only for the season, which typically begins in April and slows down by the end of the year, after the Christmas shows. To take up the slack in January, February, and March, “Hot Winter Fun” events take place; big discounts are offered at the outlet malls; and many attractions, restaurants, and some shows remain open.
During the regular season, some performers take off for a week or two at a time, but most work full schedules. In fact, many of the headliners put on two shows a day, six days a week. Some do more. Regardless of when you visit, you will find plenty of entertaining shows and top acts, more than anyone could cram in a brief visit, even if you saw three or four performances every day.
You won’t find too much that’s “corny” or “hokey” in Branson today. But you will find many regulars who have their own theaters, such as comedian Yakov Smirnoff, singer and dancer Jennifer Wilson, Japanese country fiddler sensation Shoji Tabuchi, and others. Numerous performers entertain at their theaters when they are in town and schedule other acts at the venues when they are not. Tabuchi, like many of the performers, brings members of his family into his act.
Some theaters exist to host a variety of entertainers. For example, scheduled to appear this year at the 4,000-seat Grand Palace are the Oak Ridge Boys, Jeff Foxworthy, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, George Jones, Tracy Byrd, and Neal McCoy.
The entire family can attend a Branson show and not hear any off-color remarks. The city is known for its old-fashioned, wholesome entertainment. The entire town is kept family-friendly in part by prohibiting gambling and restricting the sale of alcohol in the theaters.
Branson may quite possibly be the tour bus capital of North America, and when you visit, you’ll see buses filling the parking lots. Because the businesses want to accommodate the buses, you’ll find that most parking lots can accommodate your motorhome, too. Perhaps the only part of town where motorhome parking is not accommodated is in Branson’s old-fashioned downtown district.
Special events take place in Branson year-round. Branson Fest (April 3 through 7 this year) is a showcase of area businesses, theaters, and local artisans putting their best foot forward at the Lawrence Welk Champagne Theatre. Silver Dollar City opens its 2002 season April 12 with World Fest, which brings performers from around the globe.
Veterans feel especially catered to in Branson. A large Veterans Day parade is held each year, and public observances and remembrance days include Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, POW-MIA Day, the Pearl Harbor anniversary, and more. The Veterans Memorial Museum in Branson pays tribute to those who served in the armed forces, from World War I to Desert Storm.
Visitors also find a reason to visit Branson during the Ozark Mountain Christmas observation in November and December. During this time, holiday lights glow in town and at The Shepherd of the Hills pageant location. Christmas-themed shows are presented in some theaters at this time of year.
In addition to the shows, restaurants in town offer seemingly endless buffets. The buffet we sampled was very good, and reasonably priced. Even the non-buffet restaurants offer family-style specials and down-home cooking. With more than 380 restaurants to choose from, you’ll find a variety of cuisine.
Nearly 20 campgrounds are located in the Branson area, with varying amenities. You can choose a spot along a lake or a site at a resort within walking distance of the action in town. Rates vary from approximately $30 per night for full hookups (50 amps) to half that price, depending on the campground’s location and amenities.
As one might imagine, the growth of Branson has caused some traffic hassles. Traffic on the town’s main road, State Route 76, is often bumper-to-bumper, especially when shows are letting out. To ease the congestion, the town has built a network of secondary roads that allow visitors to get to the shows on time without being delayed on the main route. (You can obtain an area map from the local chamber of commerce listed below.) Even more traffic improvements have been made on U.S. 65 between Springfield and Branson, which has been widened from two lanes to four lanes.
Although the many glittering, neon-illuminated theaters are Branson’s biggest attention-getters, the town boasts many other attractions as well. Upscale resorts (Chateau on the Lake and Big Cedar Lodge) can tempt you to steal away from your coach for a night or two. Six golf courses are located in town, with several more in the surrounding area. Giant outlet malls lure shoppers away from the theaters, as does the aforementioned downtown area, called Historic Downtown, where a five-and-dime store offers merchandise you haven’t seen in ages. Walk along the tree-lined streets and see the Branson of yesteryear, with its old-fashioned soda fountain, coffee shops, diner, and sidewalk benches.
You can sample the countryside on the Branson Scenic Railway, which departs from the old Main Street Depot downtown for a 40-mile round trip. Another sight-seeing novelty is a ride on a World War II amphibious “Duck.” An 80-minute Ride-the-Ducks tour snakes through part of town, then splashes into Table Rock Lake. The driver-guide keeps passengers entertained with humor and gossip, and even lets some “sailors” steer the craft. Three well-stocked lakes provide plenty of boating and fishing opportunities, too.
A full day of fun and entertainment awaits at the 19th-century village called Silver Dollar City. This cave attraction developed into a theme park, and earned its name because visitors were once given their change in real silver dollars.
The 61-acre park approximately 10 miles west of Branson combines an 1880s Ozarks mining town with modern-day amusements. Nearly 100 resident artisans in period costumes demonstrate their skills, using tools and techniques of the 1800s. Dozens of musical shows are presented daily at no extra charge, along with other performances and entertainment for kids of all ages. High-flying, multi-looping coaster rides; tamer water rides; and a rather sedate train ride are featured. Shops and tempting restaurants complete the fun.
Other entertainment activities during the Branson season include the outdoor pageant “The Shepherd of the Hills,” which is offered at the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead. Visitors spend the day there taking a historical tour of the homestead and the Harold Bell Wright Museum, watching craftspeople work, and savoring the view from Inspiration Tower; then, in the evening, they can enjoy a dinner (included in the admission price) and see the live-action drama, which has a cast of 80. The Shepherd of the Hills Homestead and Outdoor Theater opens April 18, and is open sporadically throughout the spring until May 28, when it remains open six days a week (closed Sundays).
From April to December, you can enjoy an entertaining cruise aboard the Branson Belle, a huge showboat on Table Rock Lake. And in the warm-weather months, enjoy dozens of wet family fun rides at the 12-acre White Water Park. Branson USA, a relatively new amusement park, has already become a popular family attraction.
Museums in town include Ripley’s Believe It or Not!; the Hollywood Wax Museum; and a little-known (but fascinating) place called the Ralph Foster Museum, dedicated to the history of the Ozarks, which boasts the original “Beverly Hillbillies” truck. The Foster Museum is on the campus of the College of the Ozarks, a mile outside of Branson.
It’s little wonder Branson has taken on the slogan of “Real American Entertainment.” It sure seems that this is exactly what the town provides.
Branson is on State Route 76 just off U.S. 65, tucked into the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in southwest Missouri. It is 39 miles south of Springfield and 11 miles north of the Arkansas state line.
The Branson area offers nearly 20 campgrounds. For a listing of these facilities, as well as theater schedules and a map, contact:
Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention & Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 1897
Branson, MO 65615