Date: Probably sometime around 1995
Branson, Missouri is a trip you ought to take, even if you don't particularly like country music. First of all, not all of the shows are country. Secondly, the shows are wonderful (almost all of them). Entertainers really appreciate having a "home base" to operate from, instead of having to be on the road, and so they all go out of their way to give you a really good time. Take the kids, grandparents, whatever. You'll never be offended by any of it.
To Get There
We flew TWA from Sarasota, Florida to St. Louis, then another leg to Springfield where we were met by a very nice coach (i.e. bus) that took us on a 1-hour trip through the Ozarks to Branson. The bus driver was a retired geologist so we learned a lot about the territory. For example, the Ozarks aren’t really mountains at all. It is a high plain made of limestone, into which lakes and rivers have gouged out some valleys.
Our motel was a 3 stories, with tall pillars and a cupola (go figure), in front. We had asked for a room upgrade, and found ourselves with a hot tub (i.e. white bathtub with jets), smack dab in the corner of our bedroom, 2 feet from the bed (and a view of the backside of the cupola outside our window). Clothes hung on a rack on the wall (no closet); there were only two small drawers under the TV, and no comfortable chair to read in (Ken asked for a stuffed chair, which the cheaper rooms had, and was told that our straight back chairs were perfectly comfortable and that there was no need). Newspapers came in each day and were all gone by 7:30. Id’a thought they might buy more instead of running out all the time. Each night as we came off the bus we were given certificates for either ice cream, or an apple dessert, valued at $1.00. Couldn’t have the $2.00 black cow, however. The worst was the fact that the bathroom light was connected to a very loud fan. If you wanted to turn on the light in the middle of the night you got the loud fan as well. Too cheap to separate a fan and light when it was built, I guess. As you can tell, we wouldn’t recommend the Branson Towers. Sounds fancy, but wasn't.
Generally, the food was mediocre. I think there were probably nice restaurants, but none willing to take on 50 people and feed them in about an hour. The only memorable place was Lambert’s Cafe, a place between Springfield and Branson that we stopped at for lunch on Tuesday going back to the airport for the trip home. It was truly down-home southern cooking. Their claim to fame is that they throw rolls to you. A young man goes around with a cart, and if you put up your hand he tosses a double roll to you. So, bakery is flying around the restaurant anytime someone wants it. They also roam the place with big kettles of black-eyed peas and stuff like deep-fried okra to add to what is already a full plate of food.
Friday night: Wayne Newton
Saturday afternoon: Tony Orlando. Saturday evening: Brenda Lee (1 hr); Mell Tillis (1.5 hrs). Sunday afternoon: Bobby Vinton with the Glen Miller Orchestra. Sunday evening: Mickey Gilley. Monday breakfast: Lennon Brothers. Monday afternoon: Shoji Tabuchi. Monday evening: Andy Williams.
I was really surprised at the first show when Wayne Newton made such close connections with the audience. First of all, lots of people brought flowers and gifts to the stage. He always hugged and kissed them (came off the stage). He sang a lot of songs in the aisles, while shaking hands, hugging, touching people. Photos were allowed any time (no audio or video recording, though). Most of the stars did that, except for Brenda Lee (I did not enjoy her), Shoji, and Andy Williams. Mel Tillis did not allow photos, but he had a member of his orchestra go out with him and take lots and lots of Polaroids as he shook hands and wandered about. Shoji simply didn’t have enough time, considering the “eventful” show he put on (was the best, as far as I was concerned). All of them made themselves available for autographs after the show. Bobby Vinton invited couples up on stage to dance to Glen Miller’s orchestra, after the intermission. They all rave about their wonderful life in Branson. Everyone had their family members involved in one way or another. Tony O’s son was the opening comedian, for example.
Many entertainers own their own theaters (Tabuchi, Williams, Vinton, etc.). Other theaters are owned primarily by local investors, and leased to the stars. For example, a very fancy theater was built for Wayne Newton, including huge statues of Arabian horses out front. He had a falling out with the investors, sued them and got fired. He is now at another theater. He also went bankrupt before going to Branson. I don’t know the story there, but I’d guess gambling?
The theaters we visited varied in size between 1,000 and 3,000 seats. All of them had gift shops loaded with videos, audio tapes and CD’s of the star, plus pictures, T-shirts etc. of other star memorabilia. They also had food stations (you could bring food into the theater). Many had large video screens on each side of the stage, which you could watch in case the person in front of you was very tall, I suppose.
Lighting and Special Effects
The lighting in these shows was all new to me, even though I've seen New York stage shows. The laser show at the Tabuchi theater was stunning. For example, they ran laser animation of chickens and other animals chasing each other across the curtain, as they performed “Chicken in the Straw.” The regular lights not only lit up the stage, but were used across the audience as well, from time to time. I’ve never seen a light that changed color as you watched. I could look right at the area that emitted the light and still not see how they did it. I know they’re all computer operated, but it’s as if there are RBG guns and that they can create any color they want. At Williams’ theater (the only one with stairs), the lights were directed by a mirror at an angle to the mouth of the light. Anyway, lights were always a big part of each show, lending mood, character, highlighting, etc.
At the end of the Tabuchi show, lasers were used to create red and white stripes that formed a canopy that covered the whole audience, while Tabuchi stood in the center stage at the point where the lights came out, and sang “God Bless America.” Where else in the world can a Japanese man come to America, play the violin at his own theater in Missouri, get rich while singing a moving song with a heavy accent, and tears in his eyes. Not a dry eye in the house at the end.
Tabuchi at one point had hundreds of balloons and tons of confetti dumped out of the ceiling onto the audience. The balloons made the rounds for at least a half an hour. One nutty lady in our group kept one and actually had it (still full of air), on the airplane for the trip home. This show also had lots of dancers in the aisles.
Andy Williams gave out 3-D glasses at the beginning of the show for two special dance numbers that were set up for 3-D. He also showed a clip of the only movie he had done, years ago, with Sandra Dee, I think. He showed the song, which he had sung to her in the front seat of a convertible. He then showed it with himself today, in the back seat, between them, singing along, doing silly stuff.
Brenda Lee (I didn’t recognize one of her songs) and Mickey Gilley were mostly country, but everyone else sang stuff ranging from rock, to popular ballads, to R&B, to gospel (always a little of that in most shows, since this is a pretty Christian community), to Cajun, to classic. The backup groups were a wide range of instruments. Big band brassy sound of Glen Miller. Great guitar players who were featured in many shows. The popular and country songs generally came from music of the 40’s and 50’s, perhaps early 60’s.
For several of his Asian-music numbers Tabuchi imported special Japanese drums (forgot their name) that take 20 years to make, from hollowed out special trees in Africa. They require huge mallets used by very muscular men. At one point two men and two drums were lowered from the ceiling and hovered over the audience.
It’s incredible to think of the numbers of people involved in all the shows. How many musicians, singers, dancers, stage people, audio/lighting people etc. it took to put on a show. Think of all the talent that’s available in the U.S. and how nice it is to have a place in a great community for them to live and bring up their families. For example, Andy Williams had seen two dancers perform in a show in Paris. They were a married couple and had been doing the show in France for 8 years. He invited them to “come home” and work for him. They were terrific ballet, modern dance, stuff that looked like they were ice skating (lots of lifts, etc.), and some funny stuff to boot. Dancers in general did everything from tap to ballet to modern to rock to whatever. The choreography for the Tabuchi show, for example, was done by his wife, and was as good as any New York stage show I’ve seen.
The Trip Home
Our last leg from St. Louis to Sarasota was to have been in row 26. I asked Ken to check to see if there were seats further toward the front where it’s not so noisy. He decided to see if we could upgrade to first class, and since we were on group rates, only a supervisor could do it. She ended up being bogged down with having to quickly write 40 meal tickets for people who did not get a meal on an incoming plane. She was so harried that she simply “comped” the tickets rather than taking the time to rewrite them. Kelly and Sue already had row 5, bulkhead, so we decided to give them the first class and take their seats (all I really wanted was to be further up front). They were tickled, never having traveled first class before. Kelly drank champagne all the way, having had a delightful dinner (we had a bag with a sandwich). Sue had enough room to simply go to sleep. Anyway, it was a real kick being able to do that.
We got home about midnight, happy to see our two pets and our own beds. Each time I travel, I am happier to get home than I was to leave. Wonder why we ever go anywhere.