The nation’s most unlikely entertainment destination has 50 theaters, more than 100 live shows, and 8 million annual visitors.
For years, the Strip in Branson, Mo., stood well below the Sunset Strip and way below the Vegas Strip on my bucket list of strips to visit on vacation.
So why was I driving to Branson—from a nearby airport, 90 minutes away—in a horizontal rain? I paused en route at the Mark Twain National Forest, where I found shelter from one of Twain’s evergreens, the one in Innocents Abroad that goes: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
By the time I pulled into Branson, the rain resembled something out of the Old Testament. And in Branson, as it happened, a “Bible-based show” called Noah—The Musical was playing at Sight & Sound Theatres' Branson location to 2,085 spectators, many of whom were making mental notes on ark construction, given the deluge outside.
And still an endless line of tour bus drivers, like Venetian gondoliers, plied the shimmering Strip, seven miles of Highway 76, its surface shining like patent leather in the headlights. Flanked by theater marquees and all-you-can-eat buffets, the Branson Strip is a wholesome analogue to the Vegas Strip: one part Rat Pack, 10 parts fanny pack. Branson has 50 theaters, eight championship golf courses, ﬁve nonchampionship courses, and about a dozen mini-golf courses (with windmills, clowns, and dinosaurs), three ﬁshable lakes, one place that sells taffy by the foot, and one major theme park, Silver Dollar City. Former sister park, Celebration City, was open at night, but it closed down for good in 2008, Branson being decidedly diurnal.
None of which fully explains why Branson hosts 8 million visitors a year—the same number as San Francisco—making this Ozark Mountain town of more than 10,000 one of the most visited municipalities in America.
Family meccas in this nation require a famous Mickey as a front man. Orlando has Mickey Mouse; Branson has singer Mickey Gilley, whose theater on the Strip is a reminder that country music put Branson on the map. Though not literally: That was done by Rueben Branson, whose trading post was designated a U.S. Post Office in 1882.
Andy Williams was the ﬁrst non-country artist to open his own theater on the Strip, in 1992, and today less than 40 percent of Branson’s shows are country-themed, one of many revelations to the ﬁrst-time visitor. I headed straight to the Moon River Theatre to see the 83-year-old Williams play a sold-out show to an audience of 2,054 vacationers; at least 90 percent of them were senior citizens.
Branson is very much a gerontocracy, a refreshing rebuke to a pop culture that mostly acknowledges youth. A billboard on I-44 promises visitors QUALITY DENTURES IN A DAY. Every hotel marquee advertises its AARP discount. Williams, who had his ﬁrst hit song, “Swinging on a Star,” in 1944, told his audience, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad I’m here.”
Williams himself was a revelation—vital, self-deprecating, in ﬁne voice—belting out a two-hour show, his second of the day, pausing only to change outﬁts. His gift shop sells Andy Williams wines with the teetotaling singer’s image on the label. His teeming Moon River Grill next door to the theater is hung with the singer’s priceless pop art collection. Those Warhols and Lichtensteins—SoHo meets Southern Mo.—shouldn’t have surprised me, but they did.
In his restaurant, as many as six nights a week, Williams works the room, shaking hands and kissing cheeks; the postshow mingle-with-the-stars is a hallmark of Branson, where even the horses stabled outside Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede greet fans on the way in and out. The plaques on their paddocks read: DO NOT TOUCH—HORSES WILL BITE. Happily, Williams has no such sign on his table.
That was good news for Frank McHugh, 66, and his wife Barbara, 66, who drove over 600 miles to the Moon River Theatre from Conroe, Texas. McHugh, an advertising salesman, said Branson’s success lay in its location. It’s a kind of geographical oxymoron. “Remote, but centrally located,” as McHugh put it. “Does that make sense?” It does: To say that Branson is in the middle of nowhere is not an insult, but a statement of fact. The city isn’t near anything. (The nation’s ﬁrst privately ﬁnanced commercial airport opened in Branson in 2009.) Yet Branson claims to be within a one-day drive for one-third of all Americans, and is certainly a day trip for millions of people.
So the guy on my right at the Moon River Theatre was from Omaha, the lady in front of me from Jacksonville, and Frank on my left from suburban Houston. Every year 4.5 million visitors come to Branson from more than 300 miles away, biblical deluges be damned. Or dammed: The Strip, when I left the Williams show, looked ﬁt only for the amphibious DUKW (pronounced duck) vehicles that are a popular tourist transport in Branson.
By 10 p.m. most of the tourists were returning to their beds. Many visitors told me they don’t like to drive at night. So Branson is the City That Never Sleeps In.
Dawn came, and with it a respite from the rain. (Dawn as in daybreak, not Dawn as in the backup singers to Tony Orlando. He was performing on the Strip, but with the Lennon Sisters instead.) I was tempted to take in the Platters breakfast show, if only to hear their hit songs of dusk—“Red Sails in the Sunset,” “Twilight Time,” “Harbor Lights”—performed at 10 a.m. Or to go see Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers band do “Night Time Magic” when it was not yet nighttime in London, England, much less London, Mo.
The morning star I ﬁnally steered by was comedian Yakov “What a Country!” Smirnoff, who was then doing a 9:30 a.m. show at his own theater. At 8:30, it had a poignant bank of wheelchairs—with YAKOV stenciled on their backrests—awaiting the arriving tour buses.
I ate popcorn in my seat at 8:45 a.m. Not long after, the emcee announced that he could perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if necessary. “Two weeks ago,” he told the audience of 1,600, “I inhaled a pair of dentures.” The crowd—including church groups from as far away as Hawaii—howled its approval. When Smirnoff came on stage, he told a joke about arriving in America to see an advertisement: “ ‘Nair for the hair.’ So I shampoo with it. Two weeks later, I’m bald.” Then, pointing to my chrome dome in the front row, he said: “This guy knows what I’m talking about!” Sigh. What a country.
Tourists have been making their way to Branson since at least 1907, when Harold Bell Wright published a best–selling novel about life in the Ozarks, The Shepherd of the Hills. The book was made into a 1941 ﬁlm by the same name that starred John Wayne and is still reverently performed as a stage play six nights a week, from May through October, at an 1,800-seat amphitheater three miles west of the Strip.
But Branson also pokes fun at the Ozarks and its history of moonshining and vigilante groups, the most notorious of which were the Bald Knobbers. Indeed, a music-and-comedy institution called the Baldknobbers was the ﬁrst show in Branson, opening in 1959, and it always has a substantial crowd even now. The city has milked its rustic heritage ever since. In 1969, ﬁve episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies were shot on location in Branson.
None of it can disguise modern Branson’s wealth and sophistication: the condos and golf courses and wineries. The Strip rolls east like a red carpet to Lake Taneycomo, on whose shores stand the $420 million Branson Landing development of high-end retail and restaurants, anchored by a convention center. I stayed in a Hilton Hotel across from another Hilton Hotel. But local businesses remain: Hillbilly Inn, Hillbilly Yogurt, Hillbilly Fruit & Nut Co.
Infused with the spirit of Branson, I spent my last evening on the Strip at the dinner-and-equestrian-themed Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, where the chief complaint of some patrons was, to my mind, its cardinal virtue: Diners were given no silverware, so everything—the hickory-smoked pork loin, the whole rotisserie chicken, the herb-basted potato—had to be eaten by hand. The Korean War veteran on my right complained, but I lapped it up (literally in the case of the creamy vegetable soup).
Branson has, as its boosters frequently boast, “more theater seats than Broadway.” But in the end, the hoofers I fell for had real hooves. The 32 performing horses outshone their acrobatic trick-riders and even the racing ostriches at Dolly Parton’s rodeolike show, where Dolly exists only in 2–D, greeting visitors on the video screen rather than in the 40–DD ﬂesh.
Dolly’s extravaganza was the last of my trio of shows, my geriatric hat trick. At the end of the Dixie Stampede I walked out into the resurgent rain, past the paddocked horses, each one breathing in and out like a bellows, tired from the evening’s performance. It was like seeing Sinatra through the stage door, sneaking a cigarette.
I congratulated them on a good show, and they showed their gratitude by not biting me. Then I returned to my car. Though the rain pelted me like a prison delousing shower, I would miss Branson. In two days, I hadn’t seen the sun. But I had seen the light.
Photography by Jeremy Mason McGraw (strip)
Photography courtesy Dixie Stampede (Dolly Parton)
Photography courtesy Skipper Liner (riverboat)
Photography courtesy Silver Dollar City (kiddie ride)
Photography courtesy Branson/Lake Area CVB (golf)
This article was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.