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Shepherd of the Hills, a staple of Branson, nears its final bow

Updated: 2013-10-11T17:13:30Z

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH

The Kansas City Star

— She cradled the phone, listening as first her business-smart uncle, then her ailing father told her their decision.

We have to close the show. The 54-year run is over. Old Matt’s cabin will burn no more.

The last curtain call for the outdoor drama known as Shepherd of the Hills, a play that has run more than twice as long as anything Broadway has ever staged, would be Oct. 19.

Sharena Naugher, executive director and daughter of the show’s owners, the Branson-bolstering Snadons, had known this day was coming. She’d seen the ever-smaller audiences, written the ever-larger checks.

“Everything was rising, from insurance to vet bills, to even the terms in the affordable health care act, and no, this is not a political statement. It just costs too much with a seasonal staff. … Everything was rising except the money coming in.” And she stops to wipe her eyes.

“But we’re not alone in this.”

Farther south in Eureka Springs, Ark., it looked like the Great Passion Play would not reopen this year, but contributions kept it going another season. The Black Oak Amphitheater, a rock and country venue across Table Rock Lake from Branson, had five one-night stands this year and was up for sale again.

Naugher says she knows of shows on the Branson strip that are grateful when 30 people come in the doors.

As if to make her point, the next morning, Leroy New, the Little Opry Theater star once voted Branson’s best guitarist, showed up at a hotel’s breakfast bar, not for the gravy and biscuits, but to try to strum up an audience for his 10 a.m. show. To be fair, it was a Tuesday.

Costs have undercut Branson’s motto, given in 1991 by “60 Minutes” as “the live music capital of the universe.” Many music shows these days employ a four-man rhythm section playing along with instrumental recordings. Audiences don’t seem to notice.

The Shepherd show has its own excellent bluegrass band to pick and fiddle, accompanied by tree frogs. Its intermission performance often draws hundreds from the audience into an impromptu square dance.

But ultimately, the show is anchored in a century-old story of hill people and their troubles, burdened with deathbed lines such as, “Do you hear her? She is calling. She is calling again! Yes, sweetheart. Yes, dear, I am coming!” Meanwhile, popular culture flows in ever new directions toward fast-evolving entertainments.

Branson’s annual attendance was down a couple hundred thousand last year and the one before, too. A lingering recession and a tornado surely had something to do with the slippage, but the fact remains that many of the demographic that put this place on the map are using walkers now.

Some see a watershed in the death of Andy Williams, but the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce notes that his Moon River Theatre Christmas show is bringing out the Osmonds and the Lennons this year, the Oak Ridge Boys are booking big names at their place and there are several new acts on the strip.

The Titanic Museum is steaming along nicely; more shopping venues, such as Branson Landing, have opened up; the area golf courses are winning accolades; and the new airport is making it easier than ever to go to them all. Meanwhile, the Ducks still splash into the lake, the go-carts run their circuits and the bass tournaments haul out the lunkers.

Silver Dollar City, which opened in 1960, the same year as the Shepherd play, just opened Outlaw Run, a monster $10 million wooden roller coaster. The park’s selling more tickets, although their water venue has seen two weak years in a row, blamed on the weather.

The Snadons added their own enhancements, such as the Vigilante Extreme Zip-Rider, a four-line setup — and one of at least three such operations around the lake. It launches from Inspiration Tower, a 230-foot, top-of-the-hill structure they built in 1989 for anyone wanting to look out over the wooded hills, the lakes and Branson strip. Those small-staff operations will remain open.

Naugher said consultants were brought in, and the Old Mill Theater updated what it could: better seating, high-tech sound and lighting systems. Staged in a gentle hollow, the show’s sets include a full-sized grist mill, blacksmith’s forge and that pyro’s dream, the ever-burning cabin.

Before the audience wanders some 80 actors, 40 horses, a flock of sheep, two mules and a 1908 DeWitt automobile. Generations of families have brought the characters to life, telling the story of how backwoods people learned they were as good as any educated city-folk. With moral themes as clear as an Ozark stream, the show focused on forgiveness and God, family and good deeds.

Shepherd of the Hills, written by Harold Bell Wright and first published in 1907, was the first novel to sell more than 1 million copies. Many say it was the small novel, describing the area’s beauty, that drew the first tourists to this stretch of southern Missouri. Many hoped to find Matt’s cabin.

The book was made into a movie four times, the last, in 1941, starring John Wayne as the young embittered moonshiner.

Even Paul Henning, creator of The Beverly Hillbillies in 1962, knew the Shepherd story. Before his death, he donated 1,534 acres of oak and hickory trees to preserve the Ozarks the way he first encountered it on a camping trip with the Boy Scouts. The first nine episodes of the Hillbillies were set in the backwoods of Branson.

One of his characters, Granny Daisy Moses, (sometimes known as Granny Clampett), seems eerily the same as Wright’s character Mrs. Wheeling. Linda Donavant has played the character for 44 years. So long, she said, that she remembers when she had to make her hair gray, and the Snadons were busy with their two babies.

Naugher’s father, Gary Snadon, once the football coach at Branson High School, acted in three seasons of the show himself. Naugher remembers her older sister crying when the audience booed their dad’s character, Wash Gibb, the Baldknobber gang leader who does dastardly deeds before finally being killed off.

Snadon was a believer in Branson. He and another man started Ride the Ducks, the amphibious attraction; built at least two show theaters, the Ray Stevens and the Wayne Newton; and put up a couple of hotels and invested in others. He loved the play, and when the former owners of Shepherd of the Hills were retiring in 1985, Snadon bought it all — the 160 acres, the old log cabin homestead (not the flamer) and the Old Mill Theater.

Now Snadon is putting his energy into fighting pancreatic cancer. His wife, Pat, stays by his side in Houston. Their oldest daughter is a preacher in Denton, Texas.

That left Naugher, who started in the show’s ticket booth, to struggle to keep Shepherd breathing. The decision on how best to announce the plug being pulled was difficult.

“I had to tell them all myself,” she said. “My family and I owed that to them. The people in this show are my second family. I wanted them to hear it from me first.”

The next day, a few hours before the evening show, she tried explaining it. But looking at their faces and remembering their families, the words stuck in her throat. Her heart broke.

“I hiccuped, cried, it was so bad.”

Now the cast of Shepherd is grieving through every show. Lindsey Best, who plays Sammy, said the countdown to the last show is weighing heavy on them all, bringing out the best of their acting skills to keep their real emotions hidden. Every line of dialogue has new meaning for them.

Like: “That’ll just about finish us up,” says the character Matt Mathews, when he learns the bank’s gold was stolen and the whole town is broke.

“It feels like Branson, or at least the old Branson, is dying,” Best said, from the unhappy perspective of a 17-year-old who’s been in the play six years. “After Andy Williams died, the crowds stopped coming, too. Other people are trying to make it Hollywood-esq, like bringing in the American Idols show. The heart and soul of Branson is missing.”

On Monday night, the cast lined up shoulder-to-shoulder posing for pictures, chatting with the audience, giving away a few hugs. One actor, brawny Clinton Caperton who plays the villain Gibbs, was rubbing his eyes.

“If it wasn’t for this play, I wouldn’t be here,” said Caperton who deployed twice to Iraq with the 489th Engineer Battalion. Then he laughed at his emotions. He’s done nine years in the show, endured cracked ribs after one very realistic fight scene. During his months in Iraq, the cast sent him care packages, crammed with goofy videos of them spoofing the show. Caperton often called around showtime, reaching everyone he could.

His father still manages the horses and the horse-drawn wagons; he was a tour driver for the play when he met Caperton’s mother from Alabama. And Caperton met his wife here, too.

“This place runs pretty deep in my blood. It’s not just a place to work. The people here are family. But the story, it belongs to everyone who lives in this area.

“When it’s gone, a big chunk of Branson will be gone, too.”

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or email lkavanaugh@kcstar.com.

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