The mission was clear: Go to Branson to experience Christmas in the little Ozarks town that became a country-music mecca.
So I headed south.
Somewhere west of Springfield on Interstate 44, I saw the first billboard advertising Branson radio station 1550.
Then another. And another.
Unable to withstand the pressure of scientifically targeted propaganda, I disconnected my iPod, punched in the AM band and dialed up 1550.
The station, properly identified as KLFJ, apparently exists for only one purpose: To promote all things Branson. As I drove toward Springfield, the station blared a mishmash of plugs for Branson shows, repeated down-home comedy routines by a cracker-barrel comedian named Milton Crabapple (the “Sheriff of Crabapple County”) and relentless invitations to stop at the Branson Welcome Center just south of Springfield on U.S. 65.
“Just take the CC/Fremont Hills Exit,” Milton told me over and over again in his synthesized Gabby Hayes/Walter Brennan accent.
When Milton wasn’t delivering pun-based comedy routines — apparently in front of a live audience — about trains, cows, money laundering and hemorrhoids, among other subjects, Kent Emmons took over, pumping up Branson and Branson shows in his always-enthusiastic professional DJ voice.
And then, as an occasional interlude, Bob Eubanks popped up with a syndicated feature called “Short Stories About Big People.”
You remember Bob, the velvet-throated host of “The Newlywed Game.”
Anyway, seeing Milton Crabapple live in Branson apparently isn’t an option. A bit of Internet research indicates that a station near Pigeon Forge, Tenn., (the home of Dollywood) offers extremely similar programming with Kent and Milton. Maybe that’s why the looped content sounds computer-programmed. As far as we know, they could be broadcasting from an underground bunker anywhere in the country.
Regardless, their radio schtick does manage to distill a central truth about Branson: It’s a place where you encounter “stars” you’ve never heard of and celebrities you haven’t thought about in decades.
After an hour or so of getting beaten up by Milton and Kent and Bob, I felt I had no choice but to do as they suggested.
So, like an obedient tourist, I pulled off the highway and dropped in at the welcome center, housed in a squat building on the frontage road. It was quiet.
A couple of nice fellows — one in his 30s, one collecting Social Security — were on duty behind the counter. They sold me a ticket to the the 2 p.m. matinee of an a cappella vocal band called the Cat’s Pajamas; I grabbed a free map of Branson theaters that looked a lot like a colorful game board and went on my way.
One of the first signs of Branson’s otherworldliness is the Yakov Smirnoff Theater, clearly visible from the highway. You can’t miss it because an enormous fabricated head representing the Reagan-era comedian is positioned in front of his theater. From there Yakov’s head grins out at motorists cruising south on U.S. 65.
It seems like an apt introduction to this town. Yakov, like so many other entertainers who found a way to re-invent themselves here, may be little more than a dim pop-culture memory, but he’s still a star in Branson.
I’m told the holiday season in Branson begins Nov. 1 and that the town experiences a major influx of tourists to see the holiday shows. Lynn Berry, director of communications for the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, told me that November is the second busiest month of the year in Branson. (July is No. 1.)
The streetlights are festooned with seasonal decorations as you drive in on 76 Highway. Silver Dollar City, the nearby theme park, offers parades, a talking Christmas tree, “Broadway-style” shows and strolling carolers. Visitors can see the Trail of Lights at Shepherd of the Hills as well as the city’s Festival of Lights on Branson Hills Parkway.
A few years ago the Travel Channel put Branson on a list of the “most Christmasy places in America.” As you would expect, all the shows present special holiday entertainment during November and December.
My first stop was at the Music City Centre to see the aforementioned Cat’s Pajamas. The group consists of five young gifted vocalists who can blend smooth harmonies on a wide range of pop music.
On one of Branson’s promotional websites, the boys are billed as “Branson’s new wave of entertainment,” which is another way of saying there’s not a single lick of country music in their show.
But it turns out the band has been in town for five years, which raises a basic question: How long must someone perform here until they’re no longer part of “the new wave?”
The 600-seat theater was maybe a quarter full on a recent Thursday afternoon. (The band only performs matinees.) The audience included a few young faces but the crowd, like the crowds at most shows in Branson, was predominately retirement age.
Brian Skinner, the band’s founder, whipped up the audience with some rapid-fire jokes before the performance: “For those of you who know nothing about us, we are a troupe of 170 pantomiming clowns!” To the relatively sparse audience he added: “There were twice as many yesterday, but they were ugly!”
Skinner is the bass and boom-box anchor to the group, which includes Michael Samsky, Donovan Germain, Dale Edward Powell and Noah Michael.
By any objective standard, these guys are terrific singers. Between their choreographed movements, pitch-perfect harmonies and visually striking silver suits with black shirts and pink ties, they put on a polished performance that generates laughs without forcing the issue.
The second half of the show was devoted to holiday music — secular and sacred — and included a nice doo-wop version of “White Christmas,” a song I hate. The Cat’s Pajamas were remarkable for the energy and commitment they invested in an afternoon show for a less-than-full house.
Background on the group indicates that they’ve played Atlantic City and on luxury liners. And that’s essentially what they are — a high-end cruise-ship act.
Pigs and chickens
I scooted down the street to the Dixie Stampede, one of Branson’s iconic shows.
Positioned on a hill overlooking Missouri 76, the theater is impossible to miss, with its antebellum mansion facade.
The full name of the show is Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. The first version of this rodeo spectacle was in Pigeon Fork, where Dolly built her self-memorializing theme park.
From the parking lot, visitors can stroll by fine-looking horses in their stalls while Christmas carols recorded by Dolly are piped into the air.
Once inside, guests stream into the Carriage Room where folks can grab a beverage and watch the pre-show entertainment, which was provided by juggler Albert Lucas.
Lucas was good, no doubt about it. Performing on an elevated stage with viewers on four sides, he could keep multiple tennis rackets in the air; toss oranges high and catch them in baskets attached to his belt; juggle flaming batons; balance a ladder on his chin and do a version of the classic spinning plates. Lucas is a personable performer who had a established a nice repartee with the audience.
Then we were herded into the 1,000-seat performance arena, where patrons are seated side-by-side on long wooden benches at wooden tables that somehow brought to mind photos of WPA work-camp dining halls.
The crowd was a mix of retirement-age folks and parents with young children. I didn’t spot an empty seat in the house.
When ordering tickets, viewers are asked to choose which side of the arena they prefer — North or South. I opted to sit with the Yankees, thus betraying my Texas roots. However, during the holidays the show’s traditional blue versus gray Civil War theme is put in the closet in favor of a North Pole versus South Pole rivalry.
Let me just say this: I’ve never experienced anything quite like the Dixie Stampede — and I’ve seen plenty of weird entertainment.
Part rodeo, part dinner theater and — now that we’re in the holidays — part church service, the show frequently defies description. Moments of spectacle, comedy and music unfold as viewers rip apart roasted chickens with their hands.
The emcee for the evening was a large-framed gentleman in a spangly red coat and a black cowboy hat astride a handsome black horse. He had a range of duties, including whipping up North Pole/South Pole competitive fervor and doing comedy schtick with the show’s clown, Skeeter “the redneck reindeer hunter.”
Each side of the arena is represented by teams of trick riders and victory is determined by a series of competitions. There’s barrel racing (or something a lot like it), a buckboard wagon race, kids chosen from the audience chasing chickens across the arena, a pig race and a horseshoe-throwing contest between two fellows selected from the audience. Only the “horseshoes” were brightly colored toilet seats.
The North Pole held its own, but by the end of the evening I was on the losing side.
Speaking of pigs and chickens, the four-course dinner — to be consumed without utensils of any kind — included soup, scones, a whole roasted chicken, a slice of ham, corn on the cob and a hot apple turnover. I hadn’t eaten since early in the day, so not much was left of my chicken by the time the server took the plate away.
The centerpiece of Act 1 is the “Toy Store,” which descends from a ceiling on a big platform. There “toys” come to life set to pre-recorded music that includes snippets of “The Nutcracker.”
There’s a stuffed bear, a wind-up monkey holding cymbals, a green Army man, a robot, Raggedy Ann and Andy, a jester, a winged creature hovering in the air and a toy soldier on horseback, who may have been the creepiest of the lot with his round “wooden” head and blank expression. I think the intent was to be “charming,” but it all felt a little too close to “The Twilight Zone.”
In Act 2, that same descending platform becomes the centerpiece of the Living Nativity, in which Mary and Joseph, clad in storybook biblical costumes, sing from the manger while holding the baby Jesus. A singing angel on horseback makes an appearance, as do the Three Kings riding real camels. It all concludes with the emcee reminding us that this, after all, is “the real meaning of Christmas.”
There’s a lot of talent on view in this show. The trick riders are amazing — one of them raced around the arena Roman style, standing atop two horses that he coaxed through an enormous burning hoop. And the singers are strong. As I exited through the gift shop I asked a clerk if I could buy a program that listed all the performers. She shook her head vaguely, as if nobody had ever asked that before.
Ebb and flow
Branson has a population of just over 10,500. According to the city’s official website, Branson attracts 8 million visitors a year. The town also claims 50 theaters and 60,000 theater seats, 200 restaurants and 18,000 lodging rooms.
Before and after showtime, Missouri 76 traffic gets thick. But it’s easy to spot a handful of closed motels and several theaters no longer operating. And you can see a few vacant lots.
The Grand Palace Theater, for example, has been closed since 2008. It sat almost 4,000 spectators, making it one of the larger theaters in Missouri. New owners have plans to renovate the building as an “attraction,” but not as a theater, according to Berry. The Jim Stafford Theater, one of the city’s premiere venues for more than two decades, closed early this year.
Berry said the ebb and flow of theaters closing and re-opening has been part of the strip’s economy since the beginning.
“It’s cyclical,” she said. Some of the empty spaces around town are the result of a 2012 tornado.
On Feb. 29 of that year, the town was hit by an EF2 tornado, from which the town hasn’t fully recovered, she said. On the other hand, Berry said tax revenues are up for the city as well as Stone and Taney counties. The last five to seven years, Berry added, represented some of Branson’s “best years of development.”
A proud American
My final taste of Branson holiday entertainment was Shoji Tabuchi, the Japanese-born fiddler, who holds court with a company of musicians, singers and dancers at his plush, 2,000-seat Shoji Tabuchi Theatre on Shepherd of the Hills Expressway.
The evening got off to an agreeably surrealistic start when dancers costumed as a reindeer and Holstein cows appeared before the curtain and began rocking out to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ (In a Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train)” as the pre-show. The dancers came down into the aisles and balloons fell from the ceiling, allowing viewers to entertain themselves batting them back into the air as they fell.
Tabuchi is a personable emcee and fine musician, but he rarely performs a piece of music straight. He likes to joke things up. At one point he fooled around with “Orange Blossom Special,” the bluegrass classic, as a toy train chugged across the stage. Then he spent some time making his violin sound like train engines and farm animals. But there was a precious few seconds — maybe 10 — when he just played the tune. All of a sudden real music was happening.
But most of the show was devoted to secular holiday music, including a beautiful version of “Carol of the Bells” performed by the ensemble with handbells.
Tabuchi in some ways seems like the aesthetic heir to Lawrence Welk. That’s not a slam, because Welk hired terrific musicians. Tabuchi even played a polka at one point, making a “wunnerful, wunnerful” joke. Tabuchi comes and goes often during the show. Each time he appears he’s in a different sequined blazer.
When he’s offstage, we get numbers by the ensemble. His daughter, Christina Tabuchi, is the featured vocalist. Most of these are pleasantly forgettable.
In Act 2, Tabuchi made a speech to the audience that he undoubtedly makes at every performance. But I never questioned his sincerity. He tells of arriving in San Francisco with $500 and from there building the life and career he enjoys today.
He had discovered a country where “if you work hard, you can eat — eat good.” He told of studying the country’s history before his citizenship test. Achieving citizenship, he said, was the proudest moment of his life.
“I am proud to be a United States citizen,” he said.
This melts the hearts of the generally retirement-age people in the audience. They lined up during intermission when Tabuchi came down to meet fans and have his photo taken standing before the stage.
The lobby is filled with holiday stuff, including an enormous Christmas tree. The men’s room, famous for its Victorian-esque accoutrements, includes a billiards room. You see more Christmas decorations there.
A stroll through the gift shop reveals holiday knickknacks for sale, but also Shoji Tabuchi merchandise — post cards, photos of Tabuchi and his family, CDs and DVDs. And among them are a true historic oddity — audio cassettes and VHS tapes. Plenty of ’em.
The clerk told me they still sell plenty, because a lot of older folks still have cassette players in their cars.
“I wish we could get rid of ’em before it’s too late,” he said.
I couldn’t resist.
On the way out of town Saturday morning I decided to swing by the Yakov Smirnoff Theater and take a close look at that gigantic head.
The parking lot was empty. It was just me and Yakov. Up close it was clear that Yakov’s head was in need of a little upkeep. He certainly could use a fresh coat of paint. One of his eyeballs had come loose. And the big red ball on the end of his nose that you see in some photos was missing.
But he remained vigilant, casting his grinning, round-eyed gaze across the highway.
Inevitably, you wonder what archaeologists will think centuries from now when they dig up this odd artifact. Was he a god? Was he part of a ritual?
On a less-cosmic scale, you have to consider how long some of these institutional shows will survive in Branson. What happens when the audience demographic changes? What will Branson look like in 10 years?
Most of the entertainment in Branson seems stuck in the past — old-time country-music shows with hillbilly comedians, pop stars from another era and “tributes” to dead icons.
But Branson seems to be inching in the right direction. Some shows represent the more recent and arguably hipper past. You can find tribute shows to the Eagles, ABBA and Motown.
What you don’t see — not yet, at least — are tributes to Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols or Run-DMC. And there’s virtually no music that could be mistaken for jazz.
So as I drove north I took comfort in Branson’s virtually unlimited capacity for weird entertainment. Like Vegas, like cruise ships and casinos, Branson exists in a reality all its own.