Branson is shaking off the dust, looking for a new crowd

January 11, 2016

Catherine Haygood, backed by three of her five performing brothers and dazzling effects, makes beautiful music during a sellout Haygoods show at Branson's Clay Cooper Theatre.

Branson is cleaning up its act. It’s also updating its acts, which, depending on where you are on the Timeline of Life, may or may not be a good thing.

First, to the cleanup: That chaotic mess that is the Missouri Highway 76 strip? Those miles of big and small theaters, and good and bad food, and every manner of motel and ticket-hustling storefront — all that stuff that makes Branson Branson?

It’s getting something of a makeover.

"We call it ‘The Spirit of 76 Project,’ " said Branson spokeswoman Lynn Berry.

And we’ll get to that later. Showtime:

Yakov Smirnoff — "What a country!" — gone, ending his successful 23-year run in December. He’s going back to Hollywood to reinvent himself, a fascinating plan we don’t have room to detail here. (Hint: "Dancing With the Stars." Maybe.) Mickey Gilley, another longtime fixture with his own theater? Also gone — we’re told, to take it a little easier as he approaches his 80th birthday March 9.

They’re not alone.

Change in showbiz anywhere can be wrenching, but there’s an intimacy with performers in Branson that makes it more personal. They lost Andy Williams, a chandelier in a town of kerosene lamps, to cancer in 2012. That hurt everybody. The four Lennon Sisters are still lovely, but when they perform, they’re down to three. Down too are the Osmonds, one of whom — Jimmy (now 53) — bought Williams’ Moon River Theatre and performs there, sometimes, with just two of his brothers.

Shoji Tabuchi, after selling out his own theater for years, still draws, but the affable Japanese-born violinist-showman-treasure is 72. Happily for those of us who enjoy what he does, he’s not going anywhere — "I’m not talking about retiring. I’ll probably fall off the stage before I retire" — but today’s hot tickets are younger acts, many of them family businesses such as "Six" (six athletic brothers who sing both their lyrics and their "instruments" — a truly amazing performance) and the Haygoods (five athletic brothers and an athletic sister who sing their lyrics and play actual instruments, including a harp) and the Duttons (lots of Duttons doing everything).

That’s a little jarring in a community that embraces the familiar. So what’s going on?

"The new kids are coming in with lasers and lights and new songs and more energy and stealing the show," said Dominic Haygood, 33, a member of the popular brother troupe. "And that’s the nature of the system. You rock it as long as you can, and then you pass the torch.

"Can’t be up here forever, man."

A ridiculously quick history, leaving out a lot:

Branson grew in a couple of decades from a few modest shows plus good fishing and "The Shepherd of the Hills" theatrical show into something completely different.

"I came here in 1981," Tabuchi recalled. "The only thing we had was the Baldknobbers and the Presleys Country Jubilee (two hillbilly comedy-music shows), Silver Dollar City (the theme park), and maybe three or four more shows. That’s all. Nothing like now."

Sensing opportunity, a few (mainly Nashville music) stars followed — first Roy Clark, then Ray Stevens, Mel Tillis (with his beloved stutter), Bobby Vinton and other performers. Tabuchi built a theater. So did others.

"From there, it just started to snowball."

Smirnoff loves telling this story, from 20-plus years ago, when a TV show featured the town: "I remember when they asked Mel Tillis on ‘60 Minutes,’ ‘How much money are you making?’ He said, ‘M-m-millions.’ "

The town and its shows — in most any given week more than 100 — drew carloads and busloads. Military veterans were treated as special guests — and still are. "We see about 500 military reunions a year," Berry said.

But except in our hearts, old soldiers do fade away, and veterans of Vietnam and more recent skirmishes, and others of their generation, are a different breed.

"It’s an SUV market," Smirnoff said, "where two couples or three couples jump into an SUV and go wherever they want to go."

And they don’t always crave lodging-show packages, even with discounts.

"They’re not going to be told where they want to go," Smirnoff said. "They don’t want to sit in a bus with 40, 50 other people."

David Brooks, 36, a 12-year Bransonian, portrays Jerry Lee Lewis with wildly entertaining passion in a production of "Million Dollar Quartet" that opened a projected five-year run at the Welk Resort Theater last summer.

"A lot of these (traditional) shows, for good or bad or whatever, they’re not attracting new audiences with what they’re doing," Brooks said. "This (show) is part of the transition that Branson needs."

Silver Dollar City remains a solid attraction. The Titanic Museum, which seemed a curious addition when it opened in 2006, turned out to be a popular interactive experience, and not just for kids — who are accommodated but not patronized.

Johnny Morris, the visionary behind Bass Pro Shops (the mother ship is in nearby Springfield, Mo.), has installed a showpiece Jack Nicklaus-designed par-3 golf course at his Top of the Rock/Big Cedar Resort complex 30 minutes from town. Also there (and kind of secret but, after this story, not anymore): Morris’ Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, an astounding collection of artifacts you don’t expect to find this close to the Baldknobbers and the Presleys Country Jubilee. (Both those artifacts, by the way, are still here.)

Back to the makeover: Berry said the town has earmarked $100 million toward renovating downtown Branson (which took a major hit 10 years ago when the Branson Landing mall opened along the riverfront) and Highway 76. The downtown renovation is well underway. Over eight years, additions will include pleasant walkways along 76, with plenty of benches plus "water features" and other aesthetic adjustments.

More: An abandoned outlet mall is being converted to Ballparks of America, a complex of replica ballparks that will host summer youth tournaments. Opening soon is an 80,000-square-foot indoor theme park called Fritz’s Adventure. Also, an air gondola connecting downtown with Silver Dollar City has been proposed. "Something 10 miles long would be very interesting," Berry said.

Not likely to change are Branson staples: performers greeting fans and signing autographs after shows, salutes to veterans, gospel songs at most performances, a general wholesomeness, and show-time traffic gluts. (It wouldn’t be Branson without them.)

But expect more new shows — younger, louder, flashier. Plus, from time to time, traditional favorites (Oak Ridge Boys, Don Williams, Wynonna, Mel). And holdovers: Dixie Stampede, Showboat Branson Belle, magicians, tribute shows, discount coupons, buffets.

But (sniff) Yakov … ?

"Aww, he’ll be back," Berry said. And Mickey Gilley, who sings this: "When the change starts taking place/ It puts a glow on every face."?

"He’ll be back," Berry said. "We’re not losing anybody."

Well, you will. Change happens.

 

 


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