Strip Search

Looking for Ozark culture amid the neon, glitter and traffic of Highway 76 in Branson

"... the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing." — The Great Gatsby

"BLASTING NEXT TEN MILES," the electronic sign reads as warning before the start of a zone of heavy-duty construction on Highway 65. "PREPARE TO BE ANNOYED." Even MoDOT tries for a laugh as travelers get nearer to Branson, the year-round entertainment mecca in the southwest Missouri Ozarks. The 40 miles of roadway between Branson and Springfield is being streamlined through the winding hills, resulting in cuts through mountainsides that expose picturesque sediments in rock or gouged scars, depending on one's environmental sensibilities. Some of the construction (or destruction) has left pinnacles of rock framed by blue sky, like postcard pictures of Canyonlands.

But before these denatured views of nature appear, billboards along the roadside have sprung up like kudzu, giant postcards memorializing sights of American culture: Wayne Newton, the Osmonds, Mel Tillis, Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, Shoji Tabuchi — the Japanese fiddler who's found fame and fortune in Branson — all with smiles as winning as dollar signs. The enormous mug of comedian and advertising huckster Yakov Smirnoff (he actually shows clips of his ads for Amoco and Miller Lite during his standup routine) practically shouts, "What a country!"

And who could argue with his astonishment? What a country! Tucked within a mountain setting, among clear streams and cool lakes, in a region known for rural poverty, for a near-tribal violence between isolated clans, for the Ozark hillbilly — a renegade spirit of Scotch-Irish descent who values independence, endurance, stealth and craft — no-people-like-show-people have settled, built 2,000-seat auditoriums and attracted millions to spend millions to hear "Moon River," "Danke Schoen," "Blue Velvet" and a Japanese immigrant in a mop-top haircut play "Orange Blossom Special." For this these hills are blasted. What a country.

Branson, which bills itself as (among other things) the "Live Entertainment Capital of the World," has a population of just over 3,700 but boasts more theater seats than Broadway — nearly 60,000. The Great White Way of Branson is Highway 76 (and it is very white; the Platters are the sole African-American entertainers). The strip winds through the hills west of Lake Taneycomo and the old downtown. On "Country 76," vacationers move at rush-hour pace to and from shows, caught in the razzle-dazzle of neon and excess. The gold lights and blue interior of Bobby Vinton's lobby glow. The Lennon Sisters point the way to the Lawrence Welk Resort. Hundreds of motels beckon with the solace of firm mattresses, swimming pools and continental breakfasts that include — exclusive to this continent — biscuits and gravy.

Reverse direction and travel east on 76, away from the neon, glitter and traffic jams, away from what some call "has-been heaven," to find that old downtown Branson survives with its array of retail stores, mom-and-pop motels along the lake, one Elvis imitator performing nightly and a gun shop that invites folks to come inside and shoot a real machine gun. This side of Highway 65 — the north/south route that divides old town from boomtown — is the "anti-Branson," where locals eat and drink at Rocky's, a more-than-decent Italian restaurant. Many are longtime residents, misfits who came to the Ozarks, as many people have throughout the region's history, to hide out from the outside world for one reason or another. They sit at a large table in the bar and gossip and spread rumors and complain about that other Branson — and not without some eloquence, even after round after round is bought and the tabs accumulate.

Words and their meanings is the subject, like a Jeopardy! category, one evening. Specific words arise repeatedly to be considered not just for their meanings but for their relevance. "Dignity" is one of those words, as are "integrity" and "morality." "Ambivalence" is communally defined as "being betwixt and between." "Can there be a crime if there is no victim?" becomes the topic of discussion for a while among this haphazard collection of Branson aesthetes.

Four men sit at the table. One, Lee Robertson, has been in southern Missouri a goodly while, and he steers the direction of the philosophical inquiry. Robertson is in his late 50s, fit and brimming with puckish intelligence. A sculptor — one of his pieces stands at the marina on nearby Lake Taneycomo — he came to the Ozarks 30 years ago, not long after a stint in Vietnam, to "be at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere." He bought some property, where he still lives, stubbornly refusing the comforts of indoor plumbing.

A man who daily carries his water from a well has some firm notions of dignity and integrity and morality — all qualities he believes Branson is losing fast. With the coming of Andy Williams and Wayne Newton, Yakov Smirnoff and Shoji Tabuchi, with the influx of tourists filling the motels and inundating the hills to see them, Robertson proclaims, "Branson has totally annihilated the Ozarks. There once was an Ozark patois. You knew everyone. There were 35 last names in the whole county.

"It is the depersonalization of the Ozarks, all slowly eroded into this" — his arm sweeps in the direction of the unseen glitter over the ridge — "which is to say, the faceless shape of contemporary culture."

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