Strip Search

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

The distinctive face of Ozark culture, before the proliferation of road signs advertising the airbrushed entertainers for miles along Highway 65, was the hillbilly, himself the victim of caricature: the moonshiner one step ahead of the revenuers or, in a more notorious incarnation, the blood-feuding renegade. In Branson, these stereotypes appear in comic guise, the "Uncle Tom hillbilly," as Robertson describes it. But those cartoon versions arise from sober reality. Robertson speaks of notorious local clans: "They all kill each other. I've known six people who've killed somebody. Blood feuds; old, old families," which, in Robertson's mind, is another way of defining those words "integrity" and "dignity": "It wasn't ever about urban money; it was about honor."

According to Robertson, it is the lack of dignity that has driven developers to "strip-mining the quality of life to line their own pockets." The Branson they have concocted is "utterly unreal, a plague of opportunism." Robertson, himself an independent craftsman, questions whether all the prosperity from Branson's current boom has helped those such as himself. The tourist trade appreciates the cheap and tacky more than the well-crafted and unique.

Around the table more questions arise, questions frequently asked around Branson: Is a new airport going to be built between Springfield and town? (Lots of talk; nothing for sure.) A new golf course? (Opening in September, south of town, along with a new residential community.) Is Marriott coming in? (Nope.) Is Disney? (This rumor has been ongoing for at least 20 years.) Will there be gambling? (Not as long as there's a God in heaven and Baptists in southern Missouri.)

The consensus around the table is that the success of the entertainment capital of the Ozarks won't last. How can Branson attract the baby boomers when they reach retirement age? They're not going to flock to the Champagne Theater to see the Lawrence Welk show. The foursome around the table tries to invent acts that might draw: the Moody Blues Theater? the Stevie Nicks Theater? But how would rock & roll survivors fit into the Bible Belt when only the most watered-down version of the music (the Osmonds') is tolerated?

For now, though, the boom is on. "It's the unholy alliance between naivete and corporate brutality," Robertson pronounces with zealous clarity. "You pave paradise and you put up a parking lot.

"Branson is a litmus test of human values," he concludes as the staff of Rocky's waits impatiently to close. "That people come here and have a good time," he observes, staring mystified into space. "It's hard to say 'fuck 'em' just because of all they know and love."

An exploration of "all they know and love" begins the next morning at the Uptown Cafe (although it's unclear as to what it's uptown from), a faux diner with an antique yellow cab parked as an ornament outside. The place is clean blue tile and chrome, with a jukebox perpetually playing a wide mix of hits (Whitney's "I Will Always Love You" is followed by Merle's "Free Bubble-up"). The cashier is a young man with "LOVE" printed on the knuckles of one hand, "HATE" on the other, like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, a film whose mood doesn't fit with the cheery American Graffiti decor.

The '50s-diner motif is popular around Branson, as it is around the country. Making the old new is a peculiarly American activity that defies the reality of aging, the fact that everything tires out and wears down. Sometimes diners are found in places where economic upturns haven't hit like a tsunami: a diner in an old, depressed downtown, for instance, off the strip, with no aspirations of conforming to an eternal ideal (Platonian or otherwise). The bacon for the BLT was cooked hours ago. The only other customer has been there most of the day, ordering Budweiser in the bottle and drinking each one at a different table for variety's sake. The joint, like every joint around it, is decrepit, fading, the way any lived thing is when it has run its course.

In the heightened artificiality of Branson, old things — wagon wheels, double-cut hand saws, taxis — are preserved in places like Cracker Barrel and the Uptown Cafe as ornaments, emblems of the past with the sweat and toil removed. Branson is an expansive diorama — the Osmonds on billboards in tuxes and apple-cheeked in middle age — re-created just like the diner. Like Gatsby spending his life for a memory, the oldsters who come to Branson (average age 56) buy a likeness of the past: Janet Lennon tap-dances in a gold suit just as she did, or even better, on the Welk Show on Saturday nights. Mel Tillis stutters and croons as if time has not passed at all. A woman beams at Andy Williams as he comes down the aisle singing "Moon River" and stops to sing a verse especially to her. They keep each other alive in the spotlight.

Down the street, the Osmond Family Theater is closed — the troupe is entertaining on a cruise ship — but the lobby and gift shop are open. The lobby's walls are covered with portraits that look curiously like those taken in small-town studios for high-school graduations, weddings and anniversaries, except that these are all entertainers, and a peculiar menagerie at that: Tony Geary (from General Hospital, remember?); Cheryl Tiegs, twirling her skirt; Roy Clark, one of the first entertainers to prospect the Branson motherlode; the late Dottie West in a revealing white pantsuit; President Gerald Ford; a very young Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson, looking as if they're posing for their engagement portrait at Sears; Joe Namath; Charlton Heston; Ethel Merman; Danny Thomas, disrespectfully hidden behind some plastic plants.

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