Strip Search

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

The Osmond clan itself is posed for a formal family portrait, the men in suitcoats and ties, Mother Osmond in red and Marie in blue. It looks like a photo of a family corporation — which, in actuality, is what the Osmonds are.

Working the gift shop's counter is Thelma, wearing a golden-pastel blouse. The shelves contain what all the other shops carry, with some variations: Osmond CDs and tapes; Osmond refrigerator magnets; Osmond photos, pins, caps and mugs; an Osmond Family Theater snowglobe. A tape, The Best of Donny and Marie, with its '70s disco design, looks suspiciously like the poster for Boogie Nights.

Thelma tells a common Branson tale. She and her husband came here for vacations many times over the years, and when he retired they left Shreveport behind to live year-round in Branson. He's had a triple bypass, so he doesn't work at all anymore, but she enjoys the gift shop. One of the perks is comp tickets to all the shows. She likes the Osmonds best, "of course," and the "country shows" such as the Baldknobbers, which, with the Presley Family Jubilee, is one of the oldest shows in Branson. Shoji Tabuchi puts on a good show too, she says.

Jennifer: "the most recognized show in Branson"
David Burt
Jennifer: "the most recognized show in Branson"

Outside the theater are the handprints of visiting performers, left in cement: Debbie Reynolds; Johnny Cash — whose hands, as expected, are large, with long, wide fingers; Kathie Lee Gifford, who has written a complaint, "another token female," beside her imprint; Loretta Lynn, who wrote "I love you so very much," confirming her place as the Judy Garland of country music.

Up the street is the Belgian Waffle and Pancake House. A glass facade wraps around the Starlite Theater, which includes yet another '50s-style diner, as well as a brick-faced theater made to look like an old-time cinema, with a marquee advertising current attractions. Outside, to tantalize those driving 5 mph along the congested strip, is a single blue-and-gold neon sign that bills three different shows: "Lost in the Fifties" ('50s rock & roll and swing music is Branson's current attempt to lure a younger audience); something called the "American Kids Show"; and "the country Engelbert" — a mustachioed man, grinning and holding a guitar, by the name of Dan Gabriel.

The Riverboat Motel looks something like a riverboat, although the brown wood siding looks like the cheap stuff saved for the kids' rec room. Also along this short walk on the strip are Thunder Road Go-Carts, Ozarkland, Silver Spur Western Wear, the Hall of Fame Motel, Music Road Motel, Country Western Motor Inn, Cafe USA, Ben's Wishing Well Motel, and the Baldknobber block, featuring Baldknobber's Country Restaurant, the Baldknobbers Motor Inn and the Baldknobbers Jamboree Show.

The Baldknobbers — which never fails to highlight its own version of the Uncle Tom hillbilly, a toothless cuss with a grotesque chin (suggestive of the comedic possibilities of syphilis or inbreeding) — was the original country show in Branson, debuting on the Lake Taneycomo waterfront as the Mabe Brothers in 1959. In 1962, the Presley Family Jubilee began its run in the Underground Theater, an actual cavern, in nearby Kimberling City. The Presleys were the first to move to the Highway 76 strip, no more than a dirt road at the time, in 1967.

These Branson progenitors, and longtime competitors, have come a long way from the sheds and caves where they once performed. The Presley theater has its own video-screen marquee. On a long loop, images of a laughing, youthful audience dissolve into a grinning standup bass player in a sparkling red jacket; then the audience fades in again, laughing, smiling, clapping as a gold-jacketed fiddler bows exuberantly.

A little farther down the road is the Americana Theater, featuring Jennifer, a comely blond whose image is seen on as many billboards as Yakov Smirnoff's, which appears every few blocks. According to the billboards, Jennifer is "the most recognized show in Branson." Recognized for what is unspecified, but her painted image shows a buxom all-American blond who is all red-white-and-blue sass.

Jennifer's not far from Landry's Seafood House, a combination redbrick and wood structure — the wood painted to appear as if it has been deteriorated by salt-sea air. Folks can stop at Moe's Olde Tyme Photos and have sepia-toned pictures taken of themselves dressed in Civil War attire or as Ozark Daisy Maes and Li'l Abners (costumes and props consist of off-the-shoulder polka-dot blouses; overalls and floppy hats, brims folded up; and jugs marked "XXX").

All of this is packed into a 15-minute walk, which in turn is just a small piece of the 76 strip, but the Hollywood Wax Museum stands out among the rest. Displayed Rushmore-style are John Wayne (in Washington's place and sporting a cowboy hat), Elvis (Jefferson), Marilyn (Roosevelt, although even here Marilyn looks trapped, desperate and vulnerable) and Charlie Chaplin (Lincoln). Even as caricature, the likenesses are poor, but this isn't a place where authenticity counts.

Yet amid the polymer boulders, with yellow and gold bubbles of plastic oozing from the wall, a very real black-and-red-striped beetle clings to a crevice — the way reality always finds solace in artifice.

Not lost on the performers in Branson is the lesson of the popularity of the Godfather films — Americans respect family unity. The Presleys have at least three generations of kin onstage. Shoji Tabuchi performs with his wife and daughter. Jim Stafford brings out his son to play fiddle and drums.

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