Strip Search

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

Lawrence Welk always talked about his troupe as a "musical family," and the torch of that family's success is being passed to a new generation at the Champagne Theater. The Welk organization has removed itself beyond the fray of the 76 strip to a resort hotel and theater situated a few miles south, and it is packing in the crowds by the busload to relive the magic. One audience member says she always had the TV on promptly at 8 p.m. every Saturday, never missing a show.

The Lennon Sisters have succeeded in transforming the former Welkdom into a matriarchy. They are the major draw, the girls America watched grow into mature women and whose children (particularly the Cathcart Brothers and the Lennon Daughters) are next in line for — if not the national fame their mothers achieved — Branson fame.

The Welk show is tight, professional, unhurried. An audible moan of displeasure comes from the audience when it's announced that the complete Lennon Sisters are not available — some are off on summer vacation — but Janet Lennon shoulders the show with panache. She's the ultimate trouper. She's been an entertainer since she was in her teens, and it shows. Her eyes connect with the audience, achieving a warm intimacy. She draws the crowd to her and, even in that gold Chorus Line suit, flashes a bit of sex appeal without a wisp of vulgarity.

Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
David Burt
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.

The orchestra is smooth and well rehearsed. But when it comes to what maestro John Bahler (Janet's husband) calls an "epic medley" in the Welk style, the familiar perversity of those musical arrangements is resurrected. How did trombones ever become the emphasis in The Sound of Music score?

From the wings, a projection of the late Welk, returning to conduct his favorite Dixieland tune, "Woodcutters Ball," bounces along, ghostly, to the rhythm of the band. But not all is homage to the North Dakota prince: A couple of songs, sung by the kids, would never have been heard on Saturday nights — a rousing rendition of Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," by Michael Cathcart (even with a few Wonder-like growls and whoops); and Lennon (no relation) and McCartney's "In My Life," presented by the Cathcart Brothers and Lennon Daughters in four-part harmony, accompanied by acoustic guitars.

The audience response is polite (in this group, when a couple celebrating their 50th anniversary is pointed out by the emcee in the standard Branson pre-show, someone mutters, "So what?" as if 50 years were a trifle), but afterward a woman, not meaning to complain, says the show was fine but "different." "Different" is not what people come to see in Branson. At the Presleys, a couple from North Carolina say they don't mean to complain but note that the show was different than when they last saw it five years ago. The appeal of Branson entertainment is that it doesn't challenge or take risks but that it is as its audience imagines, or remembers, it to be. The result, amid show after show that raises a patriotic flag to freedom and liberty, is a strict status quo, a social realism spawned by market forces.

When the Welk show is over, the audience congregates at tables in the lobby for promised autographs and chitchat with the stars. The youngsters come out first and are met by stern, withered faces inquiring, "Is Janet coming out? Is Jo Ann Castle coming out?" "In a few minutes," the new generation promises.

A tense standoff ensues. The crowd doesn't want to waste its time with these whippersnappers. The kids have to hold their ground and try to be engaging until Janet and Jo Ann and crew have made themselves presentable. When Michael Cathcart finally gives the sign that the younger cast can go, they leave, smiling for all they're worth.

Bil Godsey is Branson's tribal elder, the keeper of the tales. His father, Townsend Godsey — former director of conservation for the state of Missouri, writer and photographer — moved the family to the Ozarks in 1941. Bil left to "wander the world," including a stint in "Hollyweird," where he worked on a number of documentary films. He returned to look after his mother, 96 years old now (Bil is 71), and to encourage the community to maintain a link to the Ozarks that existed before Shoji came. He also preserves his father's considerable legacy, distributing from his dilapidated car copies of a book of photographs by his father, Ozark Mountain Folk: These Were the Last. "Pop did PR for parks and conservation," Godsey says. "He learned photography from a one-armed polo photographer in Miami."

Godsey shows up at Rocky's with a plastic sack filled with homegrown cucumbers for the owner. He wears a straw hat with a weathered band, a faded plaid shirt over his thin, wiry frame. He's a local character, sporting a trimmed, pointed beard, silver-framed glasses and a wristwatch bearing a round chunk of turquoise on the band. In the early afternoon he orders a Bombay rum and talks about previous Branson booms: "The 1920s was the first little spurt, with the publication of Shepherd of the Hills."

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