Strip Search

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

Godsey is not so laudatory of Vinton: "He makes no contribution to the community," a judgment that comes from a number of the locals. Vinton gets low marks; the Welk organization, Andy Williams and Shoji Tabuchi are among those who get high marks for donating money and facilities to the community. Most of the artists don't sequester themselves: Mel Tillis is Sharp's neighbor. Musicians participate in community activities, and the popular Classics on the Lake concerts are performed by those taking a respite from "Cotton-Eyed Joe."

A discussion of community matters turns to the presence of Christian fundamentalism. Sharp says that Branson's location in the Bible Belt has a profound effect on what is done, and isn't done, in the theaters. "Blue" material is totally off-limits. A few years ago, when Wayne Newton came to town, he offered the proceeds of his opening-night show to the local College of the Ozarks. College president Jerry Davis attended a Newton show. In the Vegas-style extravaganza, Newton told a few jokes during his informal stage banter, including one that involved the word "crap." Davis deemed the show "vulgar" and decreed that the Christian-oriented college would not take such tainted money.

The word "crap"might be verboten onstage, but humor in Branson theaters is predominantly scatological. Because sex is forbidden material — not a single Viagra joke, which, given the age of the audiences, is too close for comfort — the bathroom is the province of comedy. Yakov Smirnoff spends part of his show wearing a baseball cap with a roll of toilet paper affixed to it. Grey Poupon jokes are not beneath him.

Wherever the Uncle Tom hillbilly appears — standard costume of floppy hat with turned-up brim, Coke-bottle glasses, bad teeth, clashing wardrobe — the toilet, toilet paper (or lack thereof) and flatulence are surefire laughs. Even Jo Ann Castle, of the Welk show, tells one about a tourist who complains about her bottom falling asleep on the bus. "I heard it snoring," her companion says.

Besides being a comedy writer's ace-in-the-hole, bathrooms themselves are a major attraction in Branson, specifically the bathrooms at Shoji Tabuchi's theater. A purported $4.5 million went into the bathrooms in Tabuchi's lavender palace. In the women's room, it is reported, visitors are offered various fragrances after washing up, which they can then purchase in the convenient gift shop. The men's room includes a red-velvet billiard table, with plush chairs lined up on either side for spectators but no cues or balls available. The effect is eerie: men seated, watching a billiard table that no one plays on — it's like something out of Eyes Wide Shut.

The real sight at Shoji's, which few get to see, is the office of the Japanese fiddler's PR manager, Monna Stafford. Walking into her office is like entering a Looney Tunes virtual-reality machine. There is no pop- culture icon that is not in that room — from Marilyn to Tweety Bird. Stafford is dazzling in a Tweety-colored jacket, blond hair with stylish dark roots, and a different-color nail on every finger.

But her demeanor is not as jovial as her appearance. "Is this going to be a positive article?" she asks. Other publications, she says, have published stories about Branson that have failed to convey the "fantastic and fabulous things that are happening here." (She's probably referring to people like Joe Queenan, who calls Branson the "Mulefucker Mecca" in his book Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon. He also makes the observation that performers such as Andy Williams sing their greatest hits in the first part of the show, knowing that the ancient audience might not make it through to hear them at the finale.) "We don't need that kind of publicity," she says. As she makes her point, a ghoulish assistant leans by the door.

She's assured that this is an article about Branson as phenomenon, and, as part of that phenomenon, her office would be a great picture. Where does she come from? How did she become a part of the Tabuchi Mafia?

"I'm here to promote Shoji Tabuchi," she says. "You know what I'm saying?"

Tabuchi delivers, if not the most entertaining show, certainly the brightest show in town: laser lights, fireworks, a ceremonial dragon parading down the aisle. It's all stunning, in much the way a cattle prod is. Watching a Blues Brothers chorus line conjures thoughts of Springfield native Brad Pitt. Is this where he'd be if he hadn't made it in Hollywood?

Jennifer, "the most recognized show in Branson," is the show that makes locals roll their eyes the most. "She can sing some, dance some," says Bil Godsey. Rather than evaluate her artistic merit, most fall back on "She's a real nice girl."

Jennifer Wilson is the discovery of Bill Dailey, an impresario — and, some say, Svengali — married to Janet Dailey, the bestselling romance writer and Branson resident. In the Americana Theater, where Jennifer performs, all of Janet Dailey's novels are available in paperback.

Jennifer fills the Americana with the geriatric crowd for a 9:30 a.m. performance. Who goes to a 9:30 a.m. song-and-dance show? Among those in attendance is a group from the First Church of Christ of Iowa.

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