God. Country (and what a country!). BRANSON.

Join us on a guided tour of emigré comedian Yakov Smirnoff's adopted home, a veritable geezer's Shangri-La.

Traffic on Branson's legendary Country Music Boulevard is moving at its usual glacial crawl when Yakov Smirnoff steers our rental car into the road's center turn lane and guns the accelerator. "You're not supposed to do this, but I like to think I have diplomatic immunity," notes Yakov, zooming past dozens of cars mired in the gridlock.

As he comes to a stoplight, the Ukrainian jokester of 1980s fame cuts a sharp left and shoots us toward the alley of one of Branson's ubiquitous strip malls. Our rented Chrysler, Yakov acknowledges, doesn't handle as well as his Ferrari or Jaguar — the one with vanity plates "CIA," for Comrade In America — but it's not bad, either. Soon we're hurtling past the Wal-Mart's loading docks and trash bins. Not exactly the "scenic tour" we had in mind when we asked Yakov to show us around his adopted hometown. But before we can complain, our guide whips a quick right and we're back on "The Strip," exactly where we wanted to be.

As tires squeal to a halt, Yakov lets loose his famous tagline with his equally famous wind-sucking guffaw: "What a country!"

Branson loves you, love it back! Yakov on Highway 76, aka "Country Music Blvd."
Jennifer Silverberg
Branson loves you, love it back! Yakov on Highway 76, aka "Country Music Blvd."
Clockwise from top: Dick Collins on a Segway; Chamber of Commerce PR director Lynn Berry; "The Strip" at night; Branson patriarch Lloyd Presley signs autographs after a sold-out show.
Jennifer Silverberg
Clockwise from top: Dick Collins on a Segway; Chamber of Commerce PR director Lynn Berry; "The Strip" at night; Branson patriarch Lloyd Presley signs autographs after a sold-out show.

Blocking out the setting sun is Branson's newest attraction, a marooned ocean liner that bills itself as the "World's Largest Titanic Museum Attraction." We're left pondering where on Earth the tiniest Titanic museum might be when we're struck by an even more outrageous tourist draw. Sprouting up like a Styrofoam iceberg across the street from the Titanic looms a 40-foot-tall Mount Rushmore. In place of the presidential busts are the faces of John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin.

In the distance — visible beyond Marilyn's Frisbee-sized beauty mark — the horizon gives way to the Christian-themed Sight & Sound Theatre, a $36-million venue that will become Branson's biggest building to date when it opens next year with a show titled Noah The Musical. To the uninitiated, Branson's whole garish landscape might seem downright unworldly — like landing on the moon, only to discover it's been colonized by NASCAR and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. As Homer put it in an episode of The Simpsons, Branson is "like Vegas — if it were run by Ned Flanders."

In biblical parlance, the town's history might be summarized as follows: A sleepy fishing retreat begat a country-music hall begat an amusement park begat go-cart tracks begat motor inns begat outlet malls begat Andy Williams and Dick Clark, who — in defiance of age and the laws of nature — begat modern-day Branson: A time capsule, of sorts, to kitsch Americana nostalgia. In other words, it's just the kind of place where Yakov Smirnoff — best known for his comedy lampooning the former Soviet Union — can routinely pack into his theater crowds of 1,500 people. On a Wednesday. At 9:30. In the morning.

"I wanted to go to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but they didn't think I'd be funny anymore," explains Yakov. "Then I heard of Branson."


It would be easy to poke fun at Branson if the folks down there weren't so darn accommodating and sincere. Take, for example, Lynn Berry, director of public relations for the city's Chamber of Commerce. The day before departing for Branson, we reach Berry by cell phone as she's headed to the hospital. It seems a spider has bitten her in the back of the head, causing a staph infection. "The doctors are going to take a something like a melon baller and scoop it out of my head," she tells us.

Not to worry, though, for Berry promises to be back at work the next day. And sure enough, when we arrive the following afternoon, there she is, greeting us at the door. "You all are going to have a ball in Branson," she assures us. "We're so glad you're here." (Surgeons, by the way, were able extract the infection with a syringe and not a melon baller.)

The secret to the Branson's success, Berry crows, is its Southern hospitality. It's the same welcoming spirit that author Harold Bell Wright documented a century back when his 1907 novel The Shepherd of the Hills first put the Ozarks on the map. The story tells the tale of a hardscrabble hill family whose compassion triumphs over the ill will of the Baldknobbers gang — a vigilante group that terrorized southern Missouri following the Civil War.

The Baldknobbers disbanded in the 1880s, but their hooded cousins, the Ku Klux Klan, still remain active in parts of the Ozarks today. Fifty miles due south of Branson — in Compton, Arkansas — the KKK lists its number in the phonebook. "We're a state-licensed organization concerned with white rights," says Klan membership coordinator Travis Pierce. "But we're not into violence. We don't advocate that." (Again, that Southern hospitality!)

In Branson, any hard feelings left over from the Civil War can be washed away each night at Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede. The audience at the buxom singer's indoor rodeo is split into sections, with one side cheering on the North, the other the South. During our visit, trick horsemen dressed as Union soldiers won the rodeo, while an African-American teenager dressed as a Confederate soldier served us dinner — chicken, pork and corn. The show ends with Parton's videotaped image singing a patriotic ballad that reminds us no matter our differences, we're all Americans. I stand proud and brave and tall, I want justice for us all, so color me America — red, white and blue!

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