By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
Such a curious phenomenon is Branson that in December 1991, 60 Minutes aired a story calling it the "new" country-music capital of America. "The audience is the American audience," opined co-host Morley Safer. "They come here to the buckle of the Bible Belt to reaffirm their belief in a certain way of life. And in their time here, they'll never hear a dirty word or see a bare bosom nothing here to offend Granny. In fact, Granny's probably here."
The town has never been the same since. "Many would agree that 60 Minutes launched a new era of growth," says Berry. "Performers, visitors, developers and new residents flocked to see what was going on." Today, Branson's residents number an estimated 7,400 double the city's population in 1990, back when 4 million tourists visited the town each year. Last year the number of vacationers peaked at nearly 8 million. And while Branson attracts its fair share of young families, it will forever remain a geezer's Shangri La and they're not just coming to take in the shows.
Each day the elderly arrive by the busload to scarf down golden-fried vittles at Branson's all-you-can-eat buffets and shop at stores like Dressing Gaudy (an aptly named clothing boutique) and Jiggling George's, a medical-device outlet where the geriatric can hook themselves to machines and, well, jiggle.
"Branson just keeps getting better and better," effuses sexagenarian Leanna Collins, who, along with her husband, Dick, has vacationed in Branson for each of the past 21 years. "Back then, the strip consisted of just a few tin-framed music halls. Now the town has everything."
By 10 a.m. on a muggy Friday morning the Collinses have already taken in a breakfast gospel show when they stop by a store that rents Segways those electric, stand-up scooters made famous by mall cops the world over. For a moment, the only people coursing along the Segway track is the 69-year-old Dick dressed in denim shorts and a plaid button-up, and a twelve-year-old boy in a T-shirt that reads "Jesus Never Strikes Out."
"God and country are No. 1 in Branson," confirms Lynn Berry. There's even a God & Country Theatre and a God & Country Inspirational Garden, featuring a 30- by 60-foot American flag and giant obsidian replicas of the Ten Commandments. Even the local skate shop, Different Skateboards, has religious underpinnings. "The name comes from First Corinthians: 'There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord,'" explains the store's 25-year-old owner, Clint Sawyer. "The message I want to send is that Christians can have fun." Still, Sawyer admits Branson can at times be a bit challenging for twenty-somethings such as himself. "Until a couple years ago, the only music was country. Now there's some goth and punk."
The addition this year of a $420-million outdoor mall and convention center in downtown Branson, complete with bars and restaurants, has even created a nascent singles scene. Not that it matters for Sawyer. He met his wife the old-fashioned way: at the scene of a car wreck. "The accident drew quite a crowd," he recalls. "Thankfully, we were just onlookers."
So heady was Branson's growth and so elderly its entertainers that it sparked a trivia game titled, "Dead or in Branson?" To play the game, you take the name of an aging or obscure entertainer and ask your friends whether the person is dead or in Branson. For example, country singer Moe Bandy: Dead or in Branson? Answer: In Branson. Boxcar Willie? Dead. (Note: Willie was in Branson. He died there in 1999.)
Yakov Smirnoff arrived in 1993. But far from finding a place to die, the Cold War comedian discovered in Branson a place to relaunch his fallen star. "There was no Disney or Universal here to tell you if you you're funny or not," reflects Yakov. "If you work hard you can be successful." So, while bigger name acts Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn have come and gone, Yakov remains busier than ever. This year he'll perform a total of 184 morning and afternoon shows in his cavernous theater on the edge of town.
Late last month a 3 p.m. performance begins with a singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and follows with a skit in which angels dance before the pearly gates of heaven. The voice of God commands Yakov to bring laughter into the world, and the comic spins onto the stage as though blinded by the light of the Lord. For the next 45 minutes Yakov peppers the crowd with the fish-out-of-water observations that launched his career. ("When I came to America I saw these signs in bathrooms that said 'Baby Changing Station.' I thought to myself, 'Wow! You don't like your baby, you just leave it here and pick up another. What a country!')
In the second half of the show Yakov offers the crowd advice on how humor can salvage relationships. Never mind that he himself is divorced. "The marriage seemed so solid on the surface," Yakov tells us after the show. "There was no drinking, drugs, infertility. But there wasn't enough laughter."