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.

In front of the crowd, though, Yakov is all yuks. While living in Los Angeles during the 1980s, the comedian shared an apartment with the notoriously foul-mouthed comic Andrew Dice Clay. Today, the former roommates couldn't be more different, with Yakov careful not to upset any of the "Grannies" seated in his theater. The most off-color joke of the day comes when Yakov comments on what he refers to as the real Cold War: "The battle of the sexes."

"Little girls get dolls and blankets when they're babies," says Yakov. "What do little boys get? Circumcised. Sure, my parents paid the bill for the operation, but I left the tip!"

The show concludes with Yakov dancing with the Statue of Liberty and delivering a teary-eyed Pledge of Allegiance. The crowd gobbles it up, rising in its seats to give the comedian and his performers a standing ovation. Yeah, it's a bit corny — even a bit contrived — but that's just the way they like it in Branson. Just ask the city's top official: Mayor Raeanne Presley. In the 1960s her Presley family (no relation to Elvis) was the first to locate a music hall on Highway 76, now better known as "The Strip."

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

"If you want to walk on the wild side, then Branson isn't for you," notes Presley. "We've done a pretty good job of shielding ourselves."

Three years ago the Presleys and other Branson powerbrokers, including the Herschend family (founders of Silver Dollar City), successfully fought back an effort to bring a casino to the nearby town of Rockaway Beach, Missouri. "We don't morally judge people who go to casinos," says the mayor, "but we didn't feel it fit the Branson brand."

Branson leaders have voiced similar disapproval on other perceived societal ills and have banned adult bookstores and condemned the sale of alcohol. "Alcohol is a poison," preached Branson alderman Jack Purvis during a 2003 meeting to curb liquor sales in the city. "We went to war to fight terrorism. The biggest terrorism we face is alcohol!"

When we ask Yakov to show us Branson's red-light district, the comic swiftly responds with honking laughter: "We're going to need infra-red goggles to find it."

In 1978, the year after Elvis Presley died of a heart attack while sitting on his toilet, a statistician predicted The King's surging popularity was so great that by the year 2020, one out of three Americans would be Elvis impersonators. Had the statistician narrowed his prediction to Branson, he wouldn't be far off the mark. The town boasts at least a half-dozen wannabe Elvises, including a Hawaiian Elvis, a Cuban Elvis and an Elvis who performs alongside a fake Garth Brooks and Britney Spears. Then there's arguably the most underappreciated Elvis in town — Dave "Elvis" Ehlert.

On a recent Friday afternoon, just fifteen people have arrived to see a show called "Elvis Sings Country" in Ehlert's off-the-grid theater in old downtown Branson. Dressed in a silk shirt and black suit of a decidedly 1950s-era Elvis, Ehlert bursts onto the stage to the theme song of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. After a few hip-swinging melodies, Ehlert pauses to address the crowd. "Who out there is a fan of country music?" he asks. When no one responds, Ehlert turns the question around: "Who's a fan of Elvis?" Again, silence. "Okay, you're a wonderful audience — even if you all came in the same car."

An hour later Elvis has left his theater and Ehlert settles in behind a bar stool at a nearby pizza parlor. A native of Chicago, Ehlert boasts that he was the first person inducted into the Elvis Impersonator Hall of Fame. Similar accolades in Branson have proven difficult. Ehlert believes small acts like his are too often dismissed by Branson's visitors bureau and other powers that be in town. "They view us as bottom-feeders, feeding off the advertisement they spend promoting the place," he says.

What's more, Ehlert doesn't always buy into the patriotism and religion that fuels so much of Branson. "Thankfully Elvis sang a lot of gospel songs," says Ehlert. "So I get a free pass on that one."

In addition to performing as Elvis, the virtuoso Ehlert also impersonates Mark Twain, Hank Williams, Dean Martin, Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond. The one character he can't do is John Wayne. "We had a John Wayne working for us who would force everyone in the audience to recite the Pledge of Allegiance," recalls Ehlert. "After he berated a family from Canada for not following along, I told him he couldn't do the bit anymore. He spread nasty rumors all around town that I wasn't patriotic."

So, what then keeps the Elvis impersonator plugging away in Branson? It's the same thing, we suspect, that's led everyone from Yakov to Andy Williams to Branson. "I'm pretty much unemployable at anything else," says Ehlert.

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