Strip Search

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

Aug 25, 1999 at 4:00 am
"... the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing." — The Great Gatsby

"BLASTING NEXT TEN MILES," the electronic sign reads as warning before the start of a zone of heavy-duty construction on Highway 65. "PREPARE TO BE ANNOYED." Even MoDOT tries for a laugh as travelers get nearer to Branson, the year-round entertainment mecca in the southwest Missouri Ozarks. The 40 miles of roadway between Branson and Springfield is being streamlined through the winding hills, resulting in cuts through mountainsides that expose picturesque sediments in rock or gouged scars, depending on one's environmental sensibilities. Some of the construction (or destruction) has left pinnacles of rock framed by blue sky, like postcard pictures of Canyonlands.

But before these denatured views of nature appear, billboards along the roadside have sprung up like kudzu, giant postcards memorializing sights of American culture: Wayne Newton, the Osmonds, Mel Tillis, Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, Shoji Tabuchi — the Japanese fiddler who's found fame and fortune in Branson — all with smiles as winning as dollar signs. The enormous mug of comedian and advertising huckster Yakov Smirnoff (he actually shows clips of his ads for Amoco and Miller Lite during his standup routine) practically shouts, "What a country!"

And who could argue with his astonishment? What a country! Tucked within a mountain setting, among clear streams and cool lakes, in a region known for rural poverty, for a near-tribal violence between isolated clans, for the Ozark hillbilly — a renegade spirit of Scotch-Irish descent who values independence, endurance, stealth and craft — no-people-like-show-people have settled, built 2,000-seat auditoriums and attracted millions to spend millions to hear "Moon River," "Danke Schoen," "Blue Velvet" and a Japanese immigrant in a mop-top haircut play "Orange Blossom Special." For this these hills are blasted. What a country.

Branson, which bills itself as (among other things) the "Live Entertainment Capital of the World," has a population of just over 3,700 but boasts more theater seats than Broadway — nearly 60,000. The Great White Way of Branson is Highway 76 (and it is very white; the Platters are the sole African-American entertainers). The strip winds through the hills west of Lake Taneycomo and the old downtown. On "Country 76," vacationers move at rush-hour pace to and from shows, caught in the razzle-dazzle of neon and excess. The gold lights and blue interior of Bobby Vinton's lobby glow. The Lennon Sisters point the way to the Lawrence Welk Resort. Hundreds of motels beckon with the solace of firm mattresses, swimming pools and continental breakfasts that include — exclusive to this continent — biscuits and gravy.

Reverse direction and travel east on 76, away from the neon, glitter and traffic jams, away from what some call "has-been heaven," to find that old downtown Branson survives with its array of retail stores, mom-and-pop motels along the lake, one Elvis imitator performing nightly and a gun shop that invites folks to come inside and shoot a real machine gun. This side of Highway 65 — the north/south route that divides old town from boomtown — is the "anti-Branson," where locals eat and drink at Rocky's, a more-than-decent Italian restaurant. Many are longtime residents, misfits who came to the Ozarks, as many people have throughout the region's history, to hide out from the outside world for one reason or another. They sit at a large table in the bar and gossip and spread rumors and complain about that other Branson — and not without some eloquence, even after round after round is bought and the tabs accumulate.

Words and their meanings is the subject, like a Jeopardy! category, one evening. Specific words arise repeatedly to be considered not just for their meanings but for their relevance. "Dignity" is one of those words, as are "integrity" and "morality." "Ambivalence" is communally defined as "being betwixt and between." "Can there be a crime if there is no victim?" becomes the topic of discussion for a while among this haphazard collection of Branson aesthetes.

Four men sit at the table. One, Lee Robertson, has been in southern Missouri a goodly while, and he steers the direction of the philosophical inquiry. Robertson is in his late 50s, fit and brimming with puckish intelligence. A sculptor — one of his pieces stands at the marina on nearby Lake Taneycomo — he came to the Ozarks 30 years ago, not long after a stint in Vietnam, to "be at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere." He bought some property, where he still lives, stubbornly refusing the comforts of indoor plumbing.

A man who daily carries his water from a well has some firm notions of dignity and integrity and morality — all qualities he believes Branson is losing fast. With the coming of Andy Williams and Wayne Newton, Yakov Smirnoff and Shoji Tabuchi, with the influx of tourists filling the motels and inundating the hills to see them, Robertson proclaims, "Branson has totally annihilated the Ozarks. There once was an Ozark patois. You knew everyone. There were 35 last names in the whole county.

"It is the depersonalization of the Ozarks, all slowly eroded into this" — his arm sweeps in the direction of the unseen glitter over the ridge — "which is to say, the faceless shape of contemporary culture."

The distinctive face of Ozark culture, before the proliferation of road signs advertising the airbrushed entertainers for miles along Highway 65, was the hillbilly, himself the victim of caricature: the moonshiner one step ahead of the revenuers or, in a more notorious incarnation, the blood-feuding renegade. In Branson, these stereotypes appear in comic guise, the "Uncle Tom hillbilly," as Robertson describes it. But those cartoon versions arise from sober reality. Robertson speaks of notorious local clans: "They all kill each other. I've known six people who've killed somebody. Blood feuds; old, old families," which, in Robertson's mind, is another way of defining those words "integrity" and "dignity": "It wasn't ever about urban money; it was about honor."

According to Robertson, it is the lack of dignity that has driven developers to "strip-mining the quality of life to line their own pockets." The Branson they have concocted is "utterly unreal, a plague of opportunism." Robertson, himself an independent craftsman, questions whether all the prosperity from Branson's current boom has helped those such as himself. The tourist trade appreciates the cheap and tacky more than the well-crafted and unique.

Around the table more questions arise, questions frequently asked around Branson: Is a new airport going to be built between Springfield and town? (Lots of talk; nothing for sure.) A new golf course? (Opening in September, south of town, along with a new residential community.) Is Marriott coming in? (Nope.) Is Disney? (This rumor has been ongoing for at least 20 years.) Will there be gambling? (Not as long as there's a God in heaven and Baptists in southern Missouri.)

The consensus around the table is that the success of the entertainment capital of the Ozarks won't last. How can Branson attract the baby boomers when they reach retirement age? They're not going to flock to the Champagne Theater to see the Lawrence Welk show. The foursome around the table tries to invent acts that might draw: the Moody Blues Theater? the Stevie Nicks Theater? But how would rock & roll survivors fit into the Bible Belt when only the most watered-down version of the music (the Osmonds') is tolerated?

For now, though, the boom is on. "It's the unholy alliance between naivete and corporate brutality," Robertson pronounces with zealous clarity. "You pave paradise and you put up a parking lot.

"Branson is a litmus test of human values," he concludes as the staff of Rocky's waits impatiently to close. "That people come here and have a good time," he observes, staring mystified into space. "It's hard to say 'fuck 'em' just because of all they know and love."

An exploration of "all they know and love" begins the next morning at the Uptown Cafe (although it's unclear as to what it's uptown from), a faux diner with an antique yellow cab parked as an ornament outside. The place is clean blue tile and chrome, with a jukebox perpetually playing a wide mix of hits (Whitney's "I Will Always Love You" is followed by Merle's "Free Bubble-up"). The cashier is a young man with "LOVE" printed on the knuckles of one hand, "HATE" on the other, like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, a film whose mood doesn't fit with the cheery American Graffiti decor.

The '50s-diner motif is popular around Branson, as it is around the country. Making the old new is a peculiarly American activity that defies the reality of aging, the fact that everything tires out and wears down. Sometimes diners are found in places where economic upturns haven't hit like a tsunami: a diner in an old, depressed downtown, for instance, off the strip, with no aspirations of conforming to an eternal ideal (Platonian or otherwise). The bacon for the BLT was cooked hours ago. The only other customer has been there most of the day, ordering Budweiser in the bottle and drinking each one at a different table for variety's sake. The joint, like every joint around it, is decrepit, fading, the way any lived thing is when it has run its course.

In the heightened artificiality of Branson, old things — wagon wheels, double-cut hand saws, taxis — are preserved in places like Cracker Barrel and the Uptown Cafe as ornaments, emblems of the past with the sweat and toil removed. Branson is an expansive diorama — the Osmonds on billboards in tuxes and apple-cheeked in middle age — re-created just like the diner. Like Gatsby spending his life for a memory, the oldsters who come to Branson (average age 56) buy a likeness of the past: Janet Lennon tap-dances in a gold suit just as she did, or even better, on the Welk Show on Saturday nights. Mel Tillis stutters and croons as if time has not passed at all. A woman beams at Andy Williams as he comes down the aisle singing "Moon River" and stops to sing a verse especially to her. They keep each other alive in the spotlight.

Down the street, the Osmond Family Theater is closed — the troupe is entertaining on a cruise ship — but the lobby and gift shop are open. The lobby's walls are covered with portraits that look curiously like those taken in small-town studios for high-school graduations, weddings and anniversaries, except that these are all entertainers, and a peculiar menagerie at that: Tony Geary (from General Hospital, remember?); Cheryl Tiegs, twirling her skirt; Roy Clark, one of the first entertainers to prospect the Branson motherlode; the late Dottie West in a revealing white pantsuit; President Gerald Ford; a very young Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson, looking as if they're posing for their engagement portrait at Sears; Joe Namath; Charlton Heston; Ethel Merman; Danny Thomas, disrespectfully hidden behind some plastic plants.

The Osmond clan itself is posed for a formal family portrait, the men in suitcoats and ties, Mother Osmond in red and Marie in blue. It looks like a photo of a family corporation — which, in actuality, is what the Osmonds are.

Working the gift shop's counter is Thelma, wearing a golden-pastel blouse. The shelves contain what all the other shops carry, with some variations: Osmond CDs and tapes; Osmond refrigerator magnets; Osmond photos, pins, caps and mugs; an Osmond Family Theater snowglobe. A tape, The Best of Donny and Marie, with its '70s disco design, looks suspiciously like the poster for Boogie Nights.

Thelma tells a common Branson tale. She and her husband came here for vacations many times over the years, and when he retired they left Shreveport behind to live year-round in Branson. He's had a triple bypass, so he doesn't work at all anymore, but she enjoys the gift shop. One of the perks is comp tickets to all the shows. She likes the Osmonds best, "of course," and the "country shows" such as the Baldknobbers, which, with the Presley Family Jubilee, is one of the oldest shows in Branson. Shoji Tabuchi puts on a good show too, she says.

Outside the theater are the handprints of visiting performers, left in cement: Debbie Reynolds; Johnny Cash — whose hands, as expected, are large, with long, wide fingers; Kathie Lee Gifford, who has written a complaint, "another token female," beside her imprint; Loretta Lynn, who wrote "I love you so very much," confirming her place as the Judy Garland of country music.

Up the street is the Belgian Waffle and Pancake House. A glass facade wraps around the Starlite Theater, which includes yet another '50s-style diner, as well as a brick-faced theater made to look like an old-time cinema, with a marquee advertising current attractions. Outside, to tantalize those driving 5 mph along the congested strip, is a single blue-and-gold neon sign that bills three different shows: "Lost in the Fifties" ('50s rock & roll and swing music is Branson's current attempt to lure a younger audience); something called the "American Kids Show"; and "the country Engelbert" — a mustachioed man, grinning and holding a guitar, by the name of Dan Gabriel.

The Riverboat Motel looks something like a riverboat, although the brown wood siding looks like the cheap stuff saved for the kids' rec room. Also along this short walk on the strip are Thunder Road Go-Carts, Ozarkland, Silver Spur Western Wear, the Hall of Fame Motel, Music Road Motel, Country Western Motor Inn, Cafe USA, Ben's Wishing Well Motel, and the Baldknobber block, featuring Baldknobber's Country Restaurant, the Baldknobbers Motor Inn and the Baldknobbers Jamboree Show.

The Baldknobbers — which never fails to highlight its own version of the Uncle Tom hillbilly, a toothless cuss with a grotesque chin (suggestive of the comedic possibilities of syphilis or inbreeding) — was the original country show in Branson, debuting on the Lake Taneycomo waterfront as the Mabe Brothers in 1959. In 1962, the Presley Family Jubilee began its run in the Underground Theater, an actual cavern, in nearby Kimberling City. The Presleys were the first to move to the Highway 76 strip, no more than a dirt road at the time, in 1967.

These Branson progenitors, and longtime competitors, have come a long way from the sheds and caves where they once performed. The Presley theater has its own video-screen marquee. On a long loop, images of a laughing, youthful audience dissolve into a grinning standup bass player in a sparkling red jacket; then the audience fades in again, laughing, smiling, clapping as a gold-jacketed fiddler bows exuberantly.

A little farther down the road is the Americana Theater, featuring Jennifer, a comely blond whose image is seen on as many billboards as Yakov Smirnoff's, which appears every few blocks. According to the billboards, Jennifer is "the most recognized show in Branson." Recognized for what is unspecified, but her painted image shows a buxom all-American blond who is all red-white-and-blue sass.

Jennifer's not far from Landry's Seafood House, a combination redbrick and wood structure — the wood painted to appear as if it has been deteriorated by salt-sea air. Folks can stop at Moe's Olde Tyme Photos and have sepia-toned pictures taken of themselves dressed in Civil War attire or as Ozark Daisy Maes and Li'l Abners (costumes and props consist of off-the-shoulder polka-dot blouses; overalls and floppy hats, brims folded up; and jugs marked "XXX").

All of this is packed into a 15-minute walk, which in turn is just a small piece of the 76 strip, but the Hollywood Wax Museum stands out among the rest. Displayed Rushmore-style are John Wayne (in Washington's place and sporting a cowboy hat), Elvis (Jefferson), Marilyn (Roosevelt, although even here Marilyn looks trapped, desperate and vulnerable) and Charlie Chaplin (Lincoln). Even as caricature, the likenesses are poor, but this isn't a place where authenticity counts.

Yet amid the polymer boulders, with yellow and gold bubbles of plastic oozing from the wall, a very real black-and-red-striped beetle clings to a crevice — the way reality always finds solace in artifice.

Not lost on the performers in Branson is the lesson of the popularity of the Godfather films — Americans respect family unity. The Presleys have at least three generations of kin onstage. Shoji Tabuchi performs with his wife and daughter. Jim Stafford brings out his son to play fiddle and drums.

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.

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."

The Shepherd of the Hills, actually published in 1907, is one of the great literary phenomena of all time. The second novel by Harold Bell Wright, it is purported to be the fourth most widely read book in publishing history. The Shepherd of the Hills tells the story of a cultured man who comes to the Ozarks to reckon with his past. He befriends many of the hill people and becomes a kind of guru of manners, teaching people to not say "ain't" so much and to turn against their violent instincts. A theatrical version of the novel has been performed since 1959 at the Shepherd of the Hills Theater, an open-air amphitheater with a stage the size of a football field, big enough for real horses to gallop across the stage.

Wright's appreciation of the beauty of the Ozarks attracted, among others, "celebrities and nouveau riche," says Godsey. When tourism came to the Ozarks in the 1920s, the saying was, according to Godsey, "A tourist was worth a bale of cotton and a hell of a lot easier to pick."

The picking, and fleecing, included float trips on john boats along the James, White and Buffalo rivers. The thought of those days sends Godsey into one of his many stories:

"A nouveau riche Texan came, decked out in boots, hat and spurs. The weather turned misty, cold, and the old boy got a case of diarrhea — they had been drinking pretty good. He went into the bushes and ran out, claiming he was snakebit. Sure enough, there were marks on his butt, but cooler heads figured that, like a pig, he'd be able to absorb it. Then he went to the bushes again, and the same thing happened. Folks got suspicious and, on investigation, found out he was squatting on his spurs.

"Took the wind out of that Texan."

The next big change in the local economy, as Godsey tells it, came with the construction of Table Rock Dam in 1959. Godsey says the signs of prosperity could be measured by the fact that "most of the men wore Stetson hats and boots and there was fresh linoleum on the outhouse seats."

The timeline leading to the current Branson boom begins here. The Shepherd of the Hills Theater begins its ongoing one-show run. Silver Dollar City, with its rides and authentic craftspeople, began at this time, too. It wasn't until 1983 that Roy Clark became the first big-name draw with his own theater. Boxcar Willie followed in '87, Shoji in '89. But most people point to a segment of 60 Minutes in 1991 as the catalyst for Branson's spectacular decade of growth. Morley Safer may hate modern art, but he loved Branson. Soon after, the "classy" shows, like Williams' and Newton's, came in, offering a more diverse entertainment package.

Tourism is the model of the trickle-down economy, for Branson present and past. According to Godsey, in the 1940s Taney County had an average annual income of no more than $360. "It's always been an economically depressed area — and it still is." (The average annual income in Taney County today is only $11,198.) He compares Branson to Vegas, both oases in the desert, but the desert surrounding Branson is rural poverty: "Still a lot of cabins without indoor plumbing."

Any drive along the winding roads away from Branson exposes the Ozarks that haven't been air-brushed or infrastructured — shacks built with salvaged scraps of metal and wood, holding together in defiance of physical laws; cabins surrounded by small car lots of stripped automobile chassis. These stand out as emblems of a way of life that is made into the Uncle Tom hillbilly (on the strip, a man in overalls and floppy hat waves to passing motorists to encourage them to visit that particular restaurant), and just as easily romanticized into the stubborn yet noble mountain folk. The truth is harder to know. An Ozark saying Godsey likes to use puts it in the local idiom: "They's two things a feller never hears in the Ozarks — the truth an' meat a-fryin'."

Godsey begins to lapse into another yarn but loses the thread of the story. He apologizes for having "CRS — can't remember shit." After a brief pause to gather himself, he starts in on some of the lore of one of the Ozarks' more notorious characters, folks like "Popcorn" Pete — itinerant preacher, sheriff and owner of a hamburger joint in nearby Hollister. Pete once hid in the hills for two weeks, believing he'd killed another preacher by smacking him over the head with a Bible during an argument about Scripture. Ma Barker hid out in these parts; the Pendergast mob had a summer cottage along Lake Taneycomo; Pretty Boy Floyd occasionally came down.

Once the city "put an ad in the KC Star for town marshal," says Godsey. "A fellow came down and applied for the job. The city manager said, "Strap on this gun and walk up to the feed mill; you'll know what's going on.' Two hours later the fellow came back, returned the gun and went back to KC."

Don Sharp comes over to join in the conversation. Sharp and his wife have run a travel and ticketing service for 15 years — "a lifetime, in Branson," he says. "In the last two years, 50 have come and gone." Sharp wears a bright multicolored shirt and lights cigarette after cigarette, smoking five in about half-an-hour. Before becoming a businessman, he was a drummer for both the Tommy Dorsey and Lawrence Welk bands. He and Godsey banter about some of the local entertainers. The recently departed Boxcar Willie "was a sweetheart of a guy," in Godsey's estimation. Sharp says that the inclusion of Bobby Vinton in the Branson mix was part of the "need to get away from dead people's music. Just six years ago Vinton came in, and now he packs the place."

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.

She's not the sexy thing with the plunging cleavage on the marquee outside. Even with makeup, bright lights, sparkling dresses and — at least in the second row — a view of her that is, embarrassingly, crotch-level — she's a plain, healthy-sized girl.

As Godsey says, she can sing some, dance some. She performs a tap number in white cowboy boots and a short, multifrilled skirt. An Irish stomp is pounded out later in the morning and, for the first-act finale, a swing number with the tall Uncle Tom hillbilly comedian, with spins and rolls over the shoulder executed with all the finesse of an RV parking.

Jennifer knows her audience. By the second number, some saccharine tune about the way things were in Grandpa's day, she is asking coyly, "Are there any grandpas in the audience today?" "Ho, ho," the grandmas chortle as all the geezers raise their hands. Like any good litigator, Jennifer never asks a question to which she doesn't already know the answer. She picks out one old man from the audience as her grandpa-for-the-day, or at least the song. She sings to him, asking whether it was true in the past that people were honest, courageous and strong, and that love back then was forever. She presses that creamy-white, healthy body against his and looks into his eyes and asks whether things really were that way in the past. "Indeed," he affirms.

"Do you think if people turned to the Lord, we could get it back that way again?" she asks.

"Indeed," Grandpa-select says. The First Church of Christ of Iowa would form a holy mosh pit, if they could only get up.

Then Jennifer asks for a little kiss, but rather than the peck on the cheek she expected, Grandpa plants a wet one on those painted red lips. Jennifer's appeal is not wholly religious. She's early-morning Viagra for Branson grandpas.

There's a dour look that comes on musicians playing a morning show, a 3 o'clock matinee and an evening prime-time performance. Their faces grow tight — a face that struggles to look constantly friendly and sincere inevitably turns unfriendly and insincere. Laughing at all the potty jokes as if they've never heard them before, nodding and smiling at each heartfelt song that conveys little more than the absence of feeling. Whatever life was once inherent in the music has been bleached out of it. The musicians nod and smile, but they look as if they're in pain, held within the constraints of the mediocrity that has become their livelihood or their torment — or both.

They do look like dead people, ready for the slab — already embalmed, bronzed, painted, stuck in perpetual amity.

There's no denying Wayne Newton is an extraordinary showman, but he looks exactly like someone in suspended animation: skin tight, smile in place from years of playing to the crowd. Women rush to the stage with cameras, and he makes googly eyes as the flashes pop.

Newton's had a rough go of it in Branson: Not only tainted by the "crap" incident, Newton was also involved in a $20 million lawsuit against former partner Tony Orlando, and he suffers from chronic bronchitis, allergic to everything in the Ozarks. He displays a professional's courage, though, striving for the notes he thinks he can achieve in the grand finale, "MacArthur Park." As the final "Oh no's" crescendo, a wall of rain falls at the edge of the stage and Newton exits, climbing a golden-lit stair.

Newton is bringing the Vegas show to Branson, but without the Vegas bawdiness. Andy Williams, on the other hand, attempts another sort of classiness. (Williams also sings "MacArthur Park." In Branson it is possible to hear, within a 24-hour period, two versions of "MacArthur Park," two of "Jump Jive" and two of "Flight of the Bumblebee.") The Moon River Theatre ("I love it when he sings that," one women says on her way in) is tucked among shrubbery and a koi-filled stream. In the lobby, Williams displays some of his art collection, whether folks like it or not. There are sculptures by de Kooning and Lipschitz, contemporary abstract paintings, selections from Williams' Navajo-rug collection and his kimono collection.

No grinning emcee reads off the requisite announcements about who's celebrating an anniversary at the Moon River Theatre. An LED runs across the surface of the curtain with all the greetings. Sure enough, Williams opens with "Moon River," but he goes on to surprise everyone with his choice of contemporary material. It is strange to hear Andy Williams singing the Police hit "Every Breath You Take" but stranger still that he sings it so well, a man in his 70s belting out, "I feel so cold and I long for your embrace/I keep calling, baby, baby, please!"

Maybe the Moody Blues Theater isn't so far-fetched. Linda Ronstadt. Neil Diamond. Chicago. The Beach Boys. Can they do potty humor?

For all of Branson's laser-light-show bluster, the 40-years-running performance of The Shepherd of the Hills, the Harold Bell Wright classic that first gave expression to the Ozarks, is a spectacle of surprising sentimental power. Visitors can either take shuttle wagons or walk steep wooden steps down the hillside to the open amphitheater. The expanse of stage lies ahead, with the earth as floor and a giant tree that's been growing there longer than there's been a Shepherd of the Hills Theater. Although the events of the play do not pass in real time, they pass in real space. Clydesdale-drawn wagons cross the stage, sometimes at thrilling speed. Actors ride on horseback, guns blazing. One of the f/x highlights is the burning of a house, the flames intense and glowing in the dark night. At intermission, the audience is invited onto the stage grounds for a square dance, with music performed by local musicians, played sweetly, without frills or show.

The Shepherd of the Hills is the story of a man who comes to the Ozarks in search of spiritual renewal. He befriends the hillbilly locals and becomes a teacher to them. He tutors gentleness in men and women, brings literacy to the holler.

But all is not pastoral sublime. A band of redneck ruffians threatens the peace in the hills. They drink moonshine, disrespect women, bully men — and rob banks. They supply the menace of unreason.

After a number of plot twists, coincidences and a few rowdy stage fights, the true-love interests find themselves together and redemption comes to all who deserve it, which does not include the bad guys, who are gunned down by a sheriff's posse.

The "shepherd" sees the young people he's tutored come to wholeness, displaying the integrity, dignity and morality that are innately their own.

But he questions himself during a moment of crisis in the play. Are the cultured ways he's brought to these people of real value, or a hindrance to them? Has the integrity of these people, this region, been sullied, compromised beyond repair?