Branson, Mo. — family fun on grand scale

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Glenda C. Booth

Music and entertainment fans flock to Branson, Mo., where more than 100 live music venues vie for attention. This tribute group is performing at Silver Dollar City, a theme park with interpreters who illustrate life in the 1880s — plus musical groups and roller coasters.
Photo courtesy of Branson CVB

A gaggle of excited women filled the auditorium’s front row, thrusting gift bags, bouquets and wrapped gifts into the outstretched arms of the tall, slender performer, a haul so bountiful that it spilled over onto the grand piano.

The applause subsided and then came the encore — “It’s Not for Me to Say” — and the audience of 2,500 fell silent. It was the gentle, romantic, mellifluous Johnny Mathis at age 79, still thrilling his fans, many of whom were reliving their teens. 

His honeyed, tenor voice sounds as it did in the 1950s and ‘60s. He’s “aged well,” several people commented. He enchanted a full house for two hours with oldies like “The Twelfth of Never” and “No Love (but Your Love),” seamlessly moving from one favorite to another. Mathis crooned; fans swooned.

Welcome to Branson, Missouri, Entertainment Capital of the Midwest.

After his 2014 show, Mathis devotees lined up to buy tickets for his Nov. 13 and 14, 2015, show. “I don’t think about retiring. I think about how I can keep singing for the rest of my life,” he says on his website, www.johnnymathis.com.

Entertainment mecca

The Mathis show is one of around 130 (!) every day in the summer; 30 in the winter. Busloads of tourists flood this southern Missouri town in the Ozark Mountains to soak up entertainment in 50 theaters and fill 57,000 seats. Many fans hold season tickets and forge first-name-basis friendships with the nearly 1,000 performers.

Home of movie heartthrob Brad Pitt, Branson is a proving ground for many performance artists — country, pop, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and classical music; Broadway-style productions; comedy acts; acrobatics and magic shows.

“There’s a lot of talent here,” one local offered. “More talent than Nashville.”

Mike Patrick, a native, is in his 25th year as the master of ceremonies at the Grand Jubilee, a country music venue. “I grew up here,” he told me. “This is all I ever wanted to do.” His approach to MC-ing is to make friends and win them over. “It’s a party after that,” he said.

The town, population 10,600, prides itself on wholesome, family fun. There’s a show for every taste (except there’re no Vegas-style strip shows), and in many restaurants, no alcohol is served.

Eight million visitors fill up 40,000 hotel rooms in the area each year. And they aren’t in Branson just for the shows — there are museums, a theme park and other attractions.

How it all started

The entertainment bug bit here when a 505-foot-deep limestone cave was discovered when a bear and a brave fell into a sinkhole, according to a legend of the Osage Nation of Native Americans. When a torrent of bats zoomed out, it was named Devil’s Den.

Later, mining hopefuls thought the cave had marble, so they called it Marble Cave, a moniker that evolved into Marvel Cave.

In the 1950s, cave owners staged entertainment for tourists who lined up to enter. From that hole in the ground, Branson grew to become entertainment central of the Midwest. It named itself the “Live Music Capital of the World.”

There are shows on land and water. The twin-paddle wheel, football-field-sized Showboat Branson Belle chugs along at a top speed of 12 miles per hour, scene of a three-part show on Tablerock Lake. First out is Christopher James, who started doing comic acts at age 3 with his grandfather. “Taking selfies is the most activity many of you get,” he quips.

Topping shows (literally) is Janice Martin, presumably the world’s only aerialist-violinist, who trained at the Julliard School and served in the U.S. Army.

Fit, sinewy and agile in her shiny bright leotard, Martin opens by twisting down a knotted drapery from a half moon suspended over a grand piano and then struts around the stage playing her violin, spellbinding guests who are filling up on generous helpings of mashed potatoes, steak and baked chicken.

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater’s Legends in Concert is a true nostalgia tour, home to performance or tribute artists (don’t call them impersonators) who resemble the stars they portray. In 2014, a tall, mellow “Nat King Cole” wowed fans with “Unforgettable” and “Mona Lisa.” This winter you can hear tributes to Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston, Kenny Chesney and The Blues Brothers.

The evening’s climax is…drum roll…The King. From a high stool, “Elvis” opens with favorites like “Suspicious Minds” and “Love Me Tender,” and fawning fans do indeed. Then he contorts and gyrates around the stage, arms whirling, knees jiggling, invoking all the titillating Elvis moves to “Jailhouse Rock” and “All Shook Up.” After the show, Elvis invites lines of fans for pictures with sexy come-ons like, “Come here, baby.”

The theater restaurant’s “greatest hits” are the fried pickles, Wango Tango nachos, and a five-inch-high Heathbar pie.


The twin-paddle Showboat Branson Belle is the size of two football fields and offers lunch and dinner cruises on Tablerock Lake with plenty of entertainment.
Photo courtesy of Branson CVB

Beyond the shows

The Titanic Museum looms up out of an asphalt parking lot, a diminished but convincing replica of the fabled, “indestructible” ship that was the world’s largest manmade object in 1912.

It houses a replica of the grand staircase, first-, third-class and steerage cabins, and memorabilia of passengers collected from survivors and families, including the actual life jacket of Madeleine Talmadge Astor, wife of John Jacob Astor.

There are items recovered from the sea, such as silver table settings, and letters written from aboard ship. One passenger wrote: “There is hardly any motion, she is so large.” A French passenger noted that there were “a lot of obnoxious, ostentatious American women.”

Visitors also can experience what life was like on board. You can hear a soundtrack of the ship hitting the iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on a moonless night, and relive the last minutes standing out on the sloping deck. You can sit in a replica lifeboat and, by poking your finger in icy water the temperature of that night’s sea, learn why most who did not make it aboard one did not survive for long.

One film recounts the boat’s construction and opulent style, and another tells the story of how Bob Ballard found it in 1986 when he spotted the ice-crusted bow 2.5 miles down.

Massive amusement park

For a different sort of replica, there’s Silver Dollar City. Its promoters insist that it’s a theme park, not an amusement park. Two million visitors a year experience the “1880s village,” with blacksmithing, glass-blowing, and an actual homestead cabin where interpreters cook on a 1880s Majestic wood-burning stove. Six episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies were filmed in the park.

Adventurous visitors can try the Outlaw Run roller coaster — the “world’s most daring wood coaster” and a Guinness world record holder because of its steep drop. Cars go into a barrel roll like a corkscrew.

Fireman’s Landing, a new themed area of the park, has 10 attractions, including a ride with an eight-story drop, which promoters call a “controlled ride.” Or you can ride in four-seat balloons and help “spot fire dangers.”

Eating is an adventure at Silver Dollar City as well — hand-patted burgers, kettle corn, red velvet funnel cakes, and succotash. The park claims it is the largest buyer of okra after the Pentagon, as it’s the central ingredient of its succotash, based on an employee’s recipe.

They make and sell 90,000 pounds of candy and 9,000 gallons of ice cream a year. Another claim to fame: the park won a prize at the International Association for Amusement Parks and Attractions for its frosted nuts and pretzel dog — a foot-long, homemade pretzel wrapped around a hotdog.

The cave that started it all, today in the heart of Silver Dollar City, is a refreshing respite from the entertainment and eating frenzy. Amateur spelunkers navigate 700 steps and several ramps taking them half a mile down and up (except for a short train at the end when ascending). There is no elevator.

Equivalent to a 50-story building, “You could hide the Statue of Liberty in here,” said the guide in the 204-foot tall Cathedral Room. The cave has a steady temperature of around 60 degrees; warmer at deeper depths.

Critters like the Ozark blind salamander, a cave cricket, a cave crayfish and around 80,000 bats hibernate amid the limestone-calcite formations that grow one cubic inch every 100 years. The 200 million-year-old Liberty Bell formation has a crack. Blondie’s Throne is an 80-foot “waterfall,” one of several.

Silver Dollar City is closed in January and February, reopens for weekends in March, and opens every day starting April 1.

Things to buy

Into shopping? The must-see place is Dick’s 5&10 Cent Store, an old-fashioned five-and-dime at 103 W. Main St. Crowds squeeze through shelves packed with more than 50,000 items, including quilt kits, harmonicas, Cavalry battle flags, camouflage beer cozies, Duck Dynasty bobble heads, and Marilyn Monroe eyeglass cases. The same family has run Dick’s for 53 years.

While downtown, stop by the Branson Centennial Museum at 101 Veterans Blvd., and pick up a brochure for a self-guided walking tour of historic downtown. Or take the free trolley.

Branson Landing on the waterfront offers more upscale shopping.

As for other diversions, there’s golf, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, the Hollywood Wax Museum, Branson Scenic Railway rides, a tiger sanctuary, lake kayaking, wineries, the world’s largest toy museum and more.

Holiday happenings

November is Branson’s second busiest month (after July). The town will honor veterans Nov. 5 to 11 with a wreath laying, remembrance service, banquets and shows. The largest Veterans Day Parade in the U.S. will start at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, recognizing Armistice Day, the end of World War I.

Lynn Berry, Branson’s director of public relations, said that the town has five seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall and Christmas.

Christmas arrives on Nov. 1 with holiday shows. The Adoration Parade has been held at dusk on the first Sunday in Dec. since 1949. A giant nativity scene lights up Mount Branson’s peak. On Nov. 14, a celebrity will lead another parade.

From Nov. 7 to Dec. 30, Silver Dollar City, explodes with five million lights, 1,000 decorated trees, and the twice-daily Rudolph’s Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade of musical floats and 33 costumed characters.

The park’s centerpiece is the five-story Christmas tree with lights synchronized to music. Theaters stage “A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” twice daily. Craftspeople hand-make holiday items.

If you go

Start at www.ExploreBranson.com for basics on show dates, tickets, deals and lodging. Don’t forget to order a vacation guide.

Branson is served by the nearby Branson Airport, and by the Branson-Springfield Airport in Springfield, 50 miles north. Round-trip flights from Washington area airports start at $336 on American Airlines.

Fall temperatures are in the 60s and 70s; in November and December, temperatures are in the 40s and 50s.

In January and February, about 12 theaters and all the museums are open.