Why Branson, Mo.’s entertainment scene is so popular – The Washington Post

by | Oct 21, 2022 | Entertainment

October 21, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. EDT Greg Presley performs after confetti cannons are set off during the “Presleys’ Country Jubilee” show in Branson, Mo. (Terra Fondriest for The Washington Post) Comment on this storyCommentGift ArticleBRANSON, MO.It’s Saturday night at Presleys’ Country Jubilee, in the theater where the Presleys have been playing for 55 years, and the crowd, mostly older folks, is eating it up: Scott Presley on guitar, Greg Presley on harmonica, Ambrus Presley as one of the vocalists, and patriarch Gary Presley and son Eric going through their trademark comedy routine, as Herkimer and Cecil.There are more than a dozen performers in all — Presleys and non-Presleys — in sparkly embroidered jackets and shimmering, clingy dresses, covering country standards such as Randy Travis’s “I Told You So” and Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Among their fans on this night are retirees Bill and Jo Hale, who’ve driven eight hours from Houston to this Ozarks entertainment oasis, home to 30-odd theaters filled with country singers, illusionists, religious spectacles and equestrian acts.AdvertisementThe genial Hales, return Branson customers and both members of the Texas Senior Softball Hall of Fame, chuckle appreciatively as Gary Presley, in his goofy torn hat, sunflower-yellow shirt and blue overalls, appears between songs with Eric in a clowning bumpkin act as old as Shakespeare. When the band does a version of the theme song from the 1960s sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” I end up singing along, and some of the one-liners rattled off by Herkimer and Cecil are so corny that they make me laugh and cringe at the same time.“There’s a food that will ruin your love life,” Gary declares. “Wedding cake!”Live entertainment has been king in these parts since the 1960s, geared to a heartland audience, a customer base with which a city-slicker theater critic rarely interacts. So I traveled to Branson, a town of 12,000 that swells to as many as 70,000 on high-season weekends, to sample what a wide swath of America opts for when it wants to see a show. Few places in the country host a professional show-business destination as quirky and expansive as this Missouri mountain town a few dozen miles north of the Arkansas border. Singer Andy Williams opened a theater here. So did comedian Yakov Smirnoff.My curiosity was piqued out of a sense that most Americans look forward to a night on the town, but that we are divided on what that night should look and feel like. It’s a reflection, of course, of a huge nation of divergent tastes, but also of the chasms in our national cultural life. After a pandemic slide, Branson clocked some 10 million tourists in 2021 and is on pace to exceed that in 2022, according to data from the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. The majority arrive by car and bus from a 650-mile-wide geographic circle stretching from Texas to Illinois, from Oklahoma to Kentucky. (In 2021, only 8,227 visitors to Branson came from outside the United States.)They come, of course, for the music, inspired by Nashville and Vegas and by the great guitar and banjo picking tradition of these mountains. Branson traces its popularity in part to pickers in the Presley family, who entertained tourists in the Ozark caves back in the day. Roy Clark, Wayne Newton and Willie Nelson are just some of the stars who have played here.But many visitors also come to reaffirm their bedrock values. It’s no secret that Branson caters largely to a clientele that worships a Christian God and nurtures a certain vision for the country: On downtown’s homey West Main Street, T-shirts hang outside souvenir shops emblazoned with “I Stand for the Flag, I Kneel for the Cross” and “Whoever Voted Biden Owes Me Gas Money.”I can’t at times escape the feeling of being a spectator twice removed, one whose world outlook probably isn’t widely shared in this pretty corner of red state Missouri.“Sir, are you carrying a concealed weapon?” asks the front-door attendant at “Dolly Parton’s Stampede,” a show complete with a gut-busting chicken dinner, during which 1,000 guests sit around a rodeo-style ring for a pageant of horsemanship, real live buffalo roaming and agility dog contests.The idea of packing heat to eat biscuits and watch piglets race around a dirt track startles me.“Concealed weapons? Is that a thing?” I ask the guard. He looks at me as if I am nuts.Testimonials to faith occurred often during the eight performances I attended in late September (tickets ranged from a reasonable $42 to $85), and at nearly every one, military veterans were asked to stand for a round of applause. The Stars and Stripes were displayed ceremonially, for example, at the conclusion of “Dolly Parton’s Stampede,” with a flag-bedecked parade of horses and a recording of Parton singing patriotic tunes.I had far more fun at the concert-style shows, such as the Boomer-nostalgic “Anthems of Rock” anthology, with a high-energy cast of singers and dancers performing Aerosmit …

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