A Skeptic Goes To Branson

Scheduled for 2013 publication in Missouri Life magazine

I’m a Sin City guy. I yield to no one in my love of Las Vegas. But Missouri has a major tourist destination, too: 4,000,000 people visit Branson every year.  And it’s right there in the southwest corner of the state, where I go all the time.  So I was driving past the billboards for magic and music and comedy one day when I started to wonder: Could an unabashed Las Vegas fan enjoy himself for a week in Branson? I wanted to see if it could be done; if a cynical 30-something who prefers casinos to roller-coasters and barstools to banjos could find fun in what might be the most picked-on town in America.

When I started wondering this, I was as blind to Branson as a man with normal exposure to standup comedy can be. I knew about Yakov Smirnoff, and what I expected beyond that was bluegrass and Ned Flanders.  Which is to say, I expected country music and cheesy jokes and I expected to be very bored.

I was right about the first two.

I grudgingly decided I needed five days to be fair to Branson, so one Monday morning in April a Missouri Life photographer named Sarah and I drove down to Branson with an itinerary jammed with as much entertainment as we could squeeze in.  My first clue that I might be wrong about Branson came that afternoon at the Branson Welcome Center, where the woman behind the desk, who had more tattoos than I do, gushed about how much she loved “family-friendly” Branson. I did not expect my first contact in Branson to have ink sleeves. I expected pearls, maybe, and a beehive hairdo.

My theatrical introduction to Branson came at Monday night’s performance of SIX, a show comprised of six singing brothers who make all the accompanying music – percussion, guitars, horns, etc – vocally. Very impressive sounds, considering they all emanate from human throats. Each brother is showcased and there is some light comedy patter between songs (nothing risqué). Very much a Vegas-style show; akin to Wayne Newton’s. It was pretty cool, though I was thrown a bit by the directional change the show took in the second act, where they switched to religious and patriotic songs and delivered a handful of heartfelt speeches. This was something I have never seen at a concert before, though the audience was clearly moved by the spirituality and delighted by the patriotism. Unfamiliar territory to me, but charming.  After the show came my favorite part of SIX: The brothers invited the audience to join them at the Mexican restaurant next door for karaoke. Just to hang out! Wayne Newton would never have done that. How cool of them.

First thing Tuesday we walked to Branson’s downtown, which has the feel of a resort town (fudge, antique shops, realtors, and souvenirs) without the edgier resort-town businesses (tattoo parlors, head shops, obscene t-shirts.) Lotta “Olde Tyme” signs and red brick, that sort of styling. We went into a wine shop called “Palate,” because there was a sign outside advertising moonshine. Turns out the moonshine is made at a local craft distillery.  (Which moonshine always is, come to think of it.) Past the downtown is Branson Landing, which has a lovely fountain and a forgettable mall. (Mexican food and wood-oven pizza and clothes for women who really like beige, that sort of thing.)

On the way back, we stopped in “Dick’s 5 & 10,” a legendary variety store. This, I loved. Entire sections were devoted to tchotchkes with chickens and frogs on them, wooden items that you would not ordinarily expect to be wooden, like goblets and sunglasses, Christmas decorations (again, my trip happened in April), a generous and beguiling selection of hats, and the crown jewel: a huge section of amusing novelties like rubber chickens, packs of “gum” that concealed joybuzzers or mousetraps, windup dancing flamingoes, a selection of bacon-themed items including jellybeans and a wallet, and smallish magic tricks. Dick’s 5 & 10 would have won my vote for “Greatest Store in the World” when I was eight. At 38, it’s still in my Top 10.

Next up on my list of must-sees was the Titanic Museum. This you cannot miss. Everyone was just enthralled; kids, teens, adults, grandparents. There is a stunning model of the ship scaled to the size of a kayak and an outstanding gallery of photos taken aboard ship by Father Francis Browne, a priest who sailed from Southampton with the Titanic but luckily disembarked before the ship left Ireland for New York. The walk-through mockup of the bridge and promenade give an eerie sense of the conditions that night; there is piped-in fog, dimmed lights, and air-conditioning set on “Greenland.” Spoiler alert: The great ship sinks at the end and the computer-animated rendition of this part is very, very graphic, especially to those of us already leery about deepwater cruising.

After the Titanic Museum, we stopped by Bradford House, the B&B that would be our basecamp for the rest of the week, and then went to Waltzing Waters.

Waltzing Waters is a fountain-and-light show controlled by a special machine that is played like an organ. When the show started, and the fountains burst into action, swaying and spraying to American music standards like Gershwin and Sousa, I couldn’t stop beaming with delight. I was laughing with childlike delight, like my toddler niece does at balloon animals and magic tricks.

Sadly, Waltzing Waters is largely forgotten.  It has no headliner, no 3-D ride, no horses or roller coasters or animatronic animal band.  It’s just an old theater with something wonderful hidden inside, but in 2006 it closed when the original co-owner died unexpectedly.  It re-opened in 2010, but the four-year layoff has made it difficult to recapture the audience.  That’s a great shame, because the show is stunning, one-of-a-kind, and a ridiculous bargain.  Waltzing Waters deserves better than to be forgotten.

After Waltzing Waters we played 18 holes at the gorgeous Hollywood Minigolf. The groundskeeping is flawless, which is rare at miniature golf courses.  All 18 holes are challenging even for the avid golfer.  (The ball rolls back to the tee with frustrating regularity.) The course provides a number of excellent photo opportunities, including my favorite, one with a giant Oscar statue. It’s a fun course for kids, with audio and effects accompanying most holes. And if you are looking for a family activity on a perfect summer evening in Branson (or anywhere else, really) it’s hard to beat miniature golf.

Across the street is the zombie-based motion simulator game “Castle of Chaos” and “Hannah’s Hall of Mirrors,” both part of the same entertainment complex that houses Hollywood Minigolf. When I was 8, this place could have been my whole vacation: Just minigolf and the mirror maze and the zombie ride until I was dragged away kicking and screaming.

Tuesday night we went to see Presley’s Country Jubilee. It’s a variety show, like a country version of the old Muppet Show; half comedy, half music. At the intermission I went out to the lobby, and audience members all around me in were buzzing with delight, repeating the punchlines of jokes and humming the choruses of songs. The Presleys have been on the Branson showbiz scene lolonger than I have been alive, and the show is seriously polished.

I was beginning to worry that the five days I had allotted to Branson were going to be woefully insufficient.

First thing Wednesday we drove out to the Fish Hatchery, a few miles off the four-mile stretch (the Branson Strip) that is home to most of these shows and attractions..  I had read glowing comments about the Hatchery on the Internet, describing it as the “best free attraction in Branson.” While the Visitor Center and Hatchery grounds are free, the best part does have a modest cost: For a quarter, I could buy a handful of fish food, toss a few pellets into a huge cement tub of fish, and incite the trouts into a frenzy of eating. Upon learning that the Hatchery is more of a Trout Farm — the trout are raised here, then trucked to Missouri lakes for sport fishermen – I asked where to buy one of the trout for grilling, neatly sidestepping the requirement that I have a lengthy stand in cold running water. The hatchery guides had, I suspect, never gotten this question before, but they went to great lengths to find out where I could get one. (They came up with a local grocery and a local restaurant as possibilities; sadly, neither of them had trout when I called.)

Locals going to great lengths to help visitors is a pattern in Branson. Upon leaving the Visitor Center, Sarah the photographer gushed, “Everybody here is SO NICE.” We had only been there for 48 hours at that point, but she was right: Everybody we dealt with in Branson was just so nice. Every employee and volunteer in Branson conveyed the distinct impression they could not be more pleased by the chance to help us.  (And I can spot fake helpful cheer; I worked for Disney for eight years.)

That afternoon and evening belonged to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.  The Stampede is a dinner-theater show that starts about 4:30pm. The warmup act, a jack-of-all-trades named David Lucas, is brilliant.  In the course of his act, the Asian-Latino Lucas told us that he had recently performed for the Prime Minister of Canada. Then he played the banjo, juggled tambourines, glowing Frisbees, scarves, rings, and knives, told jokes, and balanced a chair on his face. If I were the Prime Minister of Canada, I would declare him an honorary citizen and national treasure in the hope that he would move to Canada and perform for me nightly.

Dinner was banquet food, eaten mostly with the hands. The service is so solicitous that it was hard to concentrate on the show. And the show was worth watching. It was a lumberjack-rodeo kind of thing, with stunt riding and tree-chopping games and clowns. The high point was a GREAT magic trick.  It was my favorite kind of magic trick, the kind where a smug jerk like me thinks he has it figured out and upon the big reveal at the end of the trick learns that he was ridiculously wrong.

The Stampede also had audience members participate in games. I know this because Sarah and I were wiping our mouths and watching the rodeo clowns when the waiter tapped us on the shoulders and asked, “Would you two like to be in the show?”

We were whisked downstairs by a crew member and quickly briefed by one of the clowns.  (They’re much more serious offstage.) We were initially told that we would be racing horses, and that I and a few other chaps were to sprint to the other end of the stage floor and select our mounts when the emcee shouted, “GO!”  We did, at which point the emcee made fun of our running and we trudged back sheepishly. We were actually to be participants in a two-man stick-horse race.  Sarah and I mounted our steed and waited for the starting gun.  When it came, we galloped majestically around the course, winning by a Secretariat-like margin.  My medal hangs proudly over my desk as I write these words.

Thursday morning we went to tour Table Rock Dam. How the dam tour guides can be so cheerful while they give the dam tour is beyond me, because there’s a lot of dam data to give the dam tourists and I bet they don’t always appreciate all the dam details. Maybe they make a lot of dam jokes.

They ought, because the dam tour is…dry. It lasts a couple of hours, and while it’s kind of neat being told things like “We are 70 feet below the surface of Table Rock Lake, and the water is right on the other side of this 30-foot-thick concrete wall,” you better be pretty enthusiastic about hearing a lot of talk about dam engineering if you are going to enjoy this one.

Next was the Tiger Sanctuary.  This, you want to do. For $50 you can FEED a tiger, pushing chicken thighs down a chute with a broomstick. The Tiger Sanctuary produced my favorite quote of the trip: When I asked the owner if the numerous dogs on the property ever got too close to the fence containing the cats, he told me, “Only one species is dumb enough to ignore a fence.”

The volunteer guide tried to get the tiger to stand on his hind legs for us by teasing him with a piece of chicken. This to me was an AMAZING level of trust. Call me a fraidy-cat, but I would not tease a tiger under any circumstances.

Near the Tiger Sanctuary is the Copper Run Distillery, the first legal distillery in the Ozarks since Prohibition and the birthplace of the moonshine I found at the wine shop on the first day. I met Jim, the owner, and had a tasting and a little tour. His vodka is pretty good and his rum is outstanding, but it was the moonshine I wanted. I bought a bottle to take home.

Thursday night we drove out to the Showboat Branson Belle. The Belle is a paddleboat on Table Rock Lake, holding 700 for a dinner cruise and a show. I had to leave town before the Belle’s first show of the year the following evening, so I finagled an invitation to the friends-and-family dress rehearsal.  “The ShowMen,” a quintet, provided medleys ranging from Motown to classic rock to fifties to disco. The emcee, Christopher James, was also the magician. He made the only nod to the charming corniness of Branson comedy I heard all week, saying after one particular groaner, “These are Branson jokes, folks.” I liked him a lot for that.

And there was the Belle’s headliner, Janice Martin. Janice is billed as the “world’s only aerial violinist.” She played the violin while hanging upside-down. She also sings and plays the piano. Janice could work anywhere she wants, and she chooses to work here. She even made a little speech about how much she likes the wholesomeness of Branson, and that’s why she came back after three years in the Army.  Janice’s patriotism moved even the theater kids sitting in front of me to cheers.

Friday we went to the Silver Dollar City theme park. We went into Marvel Cave first, because that is the attraction the whole thing grew up around. They warn you that it is fairly strenuous, and that there is no bathroom. You should, I learned, heed both those warnings. You walk down a LOT of steps, many wet, and into a huge wonderful cave.  You get a picture taken at the bottom of the stairs in the main cavern, and then begin the long climb out through the other side of the cave.  The cave is wet and sandy and strenuous and a tight squeeze in places and there are bats, and it is all totally worth it. It’s gorgeous.

After the cave, I asked the Information Desk if there was any food was a must-try. They sent us to the outdoor succotash kiosk. My only prior experience with succotash being the sufferin’ kind Sylvester mentions when Tweety Bird foils him, we got a bowl. Succotash is DELICIOUS; beans and squash and chicken and corn and okra all heated together in a cast-iron pan four feet across. The women running the concession are very proud of their succotash, and rightly so. What an upgrade over cheesecake on a stick.

We took a lap around the park. Silver Dollar City is an Ozark-themed amusement park, somewhere between Colonial Williamsburg and Six Flags.  We watched glassblowers make baubles, visited the Christmas store, appreciated a jug band, tasted apple butter, and rode a giant swing. We walked through the petting zoo, where a small herd of baby goats gave Sarah a two-hour smile. We rode a boat through a mine that was also a shooting-gallery game, had cinnamon ice cream, and rode the train. We left Silver Dollar City completely happy.

Our visit to Branson had been an unqualified success. The secret is to engage, and accept the town for what it is. A trip to Branson is like going on vacation to 1958. It is one of the few vacation towns I’ve ever visited to which you can take young children and not worry about what little eyes will see and little ears will hear. I’ve never been to a better vacation spot to take kids. And everybody in Branson is in fact so nice.

One more story, on that:

As we left Silver Dollar City, we got into the car and were hit full out with the banana-mineral smell of raw whiskey. The bottle of moonshine had been in the hot car all day, and the wax seal had melted, popping the cork and flooding the glove box.  I was disappointed, so I called Jim see how late he’d be open.  He’d just closed, but was distressed that our bottle had burst, and so offered to wait a half-hour for us. When we got there he examined it, pronounced the wax seal defective, asked to take it for study, and replaced it with an unopened one.

Even the moonshiner is so nice.