Entertainment mecca grows up òvernight’
John MacNally with Glen Campbell, who owns one of the major theatres in Branson, USA.
On With the Show’s
Flashback to Variety Today 1993
Special report By JOHN MacNALLY
BRANSON … Where? Well you might ask, as not only is it a mystery to the majority of Australians and Irish people, and the rest of the world but also to the majority of Americans. Nor do they know what goes on there!
While television programs like `Good Morning America’ and `60 Minutes’ have made quite a few more people aware of its presence, it still is not in the main stream of places to go.
Branson is located in the Ozark Mountains in the state of Missouri, in the American Midwest, approximately a nine-and-a-half hour drive from Nashville, Tennessee. It was founded in the early 1800s but did not show any signs of theatrical importance until the late 1980s.
Basically, Branson was a fishing and hunting destination in its early years, until 1967 when the Presley family (no relation to Elvis) opened the `Presley’s Mountain Music Show’ on Highway 76 to entertain the hunters and fishermen who were camping in the area.
At that time, of course, Highway 76 was sparsely populated, and was occupied mostly by trees and a few scattered businesses.
In 1968, a group of entertainers called The Baldknobbers Hillbilly Jamboree moved to Branson, so creating the first hint of entertainment competition. From those humble beginnings, Branson has developed into a pulsating entertainment Mecca, boasting approximately 34 theatres (and counting). These theatres have, of course, brought with them hotels, motels, country club resorts, restaurants, and `Disney like’ theme parks and amusement parks.
Ninety-nine per cent of the theatres, restaurant and motels are located on Highway 76, Branson’s main highway. Other theatres and motels are located on the Shepherd of the Hill Highway, so named after Harold Bell Wright’s 1907 novel `The Shepherd of the Hills’.
While Branson’s population remains at about 3750, the yearly visitors number approximately five million. Most of these holidaymakers arrive in what the American’s call RV’s (Recreational Vehicles), known better to Europeans and Australians as caravans, with the remainder arriving by bus. But tours are the life’s blood of the Branson theatre business.
Until the 1990s, Branson was 100 per cent country music, boasting theatres with major artists like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Ray Stevens, Cristy Lane and Boxcar Willie.
With the arrival of artists like Andy Williams, Wayne Newton, Bobby Vinton, Tony Orlando, etc, all of whom have incidentally built their own theatres (Andy Williams being the most beautiful), Branson has opened its doors to a wider spectrum of music.
While I was working there, in the Cristy Lane Theatre, many people asked me for a comparison between Las Vegas and Branson. Having given the question some thought I came to the conclusion that it is virtually the same with three very significant exceptions.
Branson has no gambling, no bars, and no `ladies of the night’. Having answered this question for many of my show business friends, a familiar retort is: `” What’s left?”
An interesting sidelight of the theatres is that many of them lend their facilities to religious groups each Sunday morning. For example, Loretta Lynn has an Interdenominational service, while the Christy Lane Theatre has a Catholic mass.
When working in Branson, I played golf with many of the stars who have moved there on a permanent basis and it is interesting to hear their reasons for such a move.
The main reason (apart from the money) was lack of travel, in other words the fans are coming to them from all over America, rather than the endless trek of one-night-stands they had to endure from city to city throughout the United States in a normal years touring.
As I said before, most of the theatres, restaurants and motels are on Highway 76, so one can imagine the chaos at show time, compounded by the fact that the road only has two lanes. The highway is approximately three miles long and it sometimes can take over one hour to get from one end to the other. One must also plan meal times fairly carefully as if you arrive at a restaurant at the busy times, an hour’s wait is not unusual.
One of the biggest, and certainly the most popular restaurants in Branson is `The Outback’ which serves mainly Australian cuisine and on its property has a clothing and souvenir store, also Australian orientated, as well as a Bungee jumping set-up.
It seems to me that the Branson explosion is set to continue. Whether a small country town can withstand the onslaught of theatres, theme parks, motels, hotels, etc, is anybody’s guess.
Some economic moguls insist that it has reached saturation or is about to in the immediate future, but that’s what they said about Las Vegas. One must take into account that country music, which is still the main draw in Branson, is the fastest growing music in the world today.
IN 2011, the population of Branson reached 10,739. Among the many theatres in Branson are Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, Oak Ridge Boys theatre, Mickey Gilley Theatre, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theatre, Jim Stafford Theatre to name a few. Scenes from the family motion picture `Gordy’ were also shot in Branson in 1995. The closest commercial airport is the newly developed Branson Airport which opened in May 2009. Privately owned, it is thought to be the largest privately owned commercial airport in the United States. Previously, the closest commercial airport was Springfield-Branson National Airport 80km (50 miles) northwest of Branson.