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article imageIn unlikely Ozark Hills Of U.S., A Glitzy Entertainment Mecca

By Lea Ann Schnakenberg     Aug 8, 2002 in Lifestyle
BRANSON, Missouri (dpa) - In the midst of the thickly forested Ozark hills in U.S. Midwest with its lakes and beautiful vistas lies an entertainment paradise that introduces visitors not only to Middle American culture and its folk music but also to a loveable tackiness.

The small town of Branson - population 6,500 - in south-central Missouri is hailed as "the live music show capital of the world". Such country-music stars as Mickey Gilley and Mel Tillis have built theatres there and have been joined by crooners such as Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton and the Osmond brothers.

Branson now boasts more theatre seats than New York's Broadway. With the theatres came neon signs that have sprung up along with go- cart tracks, miniature golf courses, water parks, T-shirt outlets and restaurants sporting all-you-can-eat buffets.

It's a picture reminiscent of Las Vegas, but, of course, this being the Bible Belt of the United States, there is no gambling and little drinking or vice.

Instead, it is an affordable getaway with a plethora of inexpensive hotel rooms and eateries, attracting more than 7 million visitors a year.

But here's a warning: Visitors to Branson are cajoled at every turn to yell "Howdy!" and whoop "Yee-haw!"

Those shouts spring from the town's hillbilly roots and come heartily from the throats of vacation-starved Americans who stampede there, enthusiastic for fun, ready to laugh and perhaps too eager to give standing ovations.

The entertainment mecca sprang up in a historically remote, poor area populated by God-fearing, hardscrabble homesteaders like Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the "Little House on the Prairie" books. Outlaws also found in the rough terrain a perfect place to hide from justice.

Although incomes have risen with Branson's recent boom, visitors can still find rusted heaps from the '70s parked next to entertainment executive's Mercedes.

The strange mix is also reflected in the town's population. The rural hill folk who have lived in the area for generations now rub elbows with sequin- and tuxedo-wearing stars as well as young dancers, musicians and singers with big dreams of fame.

They live in an area covered with forests, rivers and three man- made lakes that have drawn anglers, boaters, water-skiiers, hikers, hunters and honeymooners for decades.

Forty years ago, two local families began music shows. Another family who took tourists on cave tours built a theme park adjacent to the cavern, Marvel Cave, to bring in more visitors. Silver Dollar City, modelled after an 1880s Ozark frontier town, is now a major draw in Branson, featuring Ozark craftsmen, music and rides.

The town's real boom started in the late 1980s as aging music stars like Roy Clark decided to settle down after a lifetime of touring and have their fans come to them.

The idea was a money-maker, and now Branson has 49 theatres. The most prominent music genres are country, bluegrass and gospel, but its music scene also encompass pop, rock, jazz, Broadway and Elvis impersonators.

The performers are diverse as well. Besides magicians, its headliners include animal trainers, Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff, an Irish dance troup, Chinese acrobats and Shoji Tabuchi of Japan - a classically trained violinist who fell in love with the fiddle and is now one of Branson's biggest draws.

The stars are backed by an army of seamstresses producing mountains of flashy costumes; scantily clad, high-kicking dancers; laser-light shows; and special effects that even include 3- dimensional movies for an atmosphere that's best described as Nashville meets 'N Sync.

Beautiful lake Taneycome in Branson
However, most of Branson's visitors are conservative, which manifests itself in shows' patriotic and religious medleys, and they are also eager for plenty of Heartland hokeyness.

At the Jim Stafford Threatre, one of the hottest tickets in town, the headline comedian, guitarist and singer spouts off groaners like these:

"My doctor asked me the other day whether I suffered from memory lapses, and I said, 'No, I try to enjoy them,'" and "Friends, do you feel love in this room tonight? If you don't, feel around and I'm sure you'll find some."

Amid the comedic patter - always delivered in a mountain twang - Branson audiences find themselves entertained by some of the country's most talented musicians.

Between shows, visitors have a choice of enjoying a lake cruise on a paddleboat, shopping at outlet malls, a round of golf, a vintage train ride through the Ozark countryside and an outdoor performance of the "Shepherd of the Hills", a play based on the novel about Ozark life at the turn of the 20th century.

International visitors can also find heaps of Middle America's trademark friendliness. Branson is where people open doors for one another, wave other cars in front of them in heavy traffic and introduce themselves to the complete strangers sitting next to them.

But what most people come to Branson for is found in the chorus of a song sung at Silver Dollar City's saloon: "After our work day is done, we like singin' and dancin' and good, clean fun."
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