American Impressions, Chapter 32: Missouri
Branson's Neon Idyll
At the end of his two-hour variety show, Shoji Tabuchi appears on stage surrounded by a cast dressed like a church choir and haloed—literally—by an American flag made of laser beams. As Tabuchi sings “Coming to America” in his heavy Japanese accent, the beams burst Old Glory from behind him and into the audience, which is by then on its feet, delirious with joy.
About the same time, in another theater in town, Yakov Smirnoff, the “famous Russian comedian” (as his marquee puts it) is ending his show with a long, tear-jerking soliloquy about the day he was sworn in as an American on Ellis Island, and how good it’s been to have gone “from red to redneck.”
Tabuchi and Smirnoff put on their shows nightly, sometimes twice a day, to packed audiences. It isn’t lost on anyone that two of the most popular acts in Branson come from two countries that once ranked highest on America’s evil empire list. Many of the people applauding Tabuchi and Smirnoff are veterans of the Pacific war against Japan, or harbor unfond memories of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
But in its corner of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, Branson is the town where everything is righted. It is where the most common currency is nostalgia—always dealing you in on something safe, wholesome, and most of all, familiar. If the past has a few dark spots, it becomes wonderful again through the power of redemption. Tabuchi and Smirnoff are nightly proof as both play on the notion of having put aside their foreign past to embrace their American present.
To buy Smirnoff merchandise, fans can call a number that is still advertised as 1-800-33-NO-KGB (1-800-336-6542).
Tabuchi and Smirnoff are as fervent as converts. But in many ways, every other act in town is a variation on the Tabuchi-Smirnoff theme of the American success story.
In this unlikely place that boasts 40 theaters, 90 shows, more theater seats (55,000) than New York’s Broadway district, 356 restaurants, 198 lodging facilities, and 6.8 million visitors a year, a town of (officially) 4,800 people has become, in less than two decades, a whirlpool of vacationers high on patriotism and country values. You get the impression that everyone is happy to leave high art to the big cities. Branson, as the local chamber of commerce advertises it, is “where neon meets nature,” where hillbillyism, Christianity and the family are all celebrated unabashedly and on the same stage. Branson, I discovered, is born-again show-business, and it keeps winning new converts in a country that has grown increasingly agnostic over Hollywood’s infallibility.
Aside from an airport in Springfield, some 40 miles away, the only way to get to Branson is by road—twisty two-laners that cut a swath through the Ozarks in an alternating spectacle of green peaks, valleys and billboards. I drove in from the south on U.S. 65 and took the turn for downtown. The place looked like any old town, a tiny, unhurried grid of seven or eight streets, a scenic railroad, a pawn shop, a deli, a post office. The usual, plus several ticket outlets. But to what? My mistake: Downtown is a post-card size recall of the town’s old self, of Branson before the boom, before “The Strip.”
State Route 76, here dubbed 76 Country Boulevard, threads into downtown, down a hill from the west, a deceptive loose end that seems to come from nowhere. It once did. It now leads to an American utopia. Drive up the hill, past the intersection with 65, past Bob Evans, past the Church of God on the left, the Good Shepherd Inn and the Rocking Chair Motel on the right, and it all begins—a five-mile strip of traffic worse than Manhattan’s at mid-day and neon as coarse as Las Vegas’ any time, but with all the joys of “American Graffiti” shorn of the graffiti.
Traveling the Strip from end to end can take more than an hour. A decade-long, $100 million investment dug several new side roads to alleviate the congestion. But many people seem to prefer driving the Strip as if it summons back the days when it was safe to loiter and drag along their own hometown strip on Saturday nights. In Branson, it is Saturday every day of the week. There are no drug dealers on street corners, no hookers, no weirdos (Elvis impersonators aside). The bumper-to-bumper traffic is a whirring, controlled river of overwhelmingly American-brand cars, a daily flow of 32,000 vans and sedans and pick-up trucks often jammed with families that defy the two-point-something of nuclear demographics.
The traffic jam upsets no one. There is too much to see, and nothing to think about, because the Strip also is a social history of Branson written in the same way that it’s been built up—by flattening the landscape (that is, the past) into a seamless ideal of what the present ought to be. Past a run of restaurants, a mini-golf joint, a water park, the “Dixie Stampede,” the 76 Music Hall, a mall, a church and innumerable inns, the 2,054-seat Andy Williams Moon River Theater appears.
Williams got sick of touring the big cities in the late 1980s. In 1992, he became the first big name to bring a non-country act to Branson. Like many of the town’s established stars, he owns his own theater, decorates it any way he likes (including a Picasso and a Jackson Pollock in his dressing room and an Alexander Calder sculpture hanging in the lobby), and controls every aspect of his show. That’s what most Branson entertainers do. Their theater is their business, their storefront.
A slow crawl later, past the Bobby Vinton Theater, the Baldknobbers Jamboree appears on the right (near the Baldknobber’s Restaurant and the Baldknobber’s Motel) and the Presleys’ Country Jubilee on the left. The Presleys, a local family, first opened their show in 1967. The Baldknobbers Jamboree first opend on the Strip in 1968 (It first opened in 1959, downtown). Either show would be hopelessly out of its element on a stage anywhere else. In Branson, the shows are revered as the dual mothers of them all. Their offspring line the Strip: The Osmond Family, Jim Stafford, Moe Bandy, Boxcar Willie. And when the Strip got built up (land was selling at $300,000 an acre in the mid-‘90s) they sprung on the side roads, where Mel Tillis, Shoji Tabuchi and Wayne Newton have built their little empires.
I had thought many of these performers dead, not an uncommon reaction.
”That’s an image that we fight,” the Branson chamber’s Dori Allen said. “But they’re all here making more money than ever before.”
Branson is a lucrative pasture. Only one theater, the 4,000-seat Grand Palace, offers traveling acts.
The town’s genesis has been explained as the end result of a flight of talent from Nashville, as a “return” to entertainment with “family values” at heart, as a coincidence that built on itself. When “60 Minutes,” on Dec. 9, 1991, half-jokingly referred to the town as the country music capital of the universe, a minor boom became a major one, although Branson is not all country music by any means. Not anymore. But with 90 shows on any given day (beginning with breakfast at several venues), there’s only one way to see them all in two hours, on the same stage, performed by the same man on one instrument, backed though he is by dancers and an orchestra. That is why I found myself at the Shoji Tabuchi Show.
Branson has its mayor. But its star, its king, its pontiff—the guy who gets a front-page spread in the Wall Street Journal’s Marketplace section and whose savvy is emulated by all the theaters in town—is Shoji Tabuchi.
The Tabuchi audience is a reflection of Branson’s visitor census: a third of all visitors are part of a family unit, couples make up 41 percent of the tally, and the prevalence of elderly visitors (who have made Branson the first busing destination in the country) keeps the average age around Branson at 60. Tabuchi is a case-study in playing the demographics.
He does Hank Williams (“country music gave me my start in this country”), Broadway tunes, children’s tunes, polkas, waltzes, shreds of classical, he dances with cows and chickens (not real ones), sings spirituals, and adopts sampling in his own way by staging a long, exhausting medley that features standards from six decades. Most of all, he cracks jokes by playing on the anachronism of his act (“You can tell by looking at me I grew up on the polka, polka and rice every day”), and by stressing to his audience, with a blend of gospel and patriotism, how much he has become one of them. He mingles with the audience at intermission, signs autographs, poses for pictures with everyone who asks, and goes out of his way to win over the weary. After one show, he invited to his office a group of World War II veterans who had survived a Japanese attack on the USS Franklin, in which 921 men died. They called Tabuchi’s gesture a healing experience.
The quality of the show is technically sound (the laser machine alone cost $2 million, and the most stirring part of the show, a traditional Japanese number, features an enormous Taiko drum that was made out of a 300-year-old bubinga tree). And it is clear that Shoji Entertainment’s 200 employees plough as much energy into the show as Tabuchi is said to plough most of the show’s earnings back into improving its look. It is, however, artistically nil, and Tabuchi’s fiddle-playing is more the result of the Suzuki Method’s assembly-line bravura than anything soulful or transcending.
But that misses the point. Tabuchi plays the essential Branson show for two reasons: To ensure return business, he expressly averts the dares (and risks) of artistry, offering up instead two hours of ear candy perfectly plagiarized, in short-attention-span segments, from America’s most popular tunes. And to tap into the most important strain of Bransonia, he injects his show with a mythical dimension that always plays up a rags-to-riches story underwritten by God and Old Glory.
”It was 26 years ago that Shoji had a dream—to come here and play his music in the United States,” an invisible, American narrator says just before the final numbers, summarizing how Tabuchi left Japan against his father’s will with barely a fistful of yen in his pocket, but how his father recently came to the show, and basked in his son’s success. It is Ulysses’ quest in reverse (because in America it’s the father who comes around to the son rather than the other way around). So by the time he sings “How Great Thou Art” followed by “Coming to America,” Tabuchi has hit all the bases, ensuring that the comment cards distributed to patrons at the beginning of the show will return marked “Excellent” for the most part.
It is a moving evening. The happiness afterward is thicker than Missouri’s humid air. The children are hopping, their parents are indulgent, their grandparents are giddy. Tabuchi climbs aboard one of the tour buses to say thank you and goodbye to gray-haired women who never thought they’d fall in love with a Japanese man, and to gray-haired or no-haired men who never thought they’d forgive him for seducing their women a-la-Sinatra, by yodeling in Japanese. He’s made friends—or at least patrons—for life.
But the Branson utopia—“this friendly home of country, pop and kitsch” where “You can go home again,” this “Perfect American town,” as publications from the New York Post to The Economist have dubbed it—can startle you if you do not fit its perfect measurements.
American tourist destinations from Orlando to Death Valley have become filled with the sounds of foreign tongues. Branson is the 18 th such destination (up from 44 th in 1996, and ahead of Tampa, Nashville and Williamsburg). But Shoji Tabuchi and Yakov Smirnoff aside, I very quickly became curious why it looked like I was only the third foreign-born individual in Branson, and why my skin, olive by complexion, was as dark as skins get there. Branson, the chamber of commerce likes to say, is within a day’s driving distance of half the country’s population, with half its visitors traveling more than 300 miles to get there. Branson, the chamber also likes to say, is a whole lot more than country music (“blacks don’t like country” being the usual explanation for Branson’s lily-whiteness). Yet when I asked Dori Allen about the town’s striking sameness, she said: “Generally speaking, this area of the country is typically white, but it has nothing to do with who we try to attract.”
As self-segregated as it looks, calling Branson racist is an unfair oversimplification. But it is a fact that Branson does not appeal to more than a particular, white segment of vacationers, based, more likely than not, on its lingering identification with country music. And as the music writer Bruce Feiler wrote three years ago, “country music may be yet another example of widening racial divisions in American popular culture, in which whites and blacks choose to watch different television shows, read different books and listen to different kinds of music.” And vacation in different parts of the country. Whatever efforts are being made to widen the town’s appeal have yet to show results, and it is among the reasons why some, who knew Branson before it became a star, have stopped going there.
”It was really undeveloped at that time, and it was gorgeous, stunning,” remembers Betsy Lampe, editorial director of Lakeland’s Rainbow Books, who used to vacation in Branson as a child in the 1960s and early ‘70s. “My mother just went to Branson. She said it was all old white people and that, while every other place is for sale, they’re busily blasting down mountains to build new places. . . . I went to their Web site (Branson’s) before my mom went there, and I noted that it mainly appealed to the more ‘redneck’ type person. No jazz or anything that might appeal to more urbane or ethnic folks.”
But then, the spiritual roots of Branson date to 1907 and the publication of Harold Bell Wright’s “The Shepherd of the Hills,” the story of a man who leaves big city life and takes refuge in the Ozarks, right around Branson. It is all about retreats to sanctuaries, about the preservation of a presumed utopia, about who belongs and who doesn’t. Like the Shoji Tabuchi Show, it’s a sentimental fantasy doused in nostalgia for a simpler time. It has nothing to do with reality, which is just the point. And since 1960, it has been Branson’s signature play, although many of the pristine settings of Wright’s story have since been blasted off to make room for the neon plantations.
MISSOURI IN BRIEF
Total area: 69,709 sq. miles (rank: 18)
Population (1997): 5,402,058 (rank: 16)
State capital: Jefferson City
Economy: Agriculture, manufacturing, tourism
Nickname & Motto: Show Me State; The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.
Entered union: Aug. 10, 1821 (24 th)
Notable facts: Unlike many towns looking to revive their fortunes, Branson leaders have sold their town’s attraction as a safe haven from gambling, but not without recurring battles. Kenny Rogers’ “Showboat Branson Belle,” a riverboat that would naturally have been associated with gambling, opened in 1995 gambling-free with Rogers’ promise that it would stay that way. But an Indian tribe north of Branson has tried to win approval for a casino from the Legislature, where the issue is a recurring flashpoint.
Missouri in quotes: “You’ve been tellin’ me that I could be a gentleman, even if I always lived in the backwoods. But you’re wrong, Dad, plumb wrong. I ain’t no gentleman. I can’t never be one. I’m just a man. I’m a - a savage, a damned beast, and I’m glad of it . . . Dad, you say there’s some things bigger’n learnin’, and such, and I reckon this here’s one of them. I don’t care if (a man) goes to all the schools there is, and gets to be a president or a king; I don’t care if he’s got all the money there is between here and hell; put him out here in the woods, face to face with life where them things don’t count, and what is he? What is he, Dad? He’s nothin’! plumb nothin’!”—From Harold Bell Wright’s “The Shepherd of the Hills.”
Books and videos:
* Harold Bell Wright’s “The Shepherd of the Hills,” first published in 1907, is available in paperback from Pelican.
* “The Unofficial Guide to Branson, Missouri,” is a popular book that’s readily available for $12.95 at retailers or on the Web.
* The Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce publishes a free guide to the town and its surrounding attractions. It is available by calling 417-334-4136.
General Branson sites include: