Fry Me A River
My peculiar week running around Branson with a tour group
of retired people from San Diego. By Bill Vaughn
Queued behind a blonde with a scarlet flag, we were marching single-file like preschoolers at Pinocchio across a vast, seething lobby, one hand on our neighbor’s shoulder so no one gets lost. I’d never seen so much white hair in one place. Besides me and a woman who works the pari-mutuel windows at Del Mar, there were three dozen retired people from San Diego in our group, and there must have been forty such tours here, everyone snaking to their seats behind ushers bearing flags of many colors.
I felt sort of jumpy and I wished the box of Goo Goo Nuts clutched in my free hand was a nice Martini with a twist instead. But Branson is a Bible Belt town, and despite its many other amusements, you stand as much chance of finding a public drink here as you would a coven meeting at an Osmond show.
As we sat down, my new friends, a woman who waltzed away her youth in Detroit ballrooms and a lady whose father invented the teletype machine, were laughing at my story about the billiard table in the pissoir upstairs where I watched gentlemen gather that very afternoon for sport under portraits of Lincoln and Lee, and where a brazen, screeching housewife from our own group was escorted bodily from that male sanctum by a bouncer in a tux.
Finally, the house went black. Something crashed and a synthesizer crescendoed as lasers sliced through banks of fog clouding the theater’s chilled air. Then there he was, backed by a chorus line and canned strings, one of Branson’s main draws, Shoji Tabuchi, a Japaneseémigré resplendent in white tails winking with sequins and gold, his violin singing as he glided across the stage.
Tabuchi did his Dixieland number, then “Jail House Rock,” then his polka, his classical number and his Big Band reprise, and from atop a spotlighted shack, a halting and surreal version of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. Then he played his favorite song, the theme from Ice Castles starring the enigmatic Robby Benson, followed by what to my Irish ears is a rather funereal rendition of “Danny Boy.” By the time he launched into “The Orange Blossom Special,” whose performance is required by law in fourteen states whenever a fiddler steps before an audience, the faces around me are glowing.
There’s a kind of hush while he told the Shoji Tabuchi Story, which goes something like this: As a wunderkind in Japan studying music by the Suzuki method—miniature violins, mass recitals, education by imitation—the seven-year-old Shoji is taken by mom to see a concert featuring the Smokey Mountain Boys. When the Boys play “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Hank Williams’ lovely and melancholy song of lost love, Shoji is captured by American music for life. “It knocked me down,” he admits. As soon as he can, he says goodbye to all those jarring Japanese drums and gongs and banjos called shamisens and flees the home islands forever. Arriving in the States with $500 in his pocket he works at whatever, while mastering the violin.
Now here he was, apparent living proof of the American theory that anyone who stretches high enough can snatch the key to the city. For this audience Shoji’s heavily accented homage to their own heartland was a sweet sound indeed. While the glitz and excitement of more live entertainment than you can possibly see in a week is why Branson ranks with Yellowstone, the Lincoln Memorial and the Disneys as the biggest tourist draws in the Republic, people come back to the place because of its shameless Americanism and its family-oriented atmosphere unsullied by the legalized gambling that infests other resort destinations.
As for the Branson Sound, much of what I heard was emotionally inert, like the theme song from Jeopardy. Oh, it was all competent and sometimes even first-rate technically, but too much of it was as predictable as a metronome and as bland as chili that’s only been shown the Tabasco. Still, people don’t flock here for avant garde jazz featuring three glockenspiels and a soprano. They want to hear a little country and, as Lawrence Welk discovered long before Branson, they want a lot of old favorites. Most of Branson’s entertainers serve up this safe fare twice a day, seven days a week, straight through from March to January.
Just as I was feeling all smug and knowing about this in that snotty Yankee way, Shoji lowered his violin. Then he sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Something about his accent and less-than-polished singing voice made this old gospel tune a strangely touching and fervent experience. When he finished I have to admit that I could feel something of what he meant about the power of American music.
Part Two. After the matinee I decided to skip the ride across town to our motel, and walked instead. It was a shiny autumn day in the seventies, the Ozark Mountain air perfumed with hickory smoke, and out there in all those pretty south Missouri hollows were shouts of color as the first hardwoods began to turn. This is the second of Branson’s two seasons, the first being the spring-summer session when the place is full of families, not retirees as it was when we showed up. The best time to visit, our bus driver told me, is in midsummer when the heat keeps the crowds down “and there aren’t any buses.” Off I went in shorts, shades and a sweatshirt feeling slightly overdressed—after all, this is a town where bib overalls make a bold statement, and men wearing ties draw stares.
“Old” Branson is a fishing hole village that grew up on a dammed portion of the White River called Lake Taneycomo. In 1967 this one-horse Mayberry was transformed forever when the Presley family (not related) opened a small theater in the style of the Grand Ol’ Opry for vacationers out on Highway 76 west of town. Now 76 Country Boulevard is a five-mile strip of some 40 theaters offering 1000 to 3000 seats at an average ticket price of $40. Most bear the imprimatur of Big Names, such as Glen Campbell, Roy Clark and Charley Pride, stars who perform in their own venues at least part of the season. It would be fun to say that performers never die they just build a theater in Branson. Between the theaters is a city planner’s nightmare of go cart tracks, miniature golf courses, fast food franchises, and water slides. As I strolled down 76, whose four lanes were clogged as usual with traffic that barely moves, I passed by some of the houses where we took in shows the last few days.
Although vaudeville is one of those things I’ll never see, people in our group said Jim Stafford came as close to their memory of the experience as you can get. I found his show oddly charming—traditional stage lighting as opposed to the computer opticals of Tabuchi’s theater, acoustic guitars and banjos rather than electrified instruments and pre-recorded backups, and a celebration of down home life that seemed closer to what Southern evenings were like before the triumph of television than anything else I saw in Branson. Stafford, whose big hit in the Sixties was “Spiders and Snakes,” sings and yarns in the low-keyed manner of a cracker Garrison Keillor. Before he came on I went up to the stage where a pair of six-year-olds recruited locally were crafting balloon animals for the audience. When I asked for a squid the green-eyed girl said I’d be better off with a poodle dog, which she promptly tied.
When he came out Stafford made the three sections of his packed 1100-seat theater race each other by passing huge bags of balloons over their heads to the back and up front again, told moldy cracks like “He’s so old he saw the Dead Sea when it was only sick,” and “I bought this harmonica because my doctor told me to play 18 holes,” strummed a guitar made from the muffler of a ‘69 Thunderbird, heaved foam rubber cow pies into the crowd, danced with a chorus line of children in chicken costumes, turned off the house lights so figures dressed in black could run around with flashlights scaring people, explained that Branson means “bumper to bumper” (although the traffic problem could be solved if the Osmonds wouldn’t all go to work at the same time), and sang in a mellow, soporific voice that almost calmed me down.
Over at the Osmond’s we watched three generations of the world’s most famous Mormons put on a contemporary, high-energy production heavy on harmonies, choreography, and patriotic images such as waving flags, Martin Luther King speechifying and scenes from the Gulf War projected on big screens as a swarm of Donnies and Maries sang “This Land Is Your Land” and the like. They even did a rendition of “The Way Things Used to Be,” the monster Boyz 2 Men hit that would be the closest I came the week I was in town to seeing any black people.
Part Three. At the Moon River Theater Andy Williams floated out on stage singing in that humongous voice. Three people in our group whispered “He’s so short!” Williams had the best band I heard all week, and his show featured a couple who did a wildly gymnastic comedic dance act. But when he started “Moon River” I tried to bury myself in my seat, afraid that if he sang this thing even once more he might explode.
The Ozarks traditionally lured two kinds of outsiders—those looking for fun, and those hiding from the law. After the Civil War local farmers were terrorized by bands of vigilantes-turned-gangsters called Baldknobbers, named after the dry, treeless glades on top of these bulbous hills. The era was melodramatized in Harold Bell Wright’s huge 1907 best-seller, The Shepherd of the Hills, made into a 1941 movie starring John Wayne. In the deeply commercial manner of all things Branson, Wright’s homestead west of town is now a hillbilly theme park featuring a fiery reenactment of scenes from the book, a frenetic ride on an open-air tram pulled by a deranged hayseed in a jeep, a demonstration at a steam-powered grist mill showing how corn was chopped to make redeye, and a visit to a “still” where a “moonshiner” explodes from his shack and orders “you damn revenuers” off the trams with a six-shooter.
And so on. But most of the attractions outside the theaters offer live music as well, even at the Branson Mall, where a country singer with a karaoke boombox serenaded people on lawn chairs near the Plus Size department. Outside the Shepherd of the Hills a trio playing mountain songs recruited a woman from our group named Ruth, who carried a bag of harmonicas everywhere she went, to play with them as they rolled through sixty-two verses of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.” This sort of interplay with the audience is a Branson hallmark. The Osmonds brought right up on stage a bunch who had driven straight through from Utah just to see them in the flesh. Entertainers wander around the parking lots after the shows shaking people’s hands. Although videotaping is verboten customers are encouraged to walk up the aisle during a performance and take snapshots.
After some knick-knack shopping, I crossed my fingers and ordered brisket to go from a barbecue joint, figuring it couldn’t be too bad. After all, Kansas City—the Mecca of barbecue with its culinary legends like Arthur Bryant’s—where I had recently feasted on a delectable pig sandwich—was only two hours north. In Baby, Would I Lie? a Donald Westlake murder mystery set in Bransopn, a country crooner sums up the town’s cuisine when he sings “If it ain’t fried, it ain’t food!” Indeed, at a typical buffet you can get you some fried chicken, fried hushpuppies, fried taters, fried okra, chicken-fried steak, and for dessert, some fried, sugared dough called funnel bread. The only good meal that didn’t build a dam at the entrance to my heart was at Mickey Gilley’s Texas Cafe, where I was assured that if I wanted Tabasco they’d run get some from the kitchen.
I got back to the motel just as everyone was boarding the bus for the Mel Tillis show. An insurrection broke out led by a testy cadre who didn’t want anything to do with the tour of a bass boat factory scheduled for our last day here. Instead, they wanted to take in Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian comedian who forged a career ridiculing communists and the Soviet Union’s “Department of Jokes.” I put my Boxcar Willie mug and my list of Elvis sightings aside and peeked into the styrofoam at my dinner. It was a hunk of fried lunch meat squatting in liquid smoke. Someone pushed a pen and the Smirnoff petition under my nose.
“To hell with the boats,” he rasped. “We want the Russian. Right?”
I could only smile. What a country.
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BY BILL VAUGHN