By Peter Johansen
Nostalgia reigns in Branson, Missouri
Branson is built on nostalgia. Seniors by the busload — and Winnebagos full of families — descend daily on this Ozark Mountains town, because of that reverence for the past.
In many ways, this Missouri destination never left the‘60s.Jimmy Osmond (of Osmond Brothers fame) and a couple of Lennon Sisters (sweethearts of the old Lawrence Welk TV show) headline at a theatre named for yet another musical icon of the past, Andy Williams (“Moon River” was his biggest splash).The American Bandstand Theater — yes, that American Bandstand, where teens danced to records Dick Clark introduced — features the music of everyone from Elvis Presley to Tina Turner. Jim Stafford ,whose “Spiders and Snakes” topped country charts back in 1974, is a permanent fixture, too. Even stars just passing through are well past their heyday: Frankie Avalon, Wynona Judd ,B.J. Thomas among them. There are cornball comedians, Chinese acrobats, magicians and musical theatre, too.
None of it is cutting edge, and that suits visitors just fine. Branson boasts four dozen theatres, with more seats than Broadway. Programming begins as early as 10 a.m., allowing folks to hopscotch across three shows a day.
Between shows, visitors can dine at more than 250 restaurants catering to many culinary traditions, though comfortable American fare, such as barbecue and southern biscuits with gravy, seems most popular. Those visitors can sleep in the whopping 20,000 rooms in town, ranging from discount roadside motels to the luxe Chateau on the Lake Resort.
Not bad for a town of fewer than 11,000 residents.
Tourism began a dozen years after namesake Reuben Branson opened a general store and post office here. Canadian mining expert William Henry Lynch bought a large cavern, now called Marvel
Cave, and in 1894 opened it to visitors — for a price. They explore it still.
But tourism truly took off thanks to clergyman Harold Bell Wright, who wrote “Shepherd of the Hills, ”a moralistic melodrama set in the Ozarks. Said to be the first U.S. novel to sell a million copies, it sparked visits. Three film versions of the story, including one starring John Wayne, fostered even more. By 1960, an outdoor production of the story was on offer; it continues, from May to October, on a stage the size of a football field.
That pageant set the tone for most of the attractions that followed, built on three pillars that seem to reflect the worldview of the local citizens themselves: God, family and country.
You know you’re among God-fearing folk on the drive south along Highway 65. Just a couple of miles before Branson is a 218-foot cross high on a hill, erected in 2018.According to builder Kerry Brown, it’s meant to battle the War on Religion. But Biblical teaching crops up unexpectedly around town. Among the shelves of two million toys at the World’s Largest Toy Museum complex, you’ll find Barbie dolls, toy trains, BB guns — and scripture verses tucked here and there. A faded magazine clipping by the entrance of a classic downtown diner, Farmhouse Restaurant, proudly
announces that the owners “have given their business to the Lord. ”No concert I caught during a recent visit failed to feature a segment of familiar gospel hymns.
Upon this is layered a reverence for family. Attractions cater to all ages. There’s four-season snowtubing and zip-lining at Wolfe Mountain. Animal parks offer live butterfly shows and petting zoos. Museums are devoted to fishing, toys, farm tractors, moonshine, even the Titanic. That last one, about as far from an ocean as possible, nonetheless boasts a stunning array of artifacts; its owner co-led the 1987 Titanic expedition.
Arcades promise “adventure for all ages.” A place called Grand Country offers an Amazing Pets show. Jet boats tour man-made Lake Taneycomo, one of the country’s top trout fishing locales. Vintage trains run scenic tours. Fritz’s Adventure lets kids work off excess energy with everything from ropes to climb to tunnels to clamber through; kids-at-heart have the chance to “fly” over an outdoor vertical wind tunnel.
But if there’s one attraction to see, it’s Silver Dollar City, a sprawling theme park of 1880s-era shops, complete with costumed craftsmen; modern rides, such as the $26-million Time Traveler, the world’s fastest, steepest and tallest spinning roller coaster; and the park’s original tourist draw — that labyrinthine Marvel Cave, full of waterfalls, secret passages and impressive rock formations. Of course, even here God is present: at the bakery, where “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” graces a sign above loaves of whole wheat and rye; at the 12-day southern gospel picnic each summer; and, most spectacularly, at the Old-Time Christmas, which begins right after Halloween and sees six-and-a-half million lights, many given over to proclaiming the true meaning of the holiday.
Branson is also a hotbed of patriotism. At concerts, such as the lively lunchtime revue aboard Showboat Branson Belle, the cast takes time to salute the armed forces. Veterans stand, are thanked for their service, then entertained with songs from various wars. The salute may go deeper, as when Andrea Brett recites a poem drawn on experiences of veterans she’s met; that’s at the Dick Clark Theater. The Veterans Memorial Museum relates the story of every U.S. conflict from World War One on, with 2,000 artifacts displayed around the theme of “honor, courage and American freedom. ”At College of the Ozarks, tours stop at Patriots Park, where memorials include those to Missouri’s Gold Star families and to the Global War on Terrorism. The college, widely known for a superb Sunday brunch, even has a Vice President for Patriotic Activities.
But for patriotism at its finest, nothing beats the week leading up to November 11. Branson offers America’s largest Veterans Day celebration with reunions for prisoners of war and veterans of various conflicts, free lunches and entertainment for veterans and their families, a military film festival, parades and wreath-laying ceremonies.
Branson begs comparison with Las Vegas. Both are towns pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Both have burnished their image to a crystalline sheen and attract droves of visitors as a result. In almost every particular, of course, those brands are polar opposites. Vegas, decidedly adult, is built for sin. There’s a reason its slogan is “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” What happens in Branson, on the other hand, is worth sharing with Grandma and granddaughter and neighbour alike.
And therein lies its magic: that power of consistency to keep a visitor coming back, guaranteed to find comfort in a more innocent time.
If you go…
The official tourism office website is explorebranson.com.
United Airlines offers service from Ottawa to Springfield-Branson airport through Chicago. Those driving from Ottawa, more than 2,000 kilometres away, would likely make Branson part of an extended road trip, perhaps heading south from Thunder Bay or Winnipeg.
Some guided bus tours depart from Ontario to Branson each year. Consult such operators as Ottawa Valley Tours ,Custom World Vacations (Toronto), or Cardinal Tours (Peterborough).
Note: COVID has placed restrictions on most travel.