Bound for Branson

Sunday, July 11, 2004

BRANSON, Mo. -- Seven million tourists visit Branson each year, making this tiny town in the Ozarks (population 6,500) one of the top 20 overnight leisure destinations in the country.

Just as astounding as Branson's ability to attract so many people is its success in bringing them back: 80 percent of Branson's guests are repeat visitors.

So what's the big draw? While Branson does have theme parks and outlet malls, a whopping 86 percent of visitors say their No. 1 vacation activity here is seeing a live show.

But that doesn't just mean the country music, standup comics and past-their-prime crooners (think Andy Williams) that Branson is known for.

While maintaining a strong hold on its country and comedy roots, today's Branson is adding pop, gospel, blues, rock 'n' roll, swing, Cajun, Motown, Broadway and even magicians and circus performers to its entertainment mix.

This season, Branson's 47 theaters will offer a record 116 shows -- 20 more than 2003 -- with a total seating capacity of 56,228, about 8,000 seats more than all New York's Broadway theaters combined. No wonder Branson calls itself "The Live Entertainment Capital of the World."

But despite its reputation as a favorite destination for the over-65 coach-bus set, only a third of Branson's visitors are seniors. And that's why variety in live entertainment is increasingly important as the town works to draw younger visitors and families, said Dan Lennon, vice president of marketing for Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Cirque," which opened in May at the Remington Theatre, combines athleticism and imagination in a circus-style show. Magicians Kirby VanBurch and Brett Daniels also have shows in Branson.

A production of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Broadway hit, "Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," can be seen at Mansion America. And a revue called "Broadway! The Star-Spangled Celebration" is drawing good crowds in its second season at Variety Theater.

But fan favorites like Williams, Jim Stafford, Shoji Tabuchi and Yakov Smirnoff are also still holding court, in addition to visiting artists like The Oak Ridge Boys, George Jones, Brett Daniels, Kenny Rogers and Jeff Foxworthy at venues such as The Grand Palace.

"Day or night, our little town of Branson, Mo., just may hold more stars than anywhere else in the universe," said Dennis Mabe, member of the founding family of Branson's first music show, Baldknobbers Jamboree, which opened in 1959.

Given Branson's reputation for country music, director Claude McNeal was skeptical at the idea of bringing his cabaret show, "Swing, Swing, Swing," here.

McNeal worried that Branson's patrons would not support a show that pays tribute to the swing-music era. After much coaxing, he visited Branson and was won over.

"There is an audience energy that is just amazing," McNeal said. "I feel there is a new theater center emerging in America."

"Swing, Swing, Swing" opened in April just off the town's main drag, formally known as 76 Country Boulevard, in Gaslighter Showtown Theatre.

Perennial favorites at Branson include Presleys' Country Jubilee, a gospel-and-country show that opened in the very first theater built on 76 Country Boulevard. Before that, the Presleys performed for years on underground stages in local caves.

"It's a family show that is fast-moving," said Sue Brown, a seasons-pass holder to the Presley show who lives with her husband in Kansas City, Mo., but has a condo in Branson. "They have a lot of country music, and that's what I like."

The Branson boom began in 1991, when CBS' "60 Minutes" featured the town in a segment that also cemented its image as a destination for retirees with retro tastes in music. Unfortunately Branson also became known for traffic jams as its growth exploded during the 1990s.

But Branson has spent more than $40 million in recent years to free 76 Country Boulevard of traffic. Alternate routes are shown on street signs and are color-coded on free maps available at visitors centers.

"One of the best pieces of advice that I can give is to use the side roads during peak hours, which generally are before and after the 8 p.m. shows," said Bob Holbrook, who makes at least one yearly trek to Branson from his home in Anderson, Ind.

Holbrook's family's favorite is the 9 a.m. Buck Trent Show, which includes a breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, hash browns, biscuits and gravy, served at 8 a.m., at the Dinner Bell Restaurant Theatre on Wildwood Drive.

Trent is "energetic, funny, and all the performers act like they're enjoying what they are doing," Holbrook said.

Visitor Christi Green suggests newcomers get on board Ride The Ducks, which uses amphibious vehicles to take visitors on a two-hour sightseeing trip.

"It's one of the best ways to get to see where all the theaters are and to get a feel for the back roads," said Green, who makes at least three trips a year here with her family from Baxter Springs, Kan. "It's also great for kids." Besides getting the lay of the land, the vehicles cruise scenic Table Rock Lake.

Green and Holbrook also say they appreciate entertainers keeping their acts squeaky-clean.

"You don't have to worry about kids hearing something they shouldn't," said Green.

At most Branson shows, entertainers mingle with their audience, signing autographs and posing for pictures during intermission and afterwards.

Branson is also home to several theme parks. Silver Dollar City -- the granddaddy of Branson-area attractions -- is an 1880s-style park with an Ozarks heritage theme. Celebration City takes visitors back in time to the early 1900s, before fast-forwarding to the 1950s.

Shopping includes three local outlet malls and the stores in downtown Branson, on the east end of 76 Country Boulevard, where the streets are lined with flags and flowers. Dick's 5 & 10, a 1950s-style general store, offers everything from George W. Bush bobble heads and sewing supplies to postcards and straw hats. You can also stroll the Lake Toneycomo waterfront, or take a ride on the Branson Scenic Railway.

While many of the shows at Branson originated elsewhere, McNeal, the "Swing, Swing, Swing" director, says he was so impressed by the local talent pool that he decided to cast the revue in Branson rather than bringing in performers from New York.

"A year ago, I had no clue about Branson," McNeal said. "I just can't say enough about it. It has truly won me over."

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