Branson: Even Old Matt wouldn't recognize the place

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Imagine falling into a deep sleep for more than 40 years. Then imagine waking up and finding the world has changed so much that you don't know where you are.

My wife and I had this Rip Van Winkle experience last week.

On purpose.

Our story begins 42 years ago. We had been married for a year but had not had a honeymoon. I was a cub reporter and she was a first-year teacher. New jobs. New marriage. No money.

Sound familiar?

After a year of marriage, we still liked each other. A lot. We decided to take a honeymoon. What we could afford was a visit to Branson, Mo. In 1966, Branson was a small town with a couple of motels on Lake Taneycomo. We picked the motel with a swimming pool. Silver Dollar City was fairly new. We saw Uncle Matt's cabin. There was plenty of time left to swim in the motel pool.

We had not been back to Branson until last week. We've kept up, from afar, with the phenomenal transformation of Branson into one of the leading tourist destinations and entertainment centers in the nation. And it is a phenomenon, especially if you see the new Branson through the lens of the 1966 Branson.

What follows is a report on our three-day excursion. Many, if not most, of you have had the Branson experience, maybe more than once. Many of our friends are regular visitors there and keep going back for more. So this account isn't an attempt to tell you anything you don't already know.

This is a report of a couple of visitors who hadn't seen Branson in more than 40 years.

Getting there: If the changes in Branson are amazing, so is the four-laning of U.S. 60 from Sikeston across to Springfield. That's a road we've driven many times over the years, and we remember when four-lane stretches were few and far between.

Now U.S. 60 is four lanes all the way except for about 30 miles between Fremont and Mountain View. And construction crews are busily creating the roadbed for that stretch. Signs announce new lanes will be open next year.

What struck us was how few vehicles are using U.S. 60. Even on Friday the traffic was light, and on Sunday we virtually had the road to ourselves.

U.S. 65 south from Springfield to Branson also is four lanes now with some steep grades up and down the hills.

Getting around: Once you get to Branson, you have to get from one place to another. Several main routes have been created to relieve some of the traffic congestion on the main strip, Highway 76, which remains pretty much bumper to bumper. Other routes are much less traveled.

Although there are plenty of directional signs for the major alternate routes in Branson, most motorists appear to be sticking to the main strip. The alternates are four lanes. The strip is still two lanes. Go figure

The attractions: There are dozens and dozens of theaters presenting just about any kind of family entertainment you can imagine. Between the theaters are shops, outlet malls, restaurants, museums and hotels. The old part of Branson has been turned into a destination all by itself with a lakefront shopping mall. New theaters and hotels are sprouting up along the other major arteries too.

Who knew you could build on the sides of steep hills? One of the theaters we went to had a parking lot with a grade so steep we had to hold onto each other for stability. Every inch of the tops and sides of the Branson hills are being turned into something commercial.

The shows: It's hard to pick just two shows out of the dozens available. We settled on "The Twelve Irish Tenors" and "Noah: The Musical."

The tenors were outstanding performers who someday are likely to fulfill their dreams of being on Broadway. They weren't Irish, however -- not that it matters in particular, since all entertainers are playing a role of some sort. We enjoyed every minute of the show, their last for this season.

The "Noah" production is big, including a nearly full-size ark right there on stage. And the sequence where live animals are paraded through the audience to board the boat is fun. At intermission we decided to skip the second half.

We told the folks who had to stand up to let us out of our row that we wouldn't inconvenience them again.

"What? You're not staying for the rest?" one of them exclaimed.

"No," I said. "We know how it ends."

Just like family: The entertainers we encountered treated us like family, not customers.

After the "Twelve Irish Tenors" concert, the entire cast lined up in the lobby to greet us and to autograph the CDs they hoped we would buy.

But everyone got more than a signature. They got smiles, handshakes and a friendly chat.

Women, young and old, got hugs. Come to think of it, that's even nicer than a lot of families.

The lakes: Branson is next to three major lakes, Taneycomo, Table Rock and Bull Shoals. There are some posh lakeside resorts, but in some respects Branson feels like two destinations: the in-town shows and shops, and the lakes.

Real estate: Some exceptionally nice residential areas are being developed around Branson, and they are heavily promoted. One advertisement points out that Branson is still one of the top five real estate markets in the country, even with the recession. But there were other signs that the economic downturn is hitting these developments too.

When we picked up our theater/hotel vouchers at one of the many booking agencies in town, we were offered $100 -- cash -- to spend an hour listening to a sales pitch at one of the projects. Forty-two years ago we would have jumped at the opportunity to get $100, but on this trip our schedule was already full.

Smile, please: Just about everywhere we went there were photographers pointing a camera at us, even at one of the restaurants where we ate. At one of the theaters, the photos were put on display in the lobby during intermission in hopes they would be purchased as souvenirs.

Forty-two years after our first Branson visit, we still like the 1966 snapshots better.

Hustling business: Entertainers at many of the theaters spend a lot of time when they're not performing drumming up business. At breakfast at our hotel, a popular guitar-playing performer serenaded us and handed out brochures for his show later in the day. At the "Twelve Irish Tenors" show, the entire cast of another musical revue was in the audience, hoping to attract ticket buyers.

What Branson does not have: Everywhere you go in Branson you see parents with their children. They are having fun. This is a family place. Branson does not have gambling or strip shows or porn shops. While there may be a fair share of schmaltz in Branson, there is no sleaze. It is as safe as anyplace like it could possibly be. It is like Mayberry on steroids.

I still watch reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show" for the same reasons you do. It's clean, funny and a reminder, even if it's made up, of a time and place some of us are old enough to remember.

Branson in 1966 was like the Mayberry on the TV show. I'll bet the town marshal didn't even own a gun 40 years ago. Now the police are kept busy sorting out traffic and slowing down speeders.

Branson is a swell place to enjoy the glitz without worrying about muggers or prostitutes or panhandlers.

For the dozen or so of you who, like us, have somehow missed the Branson experience all these years: go. You'll have a good time.

My wife and I have now seen the old Branson and the new Branson. We like them both. We have made a pact to go back. In 42 years.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editorial page editor of the Southeast Missourian. E-mail: jsullivan@semissourian.com.

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