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Branson, Mo.: A town of (musical) note


The tour buses in Branson, Mo., are already crawling past the Elvis-A-Rama, the funnel cake parlors, hillbilly moccasin emporiums and glitzy new music theaters here in America's fastest growing vacation center.

Once a sleepy Ozarks town but now a billion-dollar phenomenon, Branson has become more than a refuge for a bewildering array of aging pop stars and pre-Garth Brooks country musicians who thrill the faithful at more than 30 theaters there.

Instead, the astounding growth of this squeaky clean, virtually all-white, middle-of-nowhere mecca is a revealing slice of America and a reminder about how immense a gulf there often is between those who presume to define culture on the coasts and those who consume it in between.

Not for nothing did George Bush come to Branson to tout his family values agenda on the day after the Republican convention ended last year.

Not a discouraging word

"You compare this with L.A.," said Bob Whittier, a retiree from Sun City, Calif., visiting Branson last month. "There's no smog blowing down from the hillsides. There's no graffiti. There are no gangs. There are no carjackers. I'm not prejudiced, but it's nice to be someplace where everyone speaks English."

Indeed, anyone who wants to understand America could do worse than to come to Branson, a mountain village of 3,700 residents with only a two-lane highway in that now attracts more than 5 million visitors a year who spend more than a billion dollars on everything from concerts and motels to hillbilly hats.

Branson, the nation's second-most-popular vacation destination by car behind Orlando, Fla., claims to feature more theater seats than Broadway and more seats for regularly scheduled music than anyplace in America.

"Yesterday we saw Andy Williams and that Japanese violinist," said Alice Hughes, who was there with a church tour group from Indianapolis, referring to Branson's most popular performer, Shoji Tabuchi. "Today we're seeing Mel Tillis and Louise Mandrell. It's clean. You feel safe, and the prices are reasonable. It's really quite a place."

For most of the century, this was scenic but dirt-poor mountain country. It is still more than a four-hour drive from any big city and 50 miles away from the nearest commercial airport, in Springfield, Mo.

But its tourism business began to grow in the 1960s and then really took off in the early 1980s after Roy Clark, host of the television show "Hee Haw," opened a theater in Branson.

Pop, country stars aplenty

In addition to country stars like Loretta Lynn and Glen Campbell and local entertainers like the Baldknobbers, there are now venerable pop stars like the Osmonds and Tony Orlando. Wayne Newton opened his theater this year, and Bobby Vinton's Blue Velvet Theater will open this summer across the road from Andy Williams' Moon River Theater.

Before schools let out for summer, crowds tend to be senior citizens and retirees, who, if inspired, can catch a breakfast show, matinee and evening performance at the theaters.

During the summer Branson is jammed with families who come for the Lost Mine Mini-Golf, Outback Bungee jump, Hound Dawg Holler and the maze of hillbilly geegaw emporiums, amusement parks, water slides and all-you-can-eat buffets that have turned the five miles of 76 Country Boulevard that form Branson's main street into a no-gambling, no-sin, G-rated version of Las Vegas.

"A few years back one of the local taverns brought in some male strippers," said Peter Herschend, who with his brother Jack owns the immensely successful Silver Dollar City amusement park in Branson as well as eight other attractions in Branson and in Atlanta and Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

"Within 24 hours, the sheriff was at the front door saying, 'We don't want that here,' and within 72 hours they were gone. We've told our legislators don't even think about giving this area the authority to have gambling. We're offering squeaky clean family entertainment, and the public is responding."

Travel experts say Branson is benefiting from a boom in family-oriented travel to places like Orlando when travelers continue to be very concerned about prices.

A safe, family place

It may also be benefiting from an image totally opposite that of urban America. Dexter Koehl of the Travel Industry Association of America said that from 1987 to 1989, 25 percent to 30 percent of people surveyed by his group cited big cities as places where they planned to vacation. But this year, 18 percent cited cities, he said, and that was up from 13 percent two years ago.

"When you've got kids, it's hard to beat a place like this, where the air is clean and you don't have to worry about safety," said Lisa Smith of suburban St. Louis.

In fact, if music has put Branson and surrounding Taney County on the map, it is clear that its appeal is about more than music.

Mr. Herschend invokes Alex Haley's "Roots," saying the Scotch-Irish heritage and conservative mountain values stir Branson's visitors in the same way Haley stirred blacks. That may be a polite way of talking about the role of race in a county with 18 blacks among 25,681 residents, a ratio that roughly holds true for visitors as well.

Even within the world of country music, where Nashville is still where new artists make their name and where the recording, song writing and deal making goes on, Branson's brand of toe-tapping fiddle medleys of Mozart or Tchaikovsky and "The Orange Blossom Special," is not everyone's idea of a hot time.

Country Music Magazine dismissively labels it "Planet Branson." Asked to assess the level of creativity in Branson, Amy Kurland, who owns Nashville's famous Bluebird Cafe, replies: "There isn't a creative level in Branson. Old country stars never die. They just move to Branson."

But Mr. Herschend said Branson was a hit with the people who matter the most.

"You can take an elitist view about what happens here," he said, "but we need to remember the person who determines what's important in entertainment is the one being entertained, and the audience in this case has voted with their wallet time and time again."

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