In Branson, family entertainment draws mountains of fans MISSOURI'S MUSIC MECCA

Bobby Vinton has discovered that the 1960s have been preserved in the Ozark Mountains.

He didn't find out until 1993, about 10 years after a rich musical tradition began building along a four-mile stretch of road lined with music theaters, motels and restaurants in a town named Branson.


"Branson certainly has its niche," he said.

That's why he designed and built a grand 1,600-seat European-style music theater and moved his family here. The Bobby Vinton Blue Velvet Theatre is distinguished by ceiling murals, Italian tile and blue velvet accents.


It is here, for the first time in his 35-year career, that he has the luxury of having his family perform with him.

His daughters, 22-year-old Kristen and 20-year-old Jennifer, sing and dance throughout his two-hour show. His mother, Dorothy, sings and dances. His wife, Dolly, is the show's executive producer. His son, Chris, manages the theater.

In Branson, family entertainment is being provided by families of performers who might be considered past their prime.

But for Bobby Vinton and dozens of other regulars, that doesn't matter. They may not fill theaters in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but many of them fill the house here.

Many entertainers find Branson a refreshing change from earlier careers of months-long tours of one-night stands. Some of them quit touring or performing years ago, only to find new life in Branson.

"It's the way America used to be in the '60s," Mr. Vinton said while resting in his dressing room/studio near the stage.

People come by the bus-load to sample the shows. They can choose from among three dozen acts every day, from country to gospel, from the Lennon Sisters to Japanese violinist Shoji Tabuchi and his singing family.

Most shows are preceded or followed by hand-shaking, autograph-signing and picture-taking sessions with stars.


Branson relies heavily on bus-tour traffic that brings millions of tourists to town every year. Last year, for example, an estimated 5.7 million people came to Branson to see the steady march of stars who have called the town home since Roy Clark became the first celebrity entertainer to move there in 1983.

For about 20 years before that, Branson was a minor-league country destination, featuring country and bluegrass music from mostly regional acts. Mr. Clark's move paved the way for many more stars to take up residence there.

In 1987, Box Car Willie, the "hobo" performer and member of the Grand Ole Opry, became the first celebrity entertainer to buy a theater in Branson and perform on a permanent basis.

From 1987 to 1992, the number of performers in Branson mushroomed. Along with them came a construction boom -- large and small music theaters, motels, restaurants and tourist-trap businesses that stretched westward along Missouri Highway 76.

During that period, Branson entertainers included Ray Price, Shoji Tabuchi, Freddy Fender, Cristy Lane, Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley, Ray Stevens, Moe Bandy, Jim Stafford, Willie Nelson, the Gatlin Brothers and many more.

In 1992, a new path of entertainment was forged when Andy Williams opened the 2,000-seat Andy Williams Moon River Theatre. Since then, a string of variety entertainers has found their way to Branson. They include the Osmond Brothers, John Davidson, Tony Orlando, the Welk Family, Bobby Vinton and many more. Many entertainers are building their own theaters, with seating capacities ranging from 250 to 4,000.


Bluffs in these Ozark Mountains are bulldozed to make room for new freeways and secondary roads that make it easier to get to bigger resorts and entertainment centers. But other development-scarred bluffs are home to empty theaters and secondary businesses.

Johnny Cash performed in the Wayne Newton Theater in 1992 and 1993. But a few weeks ago, he announced that he was not going to perform in Branson because he was tired of seeing 300 fans in a theater built for 3,000.

Loretta Lynn is gone, too. There are others who likely won't return for another season.

Wayne Newton built an enormous theater atop a hill along xTC Shepherd of the Hills Expressway, decorating the entrance with two statues of white stallions. He promised to perform there about 20 weeks a year and fill it with other entertainers the remaining 32 weeks. But it stands empty this winter.

Bobby Vinton, who opened his theater in Branson last year, said it takes more than a marquee in Branson to survive as an entertainer.

"Just to have a name here is not enough," he said. "You've got to have a show here. People want to be entertained. The ones who do that will keep getting audiences."


Each winter, Branson residents, as well as hotel and restaurant owners, wonder how many entertainers will return the next spring, how many motels, restaurants or discount stores will keep their doors closed, even as new, bigger ones are built along the now-sprawling Country 76 Highway.

They're grateful for the entertainers who have brought their families, and for those who stay year-round.

"It's nice to be able to perform, and to have a place to call home, where you can have a family life," said Kathy Lennon. The Lennon Sisters perform with some members of the original Lawrence Welk Show television cast. But they also perform with four daughters or nieces. And the Lennon Brothers do a daily breakfast show at the Welk Resort Center.

"For years, we were in people's homes. Now, they can come to ours," Kathy Lennon said. "It's a warm, friendly place."

John Davidson is finding that, too. "The secret to Branson is to stay here," he said after one evening show. The Davidsons bought a house in the hills about 30 minutes from Branson. Mr. Davidson just finished his second season in Branson and his wife, Rhonda, and their 8-year-old daughter, Ashleigh, performed with him in their Christmas show.

Mr. Davidson produces his show with an older crowd in mind, people 45 and older. He figures the average age on a tour bus is around 60. He personally visits each of the 25 to 35 bus-loads of fans after each show. Then, he spends another half-hour in the lobby, sitting on the concession stand, signing autographs, posing for photographs and talking with fans who have stayed behind.


"Those are the people who remember me as an entertainer, not from a game show," he said.