Branson, Missouri, not what we expected
Posted on August 12, 2019
Given the hype, my partner, Gary, and I thought Branson, Mo., would be a flashy, country-and-western version of Las Vegas. Instead, when we visited in June, we found ourselves smack dab in Middle America — with a little bit of Bible Belt thrown in.
Unless you’re onstage, bling is unnecessary. Folks here dress for comfort and weather. While the Midwestern crowd skews older than 40 much of the year, families — three or four generations — often make it a summer getaway.
Known today for wholesome music performances and variety shows, the town started drawing people in 1894 because of Marvel Cave. To attract more visitors, cave owners in the 1960s build a village of craftspeople to keep people entertained — and shopping — at the natural wonder. Then, to keep the crowd busy for more than a day, entertainers started performing in town.
Branson the tourism center was born.
The cave is now part of Silver Dollar City, an amusement park woven among trees on a sloping mountainside. The park feels like Sandusky’s Cedar Point meets Bath Township’s Hale Farm & Village with a cooking school baked in. Visitors enjoy thrill rides and observe various craftspeople in action.
My over-40 equilibrium doesn’t take kindly to thrill rides, so we limited ourselves to perusing shops from blacksmithing to leatherwork to wood turning to knifemaking.
After a long conversation with the wood turner, he showed me a prize gavel made last summer. I purchased it for my best friend, a Cuyahoga County court magistrate.
And, of course, we took the $15-per-person, hourlong cooking class. Recipes are broad and varied. During our visit, food writer and cooking instructor Debbie Dance Uhrig walked us through wild rice salad and almond biscotti recipes. For the biscotti recipe, she told us she prefers the richness of Madagascar vanilla over the fruitiness of Tahitian and the spiciness of Mexican varieties.
About 15 minutes from Silver Dollar City, depending on traffic, the “strip” offers nearly 150 performances in 40 theaters. Only 40 percent of the shows are country music, while the rest mix performances of pop, Motown, gospel, theater/movie themes, comedy and more. And just five theaters offer alcoholic beverages at concession areas. There’s no law prohibiting spirits; this is just a family-friendly custom.
To avoid parking challenges, we left our RV and motorcycle at Silver Dollar City Campground and Ubered to the Titanic Branson Museum and four shows. On three of those rides, off-duty performers were behind the wheel. Singer George Dyer even was dressed in black, with hair perfectly coiffed, for his stage show “Broadway to Bublé.” It was a bonus to chat with stage professionals about the local scene, the best shows and where to dine.
The Titanic Branson Museum building is styled to look like the famous ship — a little cheesy but perfect for the immersion experience. Inside, the owners have curated more than 400 genuine Titanic artifacts, worth more than $4 million. The visit goes beyond documentation to hands-on involvement like touching a frigid block of “iceberg” or stepping into a supercooled room to imagine what actual travelers experienced. I had a lot of “wow” moments learning details of the voyage and the tragedy.
Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died. Eighty-seven of those passengers were connected to Ohio. Fifteen were born in the state, four lived here during the voyage and 38 were headed to Ohio. Their stories are documented in “Ohio Tales of the Titanic” by Janet A. White and Mary Ann Whitley, and available in the museum store.
Ironically, after leaving the most famous shipwreck, we took a two-hour dinner-theater cruise on the four-level Showboat Branson Belle. (Fortunately, Table Rock Lake, nestled in the Ozarks, is iceberg-free.) During dinner — a three-course meal with entrée choices of chicken, steak or fish — the Showboat’s cast performed an energetic musical variety show. They ended with tributes to God and country.
Our next show, by the group SIX, was intense. Six siblings — Barry, Kevin, Lynn, Jak, Owen and Curtis Knudsen — have been singing a cappella since they were kids. Called “an orchestra of human voices,” they combine vocals and beatboxing to create lush harmonies. We’re talking “no instruments” or background music. Selections range from contemporary pop to R&B to classic rock ‘n’ roll to doo-wop to gospel to patriotic. The show ended with a moving rendition of the gospel classic “Amazing Grace,” which me sentimental about going to church with my mom.
The following day, we followed everyone’s advice and checked out Billy Gail’s Café, within walking distance of the campground. And, as rumored, one single blueberry pancake hung over edges of my plate. It was too much for one meal and certainly required a Facebook closeup.
Curious about local culture, we thought we’d walk the strip but concluded it was too hot and that there was little to see during the daytime. Performances are what makes the strip come to life. So we did the touristy day-thing and explored Branson Landing, a lifestyle shopping district with 100 retailers, restaurants and attractions much like Legacy Village in Lyndhurst or Crocker Park in Westlake.
After lunch, we took in the matinee “Sampson” at the 2,100-seat Sight & Sound Theatre. We knew we were getting into morality play with this Biblical work. And, while we’re more spiritual than religious, we had heard the sets, costumes and production values were impressive. We had to see for ourselves.
During a backstage tour, we learned that a small village of carpenters, fabricators, seamstresses, animal trainers and various artists and craftspeople work behind the scenes to turn fantasy into reality. Their work includes sets that wrap around three sides of the audience and four-story columns that nearly crash into the seating area for dramatic impact during the final scene. The scenery and acting were powerful.
“Sampson” ends Oct. 12. It will be followed by “Miracle of Christmas” from Nov. 1 to Dec. 28. Then, “Noah” returns from March 7 to Dec. 31, 2020.
Our final show on our second day was the Haygoods. Like the Knudsens, their family has been making music since childhood. The difference here is that five brothers and one sister work with more than 20 instruments during a music-and-light extravaganza. This year marks their 27th performing a wholesome variety show that covers the most recent decades in music.
Branson wasn’t what we expected, but it was a pleasant surprise.