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ANDY WILLIAMS MOON RIVER THEATRE
IN BRANSON MISSOURI

Story and photos by

Update: Andy Williams died in Branson on September 25, 2012 when he was 84 years old. Here are our memories, based on a personal interview before one of his performances in Moon River Theatre.


Andy Williams stepped out into the spotlight, dazzling in an all-white suit and polished shoes. "How many of you are visiting Branson for the first time?" he asked his audience.

Moon River Theatre sign
Moon River Theatre sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Noting several hands, he commented: "Then you really don't know how Branson has changed. It was once a sleepy little town, but then theaters started to sprout up, like fleas from the back of a mangy ol' coon hound." He paused and added, "That sounds country, doesn't it?"

That was about as country as the Andy Williams All-Star Variety Show got, here in the heart of Missouri's Ozark Mountains. What Williams didn't tell his audience, was that he was one of the first non-country performers to start the middle-of-the-road music trend in Branson.

Meeting Andy Williams

We'll never forget the time we interviewed Andy Williams in his dressing room. Comfortably attired in a black Moon River sweatshirt, he confided, "Looking back on it now, I realize what a chance I took moving here, putting all my money into building this theater, without even testing the market with my type of music."

Andy Williams moved to Branson because his brother, Don, was managing Ray Stevens and invited him to see Stevens' show. "It was his opening night, June 15, 1991," recalled Williams. "After the show, people from the audience came up and asked me if I was going to open a theater here too."

Williams realized that most Branson visitors were families and seniors looking for wholesome entertainment — country music and otherwise. So without any gigs at other theaters to see how audiences would react, Williams built his $12 million theater, in time for the 1992 season. (Moon River Theatre is located at 2500 W. Highway 76, just east of Wildwood Drive, in Branson.)

Moon River Theater and sign
Moon River Theater and sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Moon River Theater

The 2,000-seat showplace embraced Williams' new-found love of Ozark Mountain Country, with its architecture. "When I saw the unusual rock formations along the highway in Branson," said Williams, "I wanted to include them in my theatre design." As a result, Moon River Theatre is the only building in Branson with natural rock formations as part of its construction.

Williams enjoys the benefits of having his own theater. "I never really enjoyed doing shows on the road, because it was hard to make one-nighters professional. There was always something that wasn't just right — the lighting, the sound, or the music. But here, in the Moon River Theater, I put in the best lights and sound I could get. I hired the best people for my band and I have my own dressing room."

Andy Williams plays the piano in his dressing room.
Andy Williams plays the piano in his dressing room.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Andy Williams' dressing room

As we glanced around, it was easy to see why Williams was proud of his dressing room. The modern high-ceilinged living room/reception area overlooks a garden-filled courtyard. A black baby grand piano, adorned with silver-framed portraits of family and friends, sits in front of a bookcase. Modern art, model steam engines and early Navajo blankets accent the decor.

As we sank into a soft leather couch, Williams told us that his audiences in Branson were different from those he had when his show was on the road. "They're older, so they're quieter, but they're very appreciative. Sometimes they don't applaud much. It's not their way. They smile and nod instead. We do get a younger, more exuberant audience in the summer, when families come with their kids who are out of school."

Since bus groups book so far in advance, the Moon River Theatre didn't attract many of them in its first year. Time changed that, according to Williams. "Good reviews spread by word of mouth, and now we get thousands of bus tour groups every year."

Branson Missouri home

"Is this home, now?" we asked. "This is it," Williams replied. "I really like living here. I love the change of seasons. It's a great place for me to hang my hat and my golf clubs.

"I took such a leap into Branson, that I sold my apartment in New York, which I loved. All the art, you see here, came from that apartment. I also sold the office building that I owned in L.A., as well as my house there, although I kept my house in Palm Springs."

Trout fishing in Lake Taneycomo

"Everything is here," he continued, "including the record company, sports and publishing businesses. My wife, Debbie, is here. We built a house by Lake Taneycomo, where I fish for trout," he added.

Mid-interview, a staff member arrived with lunch for Williams. We left him to enjoy his meal with one of his three sons, Christian, who was visiting for the day.

Performing with dancers on stage
Performing with dancers on stage
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When we returned, we found Williams washing the dishes. "You should be doing this," he said to his son with a grin and twinkles in his blue eyes.

It's obvious that Andy Williams isn't afraid of work. Even though he was born in December 1927, he still performs several shows every year.

"My shows may look easy, but they take a lot of concentration and energy. I get tired, so I take naps," he admitted candidly. In spite of his age, Andy Williams hasn't lost the melodious voice that made his hit songs like Days of Wine and Roses.

Moon River Grill

On top of his music-related businesses, Andy Williams opened a restaurant, called the Moon River Grill. "I wanted a healthier kind of food than fried catfish and chicken," he stated. "Besides, with up to 4,000 people a day coming to the theater, it's very convenient for them to park in our lot, eat, and then walk over to the theater in time for the show."

The Andy Williams restaurant serves homemade chicken and vegetable soup and rhubarb shortcake, made from Andy's mother's recipe. Other menu items include pecan encrusted trout and grilled tenderloin steak, served with Andy's favorite Provencal sauce.

Williams still doesn't appear to have retirement on his agenda. "I enjoy my life, and I just take it as it comes," he told us. "I've never really planned my career. Certainly, after the big successes I had on TV and with my recordings, I would have never thought I'd be performing late in my life."

Andy sings during show.
Andy sings during show.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Highlights of Andy Williams' career

Williams' achievements include more than 800 recordings, 18 gold albums, three platinum recordings and his 1960s Emmy-winning television program, The Andy Williams Show, on NBC. "If I like my work, and people still come, I'll continue doing it," he said.

Nowadays, people not only come to see Williams, but also to see other pop singers, drawn to Branson by his success. Does Williams think Branson will always have both country and non-country entertainment?

"It will probably always be a mixture," he responded, "but that's a good thing. If country music-lovers come to see my show and like it, I'll get some new fans. On the other hand, if people, who come to Branson to see middle-of-the-road shows, check out some of the country music performances, they may get new fans. It's good for both pop and country entertainers."

Williams glanced at his watch. It was time to get ready for his next show. An hour later, we watched him on stage, singing the songs that made him famous: Moon River, Honey and Can't Get Used to Losing You — all in the velvet voice that former President Ronald Reagan called "a National Treasure."

For us, one song, in particular, stood out: There Is Place for Us. Without a doubt, for Andy Williams, that place is Branson, Missouri.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Andy Williams Moon River Theatre Shows & Restaurant: www.andywilliams.com

More things to see and do in Branson:

Ride The Ducks in Branson Missouri

Branson Missouri Shows