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Few people knew about Branson, 50 years ago. Today, the Missouri town, a four-hour drive southwest of St. Louis in the Ozark Mountains, is an entertainment mecca. With 52 theaters boasting more seats than New York's Broadway, Branson MO lures more than seven million visitors annually.

Audience watches performance at Silver Dollar City.
Audience watches performance at Silver Dollar City.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Watching nearly 120 shows in one visit would be overwhelming. There are morning, afternoon and evening performances.

Spanning the spectrum from country, pop, rock n' roll, classical and Broadway productions, to comedy and magic, the shows appeal to all ages and interests.

Legendary country singer, Roy Clark, once said: "You won't find any casinos, scantily clad dancers or X-rated shows in Branson. There's nothing here that would offend your granny."

Presleys Country Jubilee

Herkimer with guitar. Presleys' Country Jamboree.
Herkimer with guitar. Presleys' Country Jamboree.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Both seniors and families enjoy our show," claims Lloyd Presley (no relation to Elvis), who built the first theatre on Highway 76, in 1967. Presley, a fishing guide who swapped an old hound dog for his first guitar, is still performing today, along with his children, their spouses, children and grandchildren.

"We constructed our first theatre to function as a boat shed, if the show didn't work out," he says. "We only put out enough chairs to match the number of visitors. That way, we always played to a full house!"

The family began Presleys' Country Jubilee to entertain crowds drawn by the area's two original attractions: The Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama and Silver Dollar City.

Silver Dollar City

In The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre, 80 performers, 45 horses and a flock of sheep re-create scenes from Harold Bell Wright's novel, set in the Ozark Mountains, near Branson. At Silver Dollar City, a turn-of-the-century theme town, 100 "citizens" make thimbles and lye soap, play dulcimers and fiddles, fry chicken and funnel cakes.

Banjo player. Silver Dollar City.
Banjo player. Silver Dollar City.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The comedy shows, rides and shops at Silver Dollar City are only a prelude to what is offered in downtown Branson. The success of Presleys' Country Jubilee and other early theatres, like Baldknobber's Jamboree, enticed country music stars to stop in Branson during their road shows, in the 1980s. Several returned to build their own theaters.

Within four years, Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, Ray Stevens, Moe Bandy, and so many other country stars moved in, that Time magazine called Branson "country music's new mecca," while 60 Minutes compared it with Nashville.

Shoji Tabuchi Show

In 1992, Branson's focus changed, when crooner Andy Williams built his Moon River Theatre, and triggered an influx of pop musicians. One of the most popular is Shoji Tabuchi. The fleet-fingered fiddler said sayonara to Japan and built a palatial theatre in Branson, which he fills with high-tech lasers and a bluegrass to Broadway repertoire.

Don't miss the washrooms in the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre! The ladies' room features stained glass, chandeliers and orchids at every granite and onyx sink. The men's room boasts a marble fireplace, black leather chairs and a hand-carved mahogany billiard table.

Branson shows

Most Branson theaters average 2,000 seats, although the antebellum-style Grand Palace holds 4,000. Superstars, like the Oak Ridge Boys, Kenny Rogers, Charley Pride and George Jones entertain here. Bill Cosby, Bobby Vinton, Natalie Cole, Debby Boone and other celebrities have performed at The Mansion, which has 3,000 seats.

Humor highlights many shows. Jim Stafford jokes about chihuahuas, which he calls "mice on steroids." Even country stars throw in their cornball comments. "Is that Dolly Parton back there?" asks one, peering into the theatre. "Naw, sorry," he continues, after a pause. "It's just two bald-headed old men."

Dolly Parton has her own dinner show in Branson. Dixie Stampede features 32 horses, dozens of riders, and arena seating for 1,000 people, who feast on rotisserie chicken and hickory-smoked barbecue pork loin.

Debby Boone
Debby Boone
Photo by Randee St. Nicholas

Oak Ridge Boys Theatre

Many Branson theaters feature guest celebrities. For example, Branson's 2,150-seat Oak Ridge Boys Theatre has hosted stars like Engelbert Humperdinck and Johnny Mathis.

Branson draws crowds for its annual Christmas shows. At Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Debby Boone's Christmas show runs between November 1 and December 5. Her holiday classics include White Christmas, made famous in the movie of the same name, starring her late mother-in-law, Rosemary Clooney. (Debby Boone married Gabriel Ferrer, the third child of Rosemary Clooney and actor Jose Ferrer, in 1979.)

"I love Missouri and I just love playing in Branson," says Boone. "My love affair with Branson began when my Dad and I filled in for Andy Williams at his Christmas show one year."

The talented singer is the daughter of Pat Boone and the grand-daughter of Red Foley, who performed at the Grand Ol' Opry. Her best known song is You Light Up My Life, which won an Academy award and ranked seventh in the Billboard magazine list of The Hot 100's All-Time Top-Charting Songs of the last 50 years.

Branson museums

Although Branson is synonymous with live theater, it offers many more enticements. White Water is a five-hectare water park with lagoons, slides and rides. Branson museums range from the Hollywood Wax Museum to the World's Largest Toy Museum.

Visitors can enjoy free tours and tastings of Missouri wines at the Stone Hill Winery. The Branson IMAX Theatre dwarfs audiences with its six-storey-high screen.

Riding ducks

Ride The Ducks uses seven-ton amphibious vehicles for land and water tours. "General Motors gave them a model code DUKW, which eventually became known as DUCK," explains one of the drivers. "Each one was designed to carry 25 Allied troops or 5,000 pounds of cargo."

Ride The Ducks tour in an amphibious vehicle
Ride The Ducks tour in an amphibious vehicle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The DUCK tour brings riders along Country Music Boulevard, past several theatres, a military museum, a fish hatchery and Table Rock Dam, to Baird Mountain for panoramic views, before splashing down in Table Rock Lake. (John Wayne rode one of the attraction's Ducks in the movie, Guadalcanal, although the vehicle is hard to recognize, because it's now painted white.)

Branson cruises

Other water attractions include Waltzing Waters, a musical fountain show, and Showboat Branson Belle cruises on Table Rock Lake. Lake Taneycomo, Bull Shoals Lake and Table Rock Lake offer swimming, boating, sailing, parasailing, fishing and other water sports. Besides hiking, biking, camping and birding, outdoor lovers can tee off at 12 championship golf courses.

Branson shopping ranges from outlet malls to specialty shops, like Dick's Old Time 5 & 10 and Art & Woodcrafters Supply. If all the shopping and activities work up an appetite, more than 400 restaurants tempt taste buds with buffets, ethnic cuisine, fast food and fine dining.

Not bad for a town of 7,500 people.


Branson Lakes Area: www.explorebranson.com

More things to see and do in Branson:

Ride The Ducks in Branson Missouri

Andy Williams Moon River Theatre in Branson Missouri