BRANSON, Mo. — I have a confession: Even though it gets 8 million visitors a year, I had never particularly wanted to go to Branson, Mo. It always seemed like a veritable kitsch soup whose ingredients were tour buses, tacky attractions and souvenirs and pseudo-folksiness.
Yes, I knew headliners including Chubby Checker, Tony Orlando, the Gatlin Brothers, the Lennon Sisters and Andy Williams had moved there permanently, but I figured most of the performers were moderately talented college kids singing and dancing for their supper.
After my recent inaugural visit, I have another confession: I was wrong. This small community in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, just north of the Arkansas state line, is the real deal.
In four days in mid-November (with the town already extravagantly decked out for the holidays), I saw eight shows, and with one or two exceptions, they were nothing short of spectacular.
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Like many visitors, I headed first to the iconic Moon River Theater to see Andy Williams' Christmas Show. Williams wasn't there (he had announced the previous week that he has bladder cancer), but the Lennon Sisters were. The show was one big warm, fuzzy Christmas card, a nostalgic retreat to the holidays of my childhood.
Wanting to mix things up a bit, I next went to see The Legend of Kung Fu. The main show at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this tale of a young boy apprenticed to a kung fu master to learn the ancient martial art, has been performed more than 3,000 times worldwide.
The lighting, scenery and gorgeous costumes of the 65 performers enhance the jaw-dropping feats of traditional martial arts and aerial ballet, combined with music and dance. Think Cirque de Soleil with a kung fu twist.
I'd never heard of the Brett Family before, but their Christmas show featuring a vignette about a World War II family reuniting during the holidays brought tears to my eyes. I saw a performance of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at the Silver Dollar City Theme Park, and the play couldn't have been better staged in London or New York. Then there was Oh What a Night, channeling the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; it features Lexingtonian Jonathan Harvey, a 1992 graduate of Tates Creek High School.
My favorite show, however, had to be the 12 Irish Tenors. I was mesmerized by the talents of these men, whose voices were up to the challenge of traditional Irish ballads, yuletide carols, Broadway show tunes and grand opera. A rendition of the aria Nessun dorma from Puccini's Turandot alone was worth the price of admission, which was a surprisingly low $35.
The ticket prices are, in fact, a major reason to come to Branson. Admission to most shows is in the range of $30 to $45, a third of what you could expect to pay in New York or Las Vegas. Many shows' tickets are below that, and none is more than $55.
The origins of Branson
Just how did this smallish Midwestern community become one of America's favorite playgrounds? Where did it all start?
To get the answer, you have to go back to 1907, the year that Harold Bell Wright's novel The Shepherd of the Hills was published. It became a classic, and Ozark Mountains tourism was born. People from all over the country flocked here to visit the stomping grounds of Old Matt, Aunt Mollie and the Baldknobber Gang.
It wasn't until a half-century later, however, that The Baldknobbers, featuring country music and corn-fed comedy, became the first show to open on the strip. From then on, there was no turning back, and today visitors can choose from 100 shows in 50 theaters.
Christmas is king
Branson pulses with excitement most of the year (many shows and activities close in January and February), but at Christmas it pulls out all the stops. Beginning Nov. 1, or as the locals jokingly say, "whenever Andy Williams says it's time," and continuing through Dec. 31, the community takes on the sights and sounds of an Ozark Mountain Christmas.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the 1880s-style theme park Silver Dollar City. The park's light display has 1,000 decorated trees with 4 million lights. There's also a five-story tree in the main square that changes colors and blazes in synchronization to holiday tunes, and a twice-nightly parade with musical floats.
Silver Dollar City, recognized by CNN as one of the world's top holiday destinations, is more than a dazzling display of color. You can take a culinary class in a 19th-century farmhouse; watch displays of candy making, glassblowing and furniture crafting; tour Marvel Cave; or set sail on the Showboat Branson Belle for a cruise on scenic Table Rock Lake.
Beyond the usual
Like any resort area, Branson has its share of wax museums, haunted houses, Goofy Golf courses, ziplines, mirror mazes and the like, but it also has some first-class, non-musical attractions worthy of the visitor's time.
For starters, there's the excellent Titanic Museum, a two-story replica — including the sweeping grand staircase — of the doomed ocean liner. Entering by way of a giant iceberg, guests are handed a card with the name of one of the passengers or crew members on board that fateful voyage. You might be John Jacob Astor or "unsinkable" Molly Brown or a cabin attendant in third class.
Making their way through the galleries containing more than 400 artifacts, visitors piece together their person's story and try to guess whether he or she survived or perished.
It could have been the ultimate in kitsch. Instead, by using the words and stories of passengers and crew, and some authentic, beautifully designed sets, it becomes a fascinating tale of the tragic 1912 event.
Another terrific way to spend a couple of hours is to hop aboard the Branson Scenic Railway for a 40-mile round-trip journey through the Ozark foothills, crossing bridges and trestles on tracks still used by the Missouri & Northern Arkansas Railroad. I took the southern route into Arkansas, but a second route runs north to Galena, Mo.
Every night in season, the train embarks on a candlelight dinner trip, and during Christmas, the Polar Express run is fun for the kids.
Four days wasn't nearly enough to see everything Branson has to offer. For someone who never wanted to go, I can't wait to get back.