When I put Branson, Missouri on my list of cities to visit, the only thing I knew of it was a joke I once heard on The Simpsons. Bart says that his dad told him Branson Missouri “is like Las Vegas … if it were run by Ned Flanders.” Having visited I can think of no better or more accurate description on earth.
As I got physically nearer to Branson, I had more and more people specifically tell me not to bother. “You can skip Branson,” they’d say. Some would just offer a skeptical look and a shake of the head. Nothing could have made me want to visit Branson more than having absolutely everyone tell me I don’t need to see it. I had to find out what was so incredibly unimpressive.
Miles before you get to Branson there are billboards advertising the shows and attractions. I see one indicating that the “Official Visitor’s Center” has it’s own radio station, and I tune in. For the most part the DJ repeats the location and features of the visitor’s center: hotels, tickets, free popcorn and soda, and most importantly, Plinko. This is intercut with comedy clips from a man who would have been the funniest guy alive back in 1947. I arrive at the visitor’s center to find it rather lacking. I didn’t expect it to be the whirlwind adventure that the radio made it out to be, but I did expect slightly more than two surly women with a wall full of pamphlets and no open hotel rooms that I could book. I take my very small but free Dr. Pepper and continue into town. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that this was the Friday of a holiday weekend and I was trying to get a same-day hotel reservation.
I pass several more of these proprietary visitor’s centers on my way in, and quickly realize that this is the way of things in Branson. You go to a center, they do all the arrangements for you, and you enjoy your weekend. I finally manage to get the penultimate room in a truly unimpressive motel and a ticket to “Legends in Concert,” the celebrity impersonation show.
Most of the hotels and theaters in Branson are on one main drag, which I learned the locals actually call “The Strip.” The Landing is a separate area a little ways from The Strip, down by the river. The area surrounds a pedestrian street and is full of shops and tourists. I consider it Branson’s answer to Fremont Street in Las Vegas. I walk to one end of it, seeing the typical clothing and fudge as I go. When I get to the end, a man in a passenger-ready golf cart asks me and a handful of old ladies nearby if we’d like a ride to the other end. While Las Vegas is too big for anyone to walk, Branson is just too big for the little old ladies. He drops us off at the largest bait shop I’ve ever seen in my life, and I continue to wander. There’s a “Hurricane Simulator” for tourists to stand in, and I see a pair of fully covered Muslim women entertaining a toddler. One of the shop employees tries to get me to play Plinko.
Just off the pedestrian drag is the river, and in front of the river is a fountain. Picture the gorgeous and gigantic fountain in front of The Bellagio, shooting up towers of water 400 feet in the air, synced with the sound of Frank Sinatra. Now make it smaller. Much, much smaller. So small that the water reaches the grand height of about 40 feet and the song is Shania Twain.
I drive down The Strip to get back to my hotel. There are big theaters, hotels, billboards advertising the shows, mini-golf, water parks, candy shops, and stores that will let you dress up in cowboy costumes and take old-timey photos. And that is it. Everything I just listed. Mini-golf. Old-timey photos. Theater. Mini-golf. Over and over again that is all you see. Nothing but good family fun. Everywhere.
My seat at Legends in Concert is in the front row. Everyone around me is in their 60s or 70s. The woman on my right asks me if I’ve seen the show before, and I tell her no, this is my first time in Branson. She tells me that this will be the forth time she has seen it. Her son is one of the dancers, and she only lives about a day’s drive from the city. I ask her to point him out for me once the show starts and she says, “Oh he’s not hard to recognize – he’s the bald one.”
The show begins and Johnny Cash takes the stage. He’s got a nice rumble to his voice and he plays “I’ve Been Everywhere,” which has recently become a favorite of mine. For each song the dancers come out to liven up the performance a bit, one of them even taking the place of June Carter to perform “Jackson.” It is very easy to recognize the woman’s son, as there are only two male dancers in the show. I’m reminded of the show TEXAS, and while I’m not sure about the bald one, the other male on stage is dancing in a one man pride parade. I worry once again that I’m being too judgmental and jumping to conclusions. At one point the dancers come into the crowd and start high-fiving the audience members. The woman’s son gives her a wave, and the other man comes right up to hug her. She leans over to tell me that the other dancer is her son’s roommate, and I am now certain that at least one of us has severely misjudged the situation.
After Johnny is Celine Dion, and I can’t tell if I don’t like her performance or if I just don’t like Celin Dion. The third act is the Blues Brothers, who are phenomenal. On either side of the stage are large screens that switch between showing a live feed of the performance and videos of the original person in concert. At one point I look up at the live feed of the Blues Brothers impersonators on stage. He’s doing a great Dan Aykroyd when I realize that the guitar player on the screen is wearing a different shirt than the one on stage. Those are the real Blues Brothers on screen, but the performers on stage are dancing with such spot-on accuracy I didn’t even notice.
After a short intermission and a nice set by The Temptations, it’s time for the main event: Elvis. It stands to reason that with so many Elvis impersonators in the world, and so many in Branson alone, the one featured in Legends in Concert would be terrific. He was amazing. Rather than trying to mimic the voice or the stance perfectly, he was impersonating the personality. It was easy to get swept up in the show, even with the various costume changes as we moved through the Elvis canon. At one point the band gathered around in a semi-circle of chairs, mimicking the jam session from Elvis’s 1968 comeback special. They played a song, and then Elvis told the audience that they wanted to open it up for suggestions. This seemed pretty impressive, but I figured they probably get the same handful of Elvis hits every night, and I wasn’t sure that the impersonator was really playing the guitar or just pretending to. After the first request was over I yelled out “A Little Less Conversation,” which is one of my Elvis favorites. He smiled and looked at the other guitarist saying, “We haven’t done that one in a while. What key is that in, D? Or is it A?” The guitarist shrugs, equally unaware of the correct key. Elvis starts playing his guitar and singing the chorus while the rest of the band watches and waits. At the end of the chorus and without skipping a beat, he laughs and proclaims, “I think it is in D!” With a smooth as butter key change the rest of the band joins in and they finish out the song. This guy isn’t pretending to be a great performer. He is one. I am completely smitten. I consider getting a photo with him after the show, but he is immediately swamped by the over 50 crowd and I just can’t compete.
And that, dear reader, is Branson. It is hype and glitz and glamor and excess as reigned in by your well-meaning Christian neighbor to be nothing but good, wholesome, family fun with a side of geriatrics. Over the course of this trip I have occasionally found myself annoyed by the tourists and vacationers around me. Without physical limitations or annoying kids in tow, I’m usually the one anxiously pushing past in a hurry to get to my next destination. If only people could be a little less gullible and little more self-aware this whole country would be a better place. But Branson is the only place where I’m not bothered by the families, the lumberers, the shoppers, the ignorant, the loud, the confused. Because I am the one out of place here. This is where they belong. And if these young, anxious twenty-somethings would just get out of the way, maybe this whole town would be a better place.