This is adapted from "Hardscrabble," my blog on Shadow of Greatness
Of all the trips I made on behalf of my former company, none was more earnestly envied by my family than the calls I paid on Branson, Missouri. Not that exotic destinations like Hong Kong, London, and Rome weren't to be envied, but with Branson, the folks - who had jumped in the car every time Aunt Elsie (the Oak Ridge Boys' biggest fan) made the offer - knew exactly what they were missing.
The road from Springfield Airport to Branson is practically a straight, flat line south, pile driving through two-story-high sedimentary limestone that rises up frequently on either side of road. It's a hardscrabble country, favored by Scots and Scots-Irish, for whom the stone crust lying just below the soil's surface must have reminded them of the highlands. Water filters through these rocks, passing into caverns that honeycomb the area.
In fact, Branson's first touristic success was its caves; one such is Marvel Cave, upon which
Silver Dollar City
was opened in 1960. Today, Silver Dollar City remains the 1880s Ozark-themed attraction that was so authentic, it was used for location filming ofThe Beverly Hillbillies
back in the day (Jed Clampitt's "home" is still on view). It has roller coasters, water rides, and entertainment like other amusement parks, but it also has a "crafts village," where 100 artisans create glassware, quilts, ironmongery, and other handmade items of extraordinary beauty. I still have a bright orange and yellow vase that I think is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, although my mother derides it as looking like "Dilbert." (It's true: I've always liked Dilbert cartoons.)
I had been invited to stay in the biggest meetings property in Branson, the Chateau on the Lake, and to sample Branson's entertainment. Modern Branson's first home-steading performer was Roy Clark; his eponymous theater opened in 1983. But when I first visited Branson in 1999, there were dozens of theaters, and the highway was peppered with their billboards, of which the most incongruous were Shoji, the violinist from Japan; and Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian comedian. Most of Branson's performers, however, dated from the era when America had only three TV channels - CBS, NBC, and ABC - and "cable" was something you sent people when you had no phone service.
Still, I was thrilled to see Mel Tillis
in concert, and meet
, whose NBC show I had watched each week as a kid, at the new Atlanta Bread Company outlet. (He was in tennis whites, on his way to play a few games with Shoji.)
Later we went to an ice ballet at Williams' Moon River Theater. Williams is an art collector; I once saw him get out of a limo in front of New York City's Museum of Modern Art in a dazzling white suit. The lobby of Moon River is filled with his personal objets d'art, including his Japanese kimono collection and some choice oil paintings. I say "choice," because I only had eyes for one: a portrait of a female chimpanzee, sweating in Renaissance dress. This was my introduction to Donald Roller Wilson
After the show, we were taken backstage to Williams' personal dressing room, which was really a small apartment, filled with luxurious white furnishings and a higher grade of art. (I seem to remember a Picasso print, and a table sculpture resembling Degas, but I may be mistaken.) But what elicited comment was a bowl of change, sitting on a coffee table. "A guy like this, and he keeps his change in a bowl, like everyone else," mused one of the group.