BRANSON, MISSOURI – If you ask anyone in Branson, Missouri why that city begins to celebrate Christmas on November 1, the reply you will get is “because Andy Williams said so!”
From November 1 until December 31, this city of more than 10,000 residents that’s situated in the heart of the Ozark Mountains is totally immersed in Christmas, from the endless miles of lights, Christmas displays, and the nearly 100 shows that inhabit the 50 theatres across the area. In short, Branson becomes a vivid, living example of what the joys and spirit of the Christmas holiday season is all about; and if you want to experience with your family a down-home, old fashioned type of Christmas, then Branson is the place to be.
Although he wasn’t chiefly responsible for making Branson such an attractive Christmas destination for tourists, it was the late Andy Williams (who had a string of hit records, such as “Moon River”, and hosted a highly-rated TV variety series on NBC during the 60s and 70s) and his love of Christmas (especially his Christmas specials, and songs like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”) that helped make Branson attractive to non-country music entertainers when he opened his own theatre 25 years ago (now called the Andy Williams Performing Arts Center), and heightened Branson as a major attraction to celebrate Christmas, when he staged live Christmas shows in his theatre that featured a variety of big name and local performers.
Andy Williams’ Christmas legacy is captured every year in Branson, especially with two major events. First, there’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year Parade, which the fourth edition was held last month, which coincided with a press tour of the city that I participated in, along Branson Landing. Broadcast live on local television and emceed by Billie Yates (who stars in the “Raiding the Country Vaults” show in Branson) and Kelly Smith (who hosts a daily lifestyles TV magazine show called “Ozarks Live”), the parade featured several of Branson’s top entertainers, such as the Baldknobbers (who began performing in Branson in 1960), the Hughes Brothers, Six, and the Lennon Sisters (who served as this year’s parade grand marshals), along with a stream of classic cars and floats that were provided by many of the city’s shows and local sponsors; it was followed by an hour-long Christmas concert, which showcased many of the entertainers that were on the parade route, and took place in front of the fountains of the main square at Branson Landing.
As well, there is the “Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza” at the Andy Williams Performing Arts Center. This is a lively, colourful holiday spectacular that keeps in the spirit of the Christmas TV specials that Williams hosted over 40 years ago. It stars two acts that made frequent appearances on Williams’ TV show: the Lennon Sisters (Cathy, Janet and Mimi) and the Osmond Brothers (Merrill, Jay and Jimmy), who sang a repertoire of not only popular Christmas tunes, but also a selection of their own hit songs. Along with plenty of personal and video reminiscences (including clips from their respective appearances on the Andy Williams Show during the 60s and 70s), this show is a delightful nostalgia trip that really takes you back to the golden age of variety television.
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And that Christmas spirit takes over many of the 100 shows that are performed on a daily basis (sometimes three times a day) in the more than 50 theatres, many of which are dotted along 76 Country Boulevard (aka the “76 Strip”). For example, Japanese-born violinist Shoji Tabuchi (www.shoji.com), who has been a Branson mainstay for nearly 30 years, headlines his “Wonder of Christmas” show at his own art deco-style theatre. Filled with dazzling lights, dance numbers and Christmas standards, Tabuchi and his daughter Christina offer a holiday showcase that both adults and children will enjoy. And when you’re at the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre, pay a visit to its ornate washrooms, which are complete with marble fittings, stained-glass windows and upholstered leather chairs (the men’s room even has its own billiards room), which harken back to America’s Gilded Age.
To enjoy a Christmas time experience on a floating theatre that is actually a classic steam-powered paddle boat, then check out the Showboat Branson Belle’s Christmas spectacular. This popular attraction takes you back to the days when paddle boats were a dominant source of transportation in pre-railroad America and also served as a floating entertainment venue. During its three-hour cruise along Table Rock Lake, the Showboat Branson Belle’s crown jewel, its 700-seat dinner theatre room, offers a Christmas revue called “Celebrate!”, which includes vocal group the ShowMen, the tap dance troupe Rhythm (whose box dance routine brought down the house), singer Cassandre Faimon-Haygood and comedian/magician Christopher James, who doubled as the show’s genial emcee.
There is one non-Christmas show that is now playing in Branson which I certainly recommend as a definite must-see: “Million Dollar Quartet”. The Tony Award-winning musical, which is playing at the Welk Resorts theatre, tells the story of the most famous rock music jam session, which took place at the Sun Studios in Memphis in December of 1956 and involved four of the greatest figures in rock history: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, and is narrated by Sun Records’ legendary founder Sam Phillips. Each of the four performers are really immersed in their respective characters (especially the one who portrays Jerry Lee Lewis). The set faithfully recreates Sun’s recording studio circa 1956 and the show is a terrific time capsule to those heady early days when rock ‘n’ roll was regarded as the “devil’s music”. Following the show, me and five other journalists had the chance to go backstage and chat with the “million dollar quartet” (who are all experienced veteran musicians), who shared with us how they absorbed themselves in their respective roles, and how they love the family feeling that is so dominant not only with the “Quartet” company, but also the entire Branson community as a whole.
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The first thing that popped into my mind about Silver Dollar City (www.silverdollarcity.com), was the seven episodes of the CBS sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies” that were filmed on location there for the 1969-70 season. Although many of the buildings that were used during those episodes are still standing (including the one that housed the Silver Dollar City Hotel, which is now an ice cream parlor), Silver Dollar City is an amazing family theme park that accurately takes you back about 130 years in time, when life in the Midwest was much more simpler. And during its “Old Time Christmas” festival, which runs until December 30 and was named as one of the top holiday celebrations by USA Today and Good Morning America, that pioneer Christmas spirit dominates every inch of its 100 acres.
What can you say about a place that is decorated with over five million Christmas lights? How about its five-storey special effects Christmas tree that’s covered with 350,000 colorful LED lights? Or its nightly Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade along Main Street and is led by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and his fellow characters from the classic 1964 animated TV special? Or the two Broadway-style Christmas stage shows “A Dickens’ Christmas Carol” (now in its 14th year and has been seen by over a million people) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which greatly accomplishes the difficult job of staging a musical adaptation of Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film in a fraction of its near three-hour running time)? Or a down home Christmas musical jam session with a quartet called the Homestead Pickers, which takes place in an actual log cabin that was built in 1843, and offers about an hour of entertaining music and hilarious banter in a cozy setting?
And Silver Dollar City is known as the “Home of American Craftsmanship”. Visitors can get the chance of witnessing, making and purchasing wood carvings, pottery, candles, knives and other items that are crafted and manufactured one item at a time using methods that date back for centuries. There are two crafts places that I highly recommend for a visit: Hazel’s Blown Glass Factory, where master craftsman Shawn Watt creates beautiful items made of blown glass that is liquefied in a series of tanks that are heated up to 2200 degrees Fahrenheit; and Brown’s Candy Factory, where its undisputed “Queen of Candy” since 1968, June Ward, entertains visitors with stories that are just as tantalizing as the hand crafted candies she makes fresh every day (especially the peanut brittle). She will even tell you about the time she worked as a stand-in for the late Donna Douglas (who portrayed Elly May Clampett) while episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies” were being filmed there in the summer of 1969.
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If you need to find a place to shop for some souvenirs or that last-minute Christmas gift, there are plenty of places to discover in Branson. First, there’s the Main Street area in Historic Downtown Branson, where there is a wide variety of local businesses that sell souvenirs, western leather goods (such as cowboy boots) and antiques. This area is anchored by Dick’s 5 & 10 (www.Dicks5and10.com), a 10,000 square foot variety store that sells over 75,000 different items, ranging from Branson souvenirs, to pop culture and sports merchandise, to home décor, to toys, novelties, housewares and even a candy emporium that sells over 1100 different kinds of candies and snacks, many of which are like throwbacks to your sweet tooth childhood (they even had one of my favorites … Bonomo Turkish Taffy, chocolate flavour). Dick’s 5 & 10’s item-packed, narrow aisles are always crowded with customers from the moment their doors open every morning at 8:30; no matter what, it’s still a fun shopping experience that vividly reminds one when Woolworth’s was the Walmart of its day.
Tanger Outlets (www.tangeroutlet.com/branson) is a network of 44 outlet malls across North America (including two in Quebec … Bromont and St. Sauveur) that have some of the finest designer and brand name outlet stores with quality merchandise sold for deep discounts of up to 70% off the retail price. The Tanger Outlet branch in Branson has a whopping 78 stores (including Polo Ralph Lauren, Disney, OskKosh, Nike, Oakley, Yankee Candle, Reebok and Tommy Hilfiger) with non-stop sales. Officials we spoke to at the Branson Tanger Outlet proudly stated that they get over five million visitors a year, and that each store space is occupied; in fact, they even have a waiting list of potential retailers who want to set up shop there.
Besides being the site of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year Christmas Parade every November, Branson Landing (www.bransonlanding.com) is a model of what the next generation of shopping malls should be like. This open-air mall, located on the shores of Lake Taneycomo, Branson Landing contains over 100 stores and restaurants for a complete, enjoyable day-long shopping expedition. There’s major chains (Bass Pro Shops, Sunglass Hut, Chico’s), local shops (Branson Quilts, the St. Louis Cardinal’s Clubhouse store) and specialty shops (including Tervis, which manufactures a large assortment of customized drink tumblers; and As Seen on TV, which sells items that you usually see on TV commercials and infomercials, and can only purchase by mail order). And if you need a break between purchases, check out the spectacular water and fire show at the fountain, which was designed by the same people behind the famed fountains of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
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A museum dedicated to the tragic ocean liner Titanic is one attraction you least likely suspect would be situated in Branson; however, the Titanic museum located in the heart of the 76 Strip (www.titanicbranson.com) is a place where even someone with a faint interest about the ship must visit.
The museum stands out with its exterior, which is a faithful recreation of the Titanic’s outer hull (complete with iceberg at the moment of impact). The museum’s personnel are dressed in 1912 vintage costumes, as they serve as your guide to what it was like to be a passenger on the ship before and after the tragedy; it even goes as far with such interactive displays as what it was like to be on one of the ship’s lifeboats, how cold the water was in the Atlantic Ocean on the night of the sinking, or that perilous feeling of standing on deck while the Titanic was tilting toward the bottom of the ocean. And besides some of the many rare artefacts that make up the museum’s collection (including the life jacket of Mrs. John Jacob Astor, the only surviving life jacket that was directly connected to a passenger), another unique aspect was that each visitor was issued a boarding pass that contained the biographical background of an actual Titanic passenger (coincidentally, mine was Quigg Baxter, a 24-year-old from Montreal who was travelling in 1st class). Throughout your journey, you get to discover more about the person who is profiled on your boarding pass; and by the time you reach the end of the permanent exhibit, you find out if they survived the sinking or didn’t.
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And how, a few words about the food: the Level 2 Steakhouse (www.level2steakhouse.com), located at the Hilton Branson Convention Center hotel (where I stayed during the press tour in question), is a high class, fine dining establishment that served up one of the best cuts of steak I ever tasted, which was from the Hereford breed of cattle. They even have an exclusive membership group called the “Cut Club”, where members get to select their own brand of steak knife from the restaurant’s collection (and have their name engraved on the blade), which they use every time they dine there … Mel’s Hard Luck Diner (www.melshardluckdiner.com) is a classic 1950s-style diner, where its staff of about 20 servers are also experienced singers (don’t be surprised if one of them decide to break out into song while serving your meal). According to owner Mel Bilbo, each server has to go through an audition (“They have to know how to serve, too,” he added), and some of his servers have even appeared on “American Idol”. And Mel’s large menu of diner style fare carries the name of a classic 50s rock tune (I went with the delicious “Sixteen Tons chilli burger”, which didn’t leave me another day older and deeper in debt). If you liked what you heard from the singing servers at Mel’s, every table has a small stack of CDs by some of the servers, which are available for purchase (you can find them right beside the condiments).
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For more information about visiting Branson, Missouri during Christmas time or any other time of the year, check out the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.explorebranson.com
By Stuart Nulman – totimes.ca