- Submitted by: David Stybr
- Submission Date: 14th Feb 2005
In late March my wife Denise & I and another couple spent a week in Branson, in the Ozark Mountains of southwest Missouri. We had heard about this area for years but never got around to visit it until now. Branson has become a major entertainment center with music and comedy shows such as Andy Williams, Yakov Smirnoff, the Lennon Sisters, the Osmonds, Jim Stafford etc. Branson is almost like a smaller Las Vegas with all the shows, but with a Midwest atmosphere and without the casinos. Branson was fun, the scenery was lovely, and it was near enough that we could drive in less than a day.
Many friends were amazed that we decided to visit Branson because they know that our previous vacation was in exotic Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, and that I prefer classical music over country music. 'Classical music? Ya' mean Hank Williams SENIOR?' True, it was a bit of culture shock, but we took it all in good humor. Variety is indeed the spice of life, and Branson is very diverse in its attractions. Country music is prominent, but so are popular music, comedy, shopping etc.
It was wise to visit Branson during the last week of March because we understand that it becomes outrageously crowded in summer. Moreover, a wonderful coincidence in the form of a superbly timed early spring heat wave, gave us warm clear weather that felt almost like summer in late March. The temperature reached 75ÝF or 80ÝF almost every day. Another coincidence was that the week was peak blossom time for the many apple trees.
II. A Brief History of Branson.
Branson was founded in 1881 in southwest Missouri along the shores of the turbulent White River. Branson was incorporated in 1904 and began to welcome visitors after Harold Bell Wright published his best-selling novel The Shepherd of the Hills in 1907. The southern Ozark Mountain forest setting of the novel and the simple rural lifestyle of the characters attracted visitors to this remote area. In 1913 Ozark Beach Dam was completed and the White River became a flood-control reservoir which was renamed Lake Taneycomo. Table Rock Lake was created when Table Rock Dam was completed on the White River in 1958. These lakes provided fishing, boating and other outdoor recreational activities which attracted still more visitors. The Branson area also offered weather that is tempered by the nearby lakes which help keep it slightly cooler in summer and slightly warmer in winter.
As tourism increased, businesses were created to cater to the influx of visitors. In 1959 an outdoor pageant based on The Shepherd of the Hills opened 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) west of Branson. In 1960 Silver Dollar City opened west of Branson, a combination of an 1880s Ozark pioneer village and a modern theme park with rides, shows and crafts. Silver Dollar City hosts the National Festival of Craftsmen each autumn.
Above all Branson has become most famous for its entertainment which features country music and popular music as well as comedy and dance. These shows began modestly, as a way to entertain visitors who came primarily to enjoy the natural attractions. The Baldknobbers Jamboree began in 1959 in downtown Branson and remains the original Branson music show. (Incidentally, balds and bald knobs are the geographical names of Ozark mountain tops which contain few trees due to their rocky peaks. The name Baldknobber was used by a vigilante group which operated in the area in the late 1880s and early 1900s. This musical review adopted the name.) The Presleys' Country Jubilee opened in 1967 and was the first to establish a theater on MO-76 (Missouri Highway 76) in what would later become the West 76 Strip which extends 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) to the west of downtown Branson. The Baldknobbers Jamboree later expanded and also moved to the West 76 Strip.
The expansion and addition of attractions attracted still more visitors to Branson, which in turn generated more attractions. Roy Clark was the first celebrity to place his name on a Branson theater in 1983, and Box Car Willie was the first to establish a theater of his own and settle in Branson in 1987. Andy Williams was the first popular vocalist to build a theater in Branson in 1991 when he opened Andy Williams' Moon River Theatre. This heralded the arrival of a long line of entertainers who expanded and diversified the range of the Branson music scene, with country performers such as Mickey Gilley and Mel Tillis, comedians such as Yakov Smirnoff and Jim Stafford, pop performers such as The Platters and Bobby Vinton, big bands such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, and diverse other performers such as phenomenal Japanese violinist Shoji Tabuchi etc. To quote Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff: 'Only in America can a Japanese and a Russian own a theater in the Ozarks.'
Branson now has a permanent population of 3706, with many more outside the city limits, and the temporary population increases phenomenally during the tourist season. The Branson area continues to grow, and travelers who have not visited in 10 or 20 years would hardly recognize it. In theory, Branson should be no different from the many other small tourist and resort towns which have sprung up across the United States. However a confluence of many natural and artificial attractions eventually caused tremendous growth in the local tourist industry. Branson provided an ideal atmosphere for entertainment and attractions in a scenic location with reasonable prices. The Osmonds may have summed up the most important attraction: 'Good clean family fun.'
Trivia: The name Ozarks is derived from early French explorers. These explorers named one of the rivers after the many bends it contained: la Rivière aux Arcs. Eventually the French term 'aux arcs' became adopted in English as 'Ozarks'. (Similarly, the French term 'Acadien' in Louisiana became adopted in English as 'Cajun'.)
III. En Route from Chicago, Illinois to Branson, Missouri: Interstate 55, Interstate 44 etc.
Sunday morning March 28 we began our long drive from suburban Chicago, Illinois to Branson, Missouri on I-55 south and I-44 west, a total distance of about 550 miles (885 kilometers). Along the way we stopped at Jumer's Château in Bloomington, Illinois for their superb Sunday brunch. Their restaurant Le Radis Rouge (The Red Radish, in French) served an excellent Sunday brunch with outstanding pastries for dessert for only $10.95 per person, an excellent value. In Illinois and Iowa the Jumer family operate 5 hotels with superb restaurants, most of which evoke the Bavarian atmosphere of their ancestral homeland in Germany. These hotels and restaurants are recognized as some of the finest in the Midwest. These include the Jumer Castle Lodges in Bettendorf, Iowa and in Peoria and Urbana, Illinois, plus the Jumer Continental Inn in Galesburg, Illinois. By contrast Jumer's Château in Bloomington, Illinois was designed in the style of an elegant French country château, and it is our personal favorite of all Jumer hotels and restaurants. Whenever we travel in or near Bloomington we try to stop at Jumer's Château for a delicious meal at Le Radis Rouge. It's almost worth a trip of its own for the American and French cuisine of high quality and interesting character in a friendly atmosphere and at moderate prices.
Next we continued on I-55 south past Springfield to the St. Louis area, and then on I-70 and I-270 west across the Mississippi River into Missouri. We have visited St. Louis many times, so instead we decided to spend a night in nearby St. Charles, Missouri. St. Charles was founded in 1769 by French Canadian colonists along the Missouri River, and it became part of the United States in 1804 after the Louisiana Purchase. We spent the evening at the Station Casino on the Missouri River near I-70. This was great fun. I lost $6.00 and Denise lost $10.00, which meant we were paupers for 5 or 10 minutes. This would be one of our favorite casinos if it were closer to our home, but we try to visit whenever we are in the area. We don't gamble much, but The Feast buffet food was very good and relatively inexpensive. However when we consider that the price of this buffet was almost exactly what we had paid for our Sunday brunch that morning, Jumer's Château in Bloomington, Illinois was still a better value. We also explored Frenchtown with its antique district. Historic Main Street in the heart of old St. Charles is a Nationally Registered Historic District with its brick streets, gas lights, antique and craft shops, quaint restaurants and nostalgic atmosphere.
Monday morning after breakfast we drove I-270 south through the western suburbs of St. Louis, and then I-44 west to Springfield, Missouri. Along the way we made a brief stop in Lebanon, Missouri at a Russell Stover candy outlet to stock up on goodies for the rest of our vacation. At Springfield we left I-44 and continued on US-65 south to Branson. US-65 is an expressway for about half of the 45 miles (72 kilometers) between Springfield and Branson. Construction is in progress to widen the rest of it from a 2-lane highway to an expressway as well. At 1 or 2 places traffic was halted while construction crews blasted through huge layers of limestone, a sedimentary rock composed of calcium carbonate. This was very impressive to watch. No wonder the United States is a superpower.
IV. Our Stay in Branson.
In Branson we lodged in a condominium at the Pointe Royale Resort and Golf Course on MO-165, just 3 miles (5 kilometers) south of MO-76. The 2-bedroom condominium was an excellent choice for 2 couples because it was less expensive than 2 hotel rooms, and the resort location off the strip was much less congested and very peaceful.
The West 76 Strip is where most shows, hotels, restaurants and other attractions are located. Traffic was heavy most of each day in late March, so we could hardly imagine the gridlock that is legendary during the height of the tourist season. Fortunately we found 3 bypasses that are roughly parallel to the West 76 Strip, marked as the Red, Blue and Yellow Routes. It paid to study the maps because these bypasses saved us considerable time and frustration before and after shows. A car is still the best way to travel because the West 76 Strip is long and hilly, and we saw no shuttles or public transport.
Branson has about 40 concert theaters, each of which host 1 to 4 different shows daily from 8 AM to midnight. The choices are staggering. One family who signed the guest book in our condo wrote that they saw 3 shows each day, morning afternoon and evening for a week! We wisely limited ourselves to only 1 show per evening for a total of 4 shows. We had hoped to try some of the breakfast shows but eventually decided it would overload our schedule.
Monday evening we enjoyed 2 hours of comedy and music at the Jim Stafford Theater. This included country, popular and even some classical music, good clean laughter and spectacles such as a 22-piece marching band, a tornado, a flying saucer and a 3-D movie. Jim's wife Annie Stafford helped warm up the audience before the show, and both Jim and Annie were on hand for photos and autographs after the show. The concession stands were heavily promoted during the show and well stocked with snacks, souvenirs and crafts. Pie Annie's Boutique was especially attractive and permitted quiet browsing whereas the lobby downstairs tended to be very crowded before and after show time and at intermission.
The Osmond Brothers were on our schedule for Tuesday evening. This fabulously talented family have performed together for more than 40 years. They were the first to incorporate lasers and lighted dancing fountains in their shows. At the Osmond Family Theater we saw their award-winning Variety Show on Ice which featured world championship ice skating talent, ventriloquist Brad Cummins and Rex, female vocalist Babette Young, the award winning Jay Osmond Band and of course the Osmond Brothers themselves (Merrill, Wayne, Jay and Jimmy) performing in all of their favorite musical styles. The concession stands were heavily promoted during the show and well stocked with snacks and souvenirs. For most of the hour before show time, a video documentary in the theater provided a fascinating background of the Osmond Family from the period of World War II to today.
We also managed to see 2 opening nights in Branson. The Steamboat Branson Belle began its season on Wednesday March 31 with a dinner cruise and variety show which evoked the showboats on the Mississippi River of the late 1800s. This boat itself was launched April 13, 1995 and is the largest boat built on a land-locked lake in the United States. It measures 278 feet (85 meters) long, 78 feet (24 meters) wide and 112 feet (34 meters) tall, with a passenger capacity of 700. Dinner was good and the service was outstanding. Vocalist Steve Grimm hosted the Steppin' Out show of American popular music from the 1890s to the 1960s. This show also included ventriloquist Todd Oliver and Friends with Irving the real talking dog. The exquisite Russian Adagio dancers Andrei & Marina performed a wonderful blend of dance and impressive acrobatics. This production also featured the talented Steppin' Out quartet of singers and dancers, and the lively Steppin' Out Orchestra performed in a variety of styles such as Big Band and Dixieland. The 3 hours went quickly, and still we wish we had had more time aboard.
Our 2nd opening night came as The Lawrence Welk Orchestra conducted by John Bähler began their season in the Champagne Theatre on Thursday April 1. Their show was A Century of American Music, a song and dance tribute to 20th Century popular music in the United States. Featured along with the orchestra itself were The Lennon Sisters, pianist Jo Ann Castle and Welk favorites Ken Delo, Jack Imel and Ava Barber. Wunnerful, wunnerful. Before the show we enjoyed a fair buffet dinner at the Stage Door Canteen, which was decorated in a World War II motif. Especially nice touches were the WELKOME mats at the entrance doors, a pun on the name Welk.
Whereas our evenings were filled with shows, our days were occupied with shopping. We were pleasantly surprised by the outlet malls, where we stocked up on loads of loot. Chief among these were Factory Merchants Branson, Tanger Outlet Center and Factory Shoppes of Branson. Branson is also filled with countless small shops for crafts, antiques, souvenirs etc., both downtown and along the West 76 Strip. Among the most prominent of these are the many quilt shops throughout the area. We saw many quilts that were tempting, but none really captivated us.
It may come as a surprise that the West 76 Strip and downtown Branson are 2 separate entities. Downtown Branson is located on MO-76 east of US-65, whereas the Strip is to the west. Downtown Branson caters to both local residents and tourists and is filled with small shops. Many downtown buildings have been restored to their original architecture with local limestone and red brick. Replicas of antique street lamps line the streets. We spent a very pleasant afternoon in downtown Branson after we finally managed to find a place to park the car nearby.
We also made sure to spend a few hours each day doing absolutely nothing except sit back and relax. This was a vacation after all. Our condo was located in a lovely area and it was fun to explore some of our nearby surroundings on foot. We were certainly lucky to have almost perfect weather almost all week.
The food in Branson itself was fair to good, but little really stood out. Here is one of my typical exchange with a local resident. Q: How is the food at Restaurant XYZ? A: It'll fill you up. Q: But how is the food? A: They serve so much of it you won't believe it. Q: But *how* is the food? A: If you go away hungry it's your own fault. Q: But *HOW* is the food? Oh never mind. The emphasis generally seemed to be on quantity over quality, but at least this helped keep the prices relatively low.
Generally we ate breakfast at our condo and our other meals elsewhere. For breakfast one morning Country Kitchen was adequate. For supper Shorty Small's Restaurant was good and Landry's Seafood House was excellent. Two of our evening shows included dinners. Our dinner aboard the Steamboat Branson Belle was good and the service was outstanding. Our buffet dinner was only fair at the Stage Door Canteen near the Lawrence Welk Champagne Theatre. Our only bad meal was a lunch at Noodles Pizza & Pub at the outlet mall Factory Merchants Branson, because our pizza was burned. The manager eventually replaced it but gave us no discount for our wasted time. His rude attitude was a stark contrast compared to the extreme friendliness of almost everyone else in Branson. In the final analysis, however, our best meal of the week was actually Sunday brunch at Jumer's Château in Bloomington, Illinois en route to Branson. Landry's Seafood House in Branson was a close 2nd.
After breakfast on Friday April 2 we drove home from Branson, a total distance of about 550 miles (885 kilometers) in a single day. First we drove on US-65 north and I-44 east to the St. Louis area, and next we bypassed St. Louis itself via I-270 south and I-255 east across the Mississippi River into Illinois. Then we continued the rest of the way on I-55 north to suburban Chicago, Illinois. Along the way we stopped in Springfield, Illinois for a late lunch.
We are glad we went to Branson during the last week of March because we understand that it becomes outrageously crowded in summer and we can easily imagine the gridlock. The tourist season officially began in April, so we left just as the crowds were on the increase. Another reason we are glad we went to Branson the last week of March was because the highway construction season began in earnest in April. Luckily this construction had not yet begun on Monday March 26 when we were on westbound I-44. However on Friday April 2 between St. Louis and Rolla, Missouri we saw 2 sections of westbound I-44 where the traffic was literally stopped due to lane closures which fortunately did not affect us in the eastbound lanes.
Branson was well worth a visit, but once is probably sufficient. The shows were great fun, although by the end of the week we had seen enough. The shopping was excellent and the food was good. Prices were reasonable and the overall atmosphere was warm and friendly. Branson has a policy to treat tourists courteously, and we did our best to return the courtesy. Country music and homespun charm are the predominant themes, but the attractions are actually so diverse that Branson seems to have something for everyone in a clean family atmosphere. Branson is indeed fortunate to have carved out a place for itself as a thriving entertainment, shopping and tourist center. In general it was an excellent way to spend a week of rest and relaxation.