Branson, Mo., Looks Beyond RVs and Buffets
Prosperous Conservative Movement Has Blue-Collar Retreat Aiming to Go Upscale
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff WriterMonday, August 8, 2005; Page A03
BRANSON, Mo. -- Here in the lush foothills of the Ozarks it is barely 9 a.m., with temperatures inching toward 100, and already throngs are pushing into Silver Dollar City. It's an 1880s-era theme park that launches every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, hosts four packed Sunday Christian services and requires customers to dress in appropriate family attire.
This is the way visitors like it in Branson, where 7 million people a year come for live shows at about 45 theaters -- more seats than Broadway -- as well as camping, fishing and all-you-can-eat buffets. Offering wholesome entertainment, Branson is a popular Middle America summer destination for families, veterans, conservatives and others seeking affirmation of traditional values with a strong Christian influence. "The best way we can serve you is to offer prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ for any need you may have," a bedside card at the Honeysuckle Inn offers.
Now, city officials and business leaders are banking it is the right time for this small, homey town to reposition itself to attract a more sophisticated following among the prosperous conservative movement that has taken root in the country. Moving beyond its roots as a working-class resort, next year Branson will see a $400 million lakefront complex open with two Hiltons, a large convention center and upscale shops, such as Ann Taylor Loft and Brookstone. Branson Landing has leased 80 percent of its national retail space and sold $75 million worth of condos.
"Branson will always be a slice of America," said Ross Summers, president of the local chamber of commerce. "We never intend to alienate our base. . . . [But] we're aiming at a new market that might be more upscale -- people who have a preconceived notion that Branson is just country shows, traffic, buses and senior travelers."
Since the early 1900s, when people came by the trainloads to enjoy the town's 800 miles of lakeshore and leafy mountains, Branson has been a low-cost vacation spot. In the 1950s, Branson made its mark as a Christian community after a local artist built an enormous, lighted Nativity scene that grew to draw tens of thousands to see the Christmas lights.
In the past two decades, Branson has seen exponential growth, becoming famous when a country-music boom brought acts such as Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn to town.
In addition to family, God and country, the past is also memorialized here, with retrospectives on entertainers such as Patsy Cline and Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack." Shows are expected to offer the clean entertainment of another era -- no dirty jokes, no sexual innuendoes, no bad language.
There is a museum dedicated to war veterans, a highway "strip" lined with American flags, and Bobby Vinton, a regular live act, can still be heard crooning on the local radio station.
"Branson is a metaphor for red state America," said Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, who has written extensively on the intersection of culture and politics.
"There are those on the coasts that might snicker in their sleeves, but the town represents what many conservative people in the Midwest see as America, the America they want, the America they hold in their heads from yesterday. Maybe it is part mythical -- but it's the America they want to cling to."
Andy Williams, who first arrived in 1991, remains one of the more popular shows in town. Williams said in an interview that he decided to build his Moon River Theatre here because he was "burned out" on traveling and on Las Vegas. Although Williams, 77, was a friend of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy's, he said he is a lifelong Republican who grew up in Iowa singing in church choirs and feels right at home in Branson.
"There's no doubt in my mind that people on the West Coast -- L.A. particularly -- and the East Coast have no clue at all about what's happening outside their own little bailiwick. And they think everybody is stupid because they are not sophisticated," he said. "People on the East Coast just look down their noses on Branson. But this is America."