Sunday, July 17, 2005
Twenty Things I Learned About Branson
Having just returned from my first trip to the Midwest entertainment capital known as Branson, Missouri, I have been struggling with how to write about what I found there. I want to avoid two errors: a) boring my readers to death with a series of "and then we went here, and after that we went there" entries, and b) going off on a few long, detailed cultural critiques that also would risk boring my audience, making me sound like a high hat, and prompting the dreaded reader exit.
So, I've decided the best way I can put the Branson trip to bed, blog-wise, is just to share a few random observations I picked up along the way. In no particular order, here goes.
TWENTY THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT BRANSON
1. Branson's official population -- the one listed on all the city limits signs reflecting the 2000 Census -- is just a tad over 6,000. I find this almost impossible to believe, seeing how many hundreds of hotels, motels, condominiums, resorts, fast food places and shopping centers are there. The only thing I can guess is that almost everyone who is actually in Branson on any given day is someone who is just visiting, and the 6,000 people who got counted in the census are all maids and burger flippers and store clerks. But I doubt any of these humble workers can afford the pricey housing in town - they probably all live in the suburbs.
2. Even though we drove all over town during our four-day stay, none of us saw a single school. Not a preschool, not a grade school, not a college or university. We also never saw a traditional residential neighborhood. Everything seemed built for the tourist industry. The "normal" part of Branson must be hidden away in the surrounding hills somewhere.
3. Instead of trying to dispel the hillbilly stereotypes that have been bestowed on the Ozarks, people in Branson seem to be trying to have fun with them. I submit as evidence the following postcards, just two of a series of hillbilly-themed works:
All the postcards in this series show the same central image: a lazy, moonshine-swilling man, sleeping while the women do all the work.
At Branson real estate prices, this is probably all I could afford, too.
4. So far, it sounds as though I'm down on Branson. But there are many things about the city I liked. For example, even though the stories you might have heard about the nonstop traffic jams on the three-lane main road through the heart of town are accurate, it's a much better situation than you'd find in a big city. In big cities, almost no one is inclined to be kind to other drivers. In Branson, drivers routinely wait to let cars in and out of traffic, even if it puts the kind person back in line. People don't seem obsessed with getting places at breakneck speed. I found myself adopting the same courteous driving habits after I was treated kindly a few times. Drivers are friendly towards one another, something I thought went out with the Model T.
5. I guess now that I've been there, I could buy into the broad characterization of Branson as "Hillbilly Vegas." The main strip in Branson is lined with theatres, music halls and hotels, just like the Vegas Strip. But there's a big difference. Vegas is sex-obsessed and seedy; Branson is not. There are no transvestite pageants, no massage parlors, no scantily clad showgirl photos on billboards, no one standing on street corners handing out cards advertising sex shows or escort services. There's virtually not a place I saw in Branson I would hestitate to take my kids to, except the liquor stores.
6. There's another big difference. Unlike Vegas, there's no gambling in Branson. In Vegas, the shows and the few kiddie attractions are just bait to lure people to gamble. In Branson, the shows and the fun activities are the entire point of visiting. They're not just a carrot on a stick.
7. It's hard to start or stay on a diet in Branson. The big things there are all-you-can-eat buffets, HUGE buffets, and it seems as though every other restaurant offers one. Even the KFC places have small buffets. Before we got back home, we had hit four buffets without even trying. I gained a total of five pounds on the trip as a result. AAAGHHH!
8. Branson is a very patriotic town. Everywhere you look, there are flags and signs saying thank you to our troops. The two performers were saw -- Yakov Smirnoff and Shoji Tabuchi -- are both naturalized Americans, and their shows were full of patriotic songs, including the Star Spangled Banner. They talked movingly of how America is the freest, most giving, best country on the globe. Except for Wayne Newton, I doubt there's many performers in Vegas who put any such patriotic elements into their acts. Can you see George Carlin, without irony, asking his audience to join him in the Star Spangled Banner? I can't.
9. The performers here also seem to be friendly to we common folks. In both shows I saw, the stars came out at intermission to pose for photos and sign autographs with the audience. In fact, Yakov came out a second time after his show just to accomodate everyone who didn't get an autograph during intermission. Does George Carlin do this? Celine Dion? Cher?
10. In the shows we saw, while they don't allow audiotaping or videotaping, they welcome people coming right up to the edge of the stage during the show and snapping photos. I'd never seen that before. Usually, a security guard would tackle you if you even got within 10 feet of the star.
11. There are three groups of tourists in Branson, and three only: retired people, parents of school-age children, and school-age children. The only single 20- or 30-somethings I saw there were working.
12. There is a very noticeable lack of racial diversity among Branson tourists. I estimate that -- no kidding -- about 98 percent of the tourists I saw were white. A few blacks, a few Asians, virtually no Hispanics. At least that's what I saw while I was there. I thought that maybe I was just seeing something no one else saw, until my mom out of the blue made the same observation. I would look around at the audience at the shows we attended - virtually all white.
13. What extra feature attracts tourists to Vegas hotels? Free comps? Loose slots? In Branson, the big attraction is cobbler. I'm not kidding, every other hotel and restaurant has signs offering either "free cobbler" or "the best cobbler in Branson." At the hotel we stayed at, guests were treated to free cobbler and ice cream every night between 9:30 and 11:30. You would go to a show, then come back to the hotel and eat as many servings as you wanted of either peach or blackberry cobbler. It's a Branson thing.
14. I lost track of how many of the singing acts advertised around town are singing families. One I remember had eight members, and their advertising slogan was "80 fingers, 80 toes." The billboard also said they were from Salt Lake City, which I'm sure meant they were likely one of those traditional big Mormon families, like the Osmonds, who have played in Branson themselves.
15. Singers who dress up and sing like dead superstars don't advertise that they are doing "impersonations" or "imitations." They all say their shows are "tributes" to the dead star in question. The week I was there, I saw advertisements for "tributes" to Elvis, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Red Skelton and John Wayne. There was even someone imitating Don Knotts doing Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show. Excuse me, paying tribute to Barney Fife.
16. The hills and valleys around Branson are gorgeous, and there's a wonderful man-made lake that borders the city. If I ever go back, I want to spend more time in the surrounding countryside instead of in the city.
17. There are more tourist trap souvenir shops than you can shake a stick at in Branson. In one of them, I had fun trying on hats that resembled a hamburger, a birthday cake and a rubber chicken. Sadly, my family is used to this.
18. The entire Ozarks area seems to be unashamedly religious. I don't know how many motel marquees I saw with sentiments like "Our Savior Lives" or "God is Good" written on them. There are churches everywhere, as well as Christian bookstores and religious retreats. I felt very at home there.
19. They don't scrimp on the cornpone or the hokey in Branson. You need to be able to digest a lot of both, or at least put them out of your mind, to survive even a short visit.
20. Finally, as a general rule, Branson is a town built to entertain retired people and families with young children. If you're in either group, you'll find things to enjoy. If you're not in one of those groups, you might very well be bored to death. Unless, of course, you like to wear chicken hats while eating cobbler.