The annual excursion to see the holiday shows in Branson, Mo., has come and gone for my husband and me for another year.
As usual, there were surprises with new and multi-talented performers popping up on stage to wow the crowds and “old standbys” who are still packing them in. Then, too, there are performers that are “not quite as wonderful” as they used to be.
If you’re not familiar with Branson, you should know that it’s a Missouri town in the Ozarks of a little over 10,500 people which has more theater seats than Broadway. That population today is a tad over that of 12 years ago when the census reported a little over 6,000 people, about the size of DeWitt.
The TV show “60 minutes” calls Branson “the live music capital of the entire universe.” Well, I guess that’s about right. In a nutshell, here’s how it all got started: A group called the Baldnobbers opened the first live music show in Branson in 1959 (yep, that was 53 years ago). The guy with the longest-running show is Japanese fiddler Shoji Tabuchi, who opened his own theater in Branson in 1989. Before that he was called “an itinerate Japanese fiddler” who was making the rounds guesting on various shows for, what we thought then, was the outlandish salary of $1,000 a week. Well, he makes more than that now, sometimes doing three holiday shows a day in his own theater where the restrooms are considered the most lavish anywhere in the world.
Box Car Willie was the first big star to have his own theater in Branson; that was in 1987 – just 25 years ago. Stars came and went, and then Andy Williams opened his own Moon River Theater in 1992, 20 years ago. When Andy died recently, the theater stayed open and we were privileged to see the Christmas show there. We thought it might be sort of a maudlin production, but, wow, it was one of the best shows in town.
Why? They did it up right! Instead of bits and pieces of nostalgic stuff, they had a bright, multi-talented group of performers who knocked our socks off.
One of the best male singers I’VE ever heard in Branson carried the show with a magnificent voice.Acts from TV’s “America’s Got Talent” have been booked at the Moon River Theater, and it was an upbeat show where we all sang along to “Moon River” with a film of Andy singing that song shown on the screen above us. Everything was first class. What might have turned out to be a rather sad and forlorn tribute to a star of the past turned out to be a first-class production that had us giving it a hearty standing ovation.
We’d heard of the Hughes Brothers, but had never seen them. But they were on our schedule so we thought we’d take in this show for the first time. And we found it to be one of the best shows in Branson. Imagine this: Mother Hughes greeted us on the bus; Father Hughes played Santa in the show. The seven brothers all had terrific voices, but the big deal was that every member of their families was in the show.That meant that the Hughes Brothers show, which has been voted “the best Christmas Show in Branson,” had a cast of 50, all members of the Hughes family.
Marty Hughes and his wife, for instance, have 13 children. Jason and his wife have seven children and one on the way. Adam and his wife have just one child, but Ryan and his wife have seven children, and Andy and his wife have four. It’s amazing that the family has been able to produce a “baby Jesus” for the Christmas Nativity scene for the past 17 years.
The kids are home schooled, and all take music, dance and violin lessons and perform like one big, happy family. If I had to vote for the best show in Branson, I might put the Hughes Brothers at the top of the list, along with the Grand Jubilee Show at the Grand Country Theater in a complex that houses a motel, an endless buffet of food, gift shops and a theater that offers three different shows a day. “New South” has been voted “Branson’s best quartet,” and I’d have to agree after seeing their evening show at the Grand Country Theater. They were terrific!
What else did we see? Well, of course there was the three-hour Danny O’Donnell Show in his 3,000-seat theater (which was packed), 12 Irish Tenors (which was every bit as good as you’d expect), and the Shoji Tabuchi Show. Shoji must have decided that he could lure a crowd by just performing by himself – so this year he cut out all the acts from past years and did a more-or-less solo performance, changing sequined jackets with almost every song.
He’s still popular, and was scheduled for three shows the next day, but we missed some of the extra performers he’s always had with him. The Shoji theater restrooms, however, are still as dazzling as ever – and have long lines of visitors just to look over and photograph the decorations.
The “downer” on this bus trip to Branson was the Norovirus that struck many of the passengers in buses coming into Branson. My husband and I were among those who survived without catching it, but some of those on our bus – and our driver – were less fortunate. It was a particularly long ride home.