The First Mate and I returned late yesterday from my first real vacation in three years, arriving back home after eight days on the road in Branson, Missouri. The boss wondered whether I’d really avoid posting on vacation, but with a couple of exceptions, I disconnected from the news and gave myself a chance to relax and enjoy myself.
Before arriving in Branson, we really had no idea what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised by the entertainment, and impressed by the amount of activities compressed in a town of about 6,000 people, all of whom apparently have jobs in the entertainment industry — or at the Wal-Mart. Branson has a lovely Ozarks setting, with plenty of natural beauty and scenic vistas. The town itself snakes along the edge of the hills, which makes for a terrible traffic flow on the main route. One souvenir T-shirt says, “I Survived Highway 76,” and after a couple of days, you’ll realize that it’s no joke. Turning left out of a driveway could get you killed if it wasn’t for the courteous drivers that share the road with you in Branson.
Branson has a reputation as a Vegas of the Midwest, with a plethora of theaters and shows whose start times run from 10 am to 8 pm. They all have two things in common: family-friendly material and a salute to veterans. In fact, I’d bet that Branson has a town ordinance that requires a veterans salute at the three-quarters mark in every show. Most of them feature country music, but most of those also feature other musical genres as well. Of course, since the typical Branson tourist is a retiree, the musical genres tend to end at the disco era, but the performers offer a pretty good range of material.
We saw five shows in five full days in Branson. Two shows usually get the most mention: comedian Yakov Smirnoff and violinist Shoji Tabuchi. Both are immigrants to the US, which becomes part of both acts, especially Yakov’s. We saw him first in a matinee show, where I discovered that Branson audiences don’t give back a lot of energy regardless of whether the performers do well. Of all the acts, Yakkov’s was the most touching, especially when he talks about his first experiences with America and Americans. His entire show is a love note to the USA. Tabuchi’s story is less fraught with complications but moving in its own way, as he spoke about growing up in Japan with a desire to become an American and play American bluegrass music.
The best overall show, however, was Jim Stafford’s. The I Hate Spiders and Snakes singer embraced the fun, goofiness, and flexbility of the variety-show format used in Branson and put on a high-energy performance. Like other Branson performers, Stafford has family in the show, and his teenage son and daughter were terrific. Stafford himself displayed his talent at classical guitar in an explosive finale. Many of the shows sell DVDs made instantly of the particular performance, but Stafford’s was the only one I felt compelled to buy. I’m looking forward to watching it again.
The other two shows were also quite good. Pierce Arrow Theater features a five-man singing group with some amazing harmonies, including one singer who holds two Guinness records for singing the lowest notes ever recorded. The show mainly focused on country-western and gospel, but they did a great version of Seven Bridges Road, one of my favorite Eagles songs. Clay Cooper also focused on country music, but had some good fun satirizing a few singers, especially Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. Cooper will be out in Red Wing on January 29th, and I’m hoping to catch his show again, assuming he doesn’t freeze to death in the Minnesota winter.
Alas, Branson isn’t known for its food. Most of the places in town are chain restaurants, although we did have a good meal at Shorty’s at Branson Landing on Lake Taneycomo. The best restaurant we found was Andy Williams’ Moon River Grille. We went back a second time after getting wonderful food and service the first time, and were not disappointed. It has a more low-key decor, excellent food, and a professional wait staff. I’m sorry we didn’t find it earlier.
Otherwise, the food we found was ordinary … or worse. The nadir was Pancho Villa’s Tex-Mex, where the food struggled to reach mediocrity, the wait staff was aggressively apathetic, and the facilities were atrocious. How bad? I had to change clothes after using them. ‘Nuf said.
Branson has plenty of other activities for families, although we didn’t see too many last week. I suspect school schedules kept families out of Branson last week, but they have plenty for kids besides the shows, which they might find tedious anyway. Branson has several water parks, miniature golf courses, go-kart tracks, and other kid-friendly activities. Not being 12, neither the FM nor I decided to try those out, but they looked fun. Branson also has golf courses, which the Admiral Emeritus visited a couple of times during the week. We visited a couple of shopping centers, including a very large outlet mall in town, and left quite a bit of cash behind.
We had the most fun at the Titanic museum and exhibit. The building is shaped like the bow of the Titanic, and I actually missed it on our first pass, and I have no idea how I could have failed to see it. It’s the largest permanent Titanic exhibit anywhere, and it took us three hours to get through it. There is a touring Titanic exhibit that features artifacts pulled from the ship’s final resting site; this exhibit features artifacts donated by survivors and the families of the deceased. Despite the building’s exterior, the exhibit was tastefully presented, and the staff courteous and friendly. This was the First Mate’s favorite part of the trip.
Branson was more fun than I had thought. At first, the relentlessly upbeat tone threw me, but it didn’t take long to embrace it. I get plenty of snarky, ironic entertainment, and I love that too, but it was also good to have some unabashed, unapologetic happiness and fun. Unlike Vegas, one can be entertained and relax at the same time, and unlike Vegas, one gets the sense that Branson’s community integrates into the themes of its shows — family, fellowship, faith, and patriotism. It’s Americana, and even if it gets a bit kitschy at times, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Note: I want to thank Allahpundit and the Green Room contributors for their tireless work filling the gap in my absence. I literally stopped reading and watching news all week; it was the only way to keep myself from blogging. It will take me a while to get back into the picture, but I plan to start blogging occasionally today, more tomorrow, and will be back in the full swing by Tuesday.
Update: I missed one point in the post. If you’re ever traveling through Kansas City, you have to stay at the Hotel Phillips. The staff were simply wonderful; I travel quite a bit and never felt as much as an honored guest at a hotel before staying there. I wish we could have stayed more than one night.