“Nobody understands Branson,” says Bobby Vinton. “I was like, ‘Branson, Missouri? Give me a break!’ ” Then in 1992, Vinton wised up to what should be the official motto of this Ozark outpost: Build a theater and they will come. The Bobby Vinton Blue Velvet Theatre, with its 1,600 azure seats, can be found just across Highway 76 from the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre, which features a Moon rivulet beside the parking lot. Just off the three-lane main drag, golden plastic bows adorn trees leading to the Tony Orlando Yellow Ribbon Music Theater. With 34 such venues, Branson’s total indoor seating capacity is 50,625—7,500 more than Broadway’s.
Last year 5.6 million visitors, the majority of them senior citizens, overran Branson (pop. 3,706), happily heeding “No needo tuxedo” signs and every day buying out dozens of performances, many of which begin at 10—in the morning. Sure, urban sophisticates might dismiss this alternative Opryland—home to more than 30 Osmond brothers and cousins plus former game show host John Davidson—as a kind of where-are-they-now theme park. But country’s Roy Clark was onto something when he became the first nationally known star to open a theater here in 1983.
Mickey Gilley, Boxcar Willie, Moe Bandy, Charley Pride and other graying Nashville veterans followed Clark in subsequent years. But now a second wave, of non-country performers—from the Lennon Sisters, who sing amid billowing bubbles at the (Lawrence) Welk Resort’s Champagne Theatre, to comedian Yakov Smirnoff—has begun to give Branson the feel of a Vegas-without-the-slots. “I came to Branson to see it with my family,” says Smirnoff, who performs at the Osmond Family Theater, “and never left.”
Setting up shop isn’t cheap—Mel Tillis spent $25 million on the 2,700-seat Mel Tillis Theater, which will eventually include a fully equipped TV facility and recording studio—but the Branson boom shows no sign of busting. Pat Boone, in town for eight months with The Will Rogers Follies, says life in the Ozarks is “probably as ideal as you’re going to get. I’m starting to get the itch to open my own theater.” Call it the April Love Lounge…not only for the very young.