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Branson Singing a New Tune
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 20, 2006
[Note: This material is copyright by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.][T]he bulk of the construction is off the entertainment strip near the historic town of Branson, where the $450 million dollar Branson Landing is opening this Friday on 95 acres along Lake Taneycomo.
“What we really wanted to create for Branson was not a shopping center, but a true destination, an entertainment center,” said Richard Huffman, head of HCW Development Co., which is building the Landing. . . .
“If you go into a mall, you see the storefronts, buy clothes and leave,” Huffman said. “We want the consumer at Branson Landing to spend more than what the current Branson visitor is spending, which is $55 a day. We want it to be substantially more than that.” . . .
[S]hops and restaurants fan out on both sides in six themed districts, each with lighting and music reflecting its mood. . . . [T]here will be two Hilton hotels, including one adjoining the convention center . . ..
A town square with a fountain sits at the center of the complex, . . . and a 3,000-foot boardwalk with a marina . . ..
“What you’re going to be seeing is a water show that is 300 feet long, shooting 120 feet into the air,” Huffman said. “It has colored lights going up through the water . . . choreographed to a song, [with] 13 cannons, programmed to the song, shooting fire into the air. . . .
[C]ity officials predict visitation to Branson will improve 4 percent to 7.6 million people this year.
We did lunch. At Applebee’s. They had salads, I had the quesadilla burger.
Both seemed a bit shorter than I remembered, but aren’t we all?
Dressed in a black warm-up
suit with a Steelers cap pulled down low, Fabian
Anthony Forte gave me a card that read “ex-teen idol” as he slid onto a stool,
unnoticed by the other restaurant patrons. When he’s not riding the
golden-oldie show circuit, Fabian lives on a 20-acre farm in Pennsylvania with
his third wife and their dog.
“It’s like here, country
— no other way to live,” he said. “I was in California
for a while, but couldn’t take the traffic.”
Vee, short for Velline, and
his wife have two sons, who perform in his backup
band, and a daughter who recently wed. He got to sing one of his hits, “Take
Good Care of My Baby,” at her wedding. Wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
It was good to see the guys.
After all, we go back a half-century or so, to
when I and every other kid in the country would race home from school to watch
them on American Bandstand with another old friend, Dick Clark.
Clark is recovering from
a stroke and was unable to attend the debut this
spring of his new venture in Branson, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater.
Fabian, Vee and other performers from the vintage years of the television show
have signed on to appear in the theater and attract the next wave of visitors
“Boomers,” said Fabian, who
at 63 is on the leading edge of boomerdom. “We
looked at a theater here 10 years ago, but then the population was really
older. Now, we’re catching up. Our generation is going to be on those buses.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates
there will be 40.2 million consumers ages 65
and over by 2010. Not content to nod away retirement in front of the tube, they
are active travelers with time on their hands and money to spend. Branson is
courting them with a building boom that rivals the early 1990s, when this
little Ozark town was crowned the nation’s “live country music capital.”
Clark’s theater and the new
Titanic Museum, which is housed inside a giant
replica of the ship’s bow, complete with iceberg, are the new additions on
Highway 76, aka Country Music Boulevard. But the bulk of the construction is
off the entertainment strip near the historic town of Branson, where the $450
million dollar Branson Landing is opening this Friday on 95 acres along Lake
“What we really wanted to
create for Branson was not a shopping center, but a
true destination, an entertainment center,” said Richard Huffman, head of HCW
Development Co., which is building the Landing.
The Landing has 100 restaurants
and stores, including a Bass Pro Shop, where
you can try out your boat before buying it.
“If you go into a mall, you
see the storefronts, buy clothes and leave,”
Huffman said. “We want the consumer at Branson Landing to spend more than what
the current Branson visitor is spending, which is $55 a day. We want it to be
substantially more than that.”
Huffman sat in his office
and painted a word picture of what visitors will find
in Branson Landing:
In the open-air complex,
shops and restaurants fan out on both sides in six
themed districts, each with lighting and music reflecting its mood. You can eat
at Joe’s Crab Shack, stroll through the Belk Department Store or shop for
undies at Victoria’s Secret. If you want to spend the night, there will be two
Hilton hotels, including one adjoining the convention center that is scheduled
to open in 2007.
A town square with a fountain
sits at the center of the complex, creating a
community atmosphere, and a 3,000-foot boardwalk with a marina runs run along
But the star of the show
is an $8 million “fire and water” feature, courtesy of
the same folks who designed the waltzing waters in front of the Bellagio in Las
“What you’re going to be
seeing is a water show that is 300 feet long, shooting
120 feet into the air,” Huffman said. “It has colored lights going up through
the water, and they’ll be choreographed to a song, say ‘Moon Dance’ by Van
Morrison. It’s got 13 cannons, programmed to the song, shooting fire into the
“It’s the first time it’s
ever been done in the world, mixing a fire and water
show like this. Imagine the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ — ‘bombs bursting in air’ —
with all 13 cannons going off. It’ll be like Beirut or something.”
40 years and counting
To appreciate Branson’s future, I visited Branson’s past.
Steve Presley was 10 years
old in June of 1967 when his father, Lloyd, opened
the first music hall on Highway 76 to cater to the sportsmen who fished the
man-made lakes. The Mabe family, which formed the Baldknobbers, was singing in
a skating rink on the lakefront.
The Presleys had been performing
during the week in a cave called the
Underground Theater, and at Fantastic Caverns on Saturday nights. “In the early
1960s, there was nothing to do at night,” Presley said. “People could get out
of the heat and the caves had good acoustics.
“Our first theater was a
metal building with 363 canvas seats and a flat floor.
Dad’s idea was if the theater didn’t work, we could use the building for boat
The theater worked — the
Presleys are celebrating their 40th year this season
in a state-of-the-art theater built on the same site — and Presleys’ Country
Jubilee has been joined by 48 other theaters with more than 100 live shows,
revising Branson’s title to America’s “live music capital.” Not just country,
“In the last 10 to 12 years,
the competitive level in Branson has been tough,”
Presley said. “Mel Tillis opened in 1990, Willie Nelson was here in ’92 and ’
93. Johnny Cash came in the same period, and Andy Williams opened in ’92. We
were like a little Mom ’n’ Pop with Wal-Mart coming to town.”
The Presleys’ show features
four generations of the family, including Lloyd at
age 81, and adds outside talent to keep the show fresh each season. The blend
of slapstick humor, country music and a patriotic finale plays well in
“In the spring and fall,
we get the empty-nesters, the baby boomers who are
able to travel now that the kids have left home; in the summer, it’s families,”
Presley said. “We are one of the few shows that has a broad enough appeal to
attract all ages.”
John Joslyn had a ready answer
when asked why he moved his Titanic Museum from
Orlando, Fla., to Branson. “Seven million reasons why,” he said. Actually, city
officials predict visitation to Branson will improve 4 percent to 7.6 million
people this year.
Joslyn is a former television
producer who took a submersible to the Titanic
wreck in 1986 and produced a documentary, “Return to the Titanic ... Live.” The
project collected 1,800 artifacts from the ship’s debris field, which became a
To create his own museum,
Joslyn bought and borrowed artifacts from three other
sources: Possessions of passengers who were rescued, items retrieved from the
water and belongings of the deceased from their families. The Branson museum
uses the 400 artifacts on display to tell the personal story of passengers
onboard. The museum also has displays that let you feel an iceberg, see what
the captain saw and walk the listing deck.
Built on the site of a former
go-cart track, the museum exterior is a
half-scale replica of the ship, exact from the smokestacks down to the
portholes and rivets, Joslyn said. “We’ve duplicated the Titanic and put it in
the middle of Branson.”
Visitors get a “boarding
pass” when they pay the $16.95 admission, and at the
end of the tour find out if the passenger described on the pass survived the
disaster. Manca Karun, a 4-year-old traveling in third class, was the name on
my pass. Of the nearly 700 third-class passengers, only 181 survived, and Manca
was among the lucky.
“Since we opened March 8,
we’ve put 45,000 people through,” Joslyn said at the
start of May. “We give them a personal story that ties them to a passenger, and
at the end they learn their fate. It’s pretty dramatic.”
Keeping Branson fresh
From a table by the window
in the bluffside Candlestick Inn, city officials
Michael Rankin and Jerry Adams looked down on Lake Taneycomo and the flurry of
construction. They liked what they saw.
“The convention center, when
it’s open in 2007, will host about 154 meetings
and conventions a year; some will be several days,” said Adams, the city’s
communications director. “And those will be visitors we don’t currently have.”
Rankin, the city’s economic
development director, said Branson Landing will
attract the more affluent boomers looking for upscale amenities.
“There will be a cluster
of activities for the shopper looking for a good meal,
beverage, nightlife,” he said. “There will be 524 hotel rooms that will fill a
gap that’s been there for some time, for more of a full-service setting.”
Branson used the largest
TIF in the history of Missouri — $120 million of
public money — to pay for the boardwalk and town square portion of the Landing.
The two city officials have crunched the numbers and say the payback will be
510,000 new visitors a year, $180 million in annual revenues and $8 million in
“This is going to be a longer,
more steady growth period than the boom that
occurred in the ’90s,” Rankin. “We believe the Landing not only will draw
customers who didn’t have Branson on their radar screen, but we expect their
stay here will be longer.
“And other businesses in
town are building on that, too. It’s the theory that a
rising tide raises all ships. Tourism will always be our No. 1 market, and it’s
critical that you keep that product fresh.”
tuhlenbrock [at] post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8268
Top photo: The new Titanic
Museum is housed in a half-size replica of the ship
built on the Branson strip. Photo by Tom Uhlenbrock | Post-Dispatch
Middle photo: Brian Hyland
(left), the Chiffons (rear), Bobby Vee and Fabian
are among the stars performing in Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater.
Photo by Tom Uhlenbrock | Post-Dispatch
Bottom photo: Branson Landing
features more than 100 shops and restaurants on
Lake Taneycomo. Photo by Tom Uhlenbrock | Post-Dispatch
If you go
Where to stay: Branson has
every range of lodging, from condo rentals and
high-rise chains to Mom ’n’ Pop motels that advertise “2 for $26.95.” The new
Branson Landing has the Hilton Promenade, a 243-room boutique hotel with rooms
starting at $169 and “condotel” units ranging up to $350. Another interesting
addition is the Cabins at Grand Mountain, luxury “cabin villas” in a wooded
setting just off Highway 76. The one-bedroom cabins rent for $125 a night,
while a four-bedroom is $499; for more information, call 1-800-864-4145 or
Titanic Museum: Open daily,
9 a.m. to 11 p.m. 1-800-381-7670 and
Branson Landing: About 80
percent of the stores will be open by the end of May.
Bass Pro Shop will open later this summer. 1-888-526-3464 and
Everything else: Branson
Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and
Visitors Bureau at 1-800-214-3661 and www.explorebranson.com.
A taste of Branson entertainment
What: Presleys’ Country Jubilee
Highlights: The original
music show on Highway 76 gives a rollicking mix of
country, gospel and a little rock ’n’ roll from four generations of the Presley
family. John Presley is an accomplished pianist and Eric Presley, as Cecil,
provides slapstick stunts that are clever and funny. Throw in two of the most
beautiful entertainers in Branson — fiddle player Bethany Borg and singer
Ambrus Lee — and it’s a fun two hours.
Lowlights: Yes, it’s a staple
of Branson’s shows, but the patriotic finale is
getting kind of schmaltzy.
How much: $27 for the first
seven rows, and $24 behind. Bring an extra $4 for a
bag of cinnamon-glazed pecans or almonds.
Tickets and information:
1-417-334-4874 and www.presleys.com.
What: Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater Complex
Highlights: Brian Hyland
singing “Sealed With a Kiss” and “Gypsy Woman.” The
Chiffons doing “He’s So Fine.” Bobby Vee’s “Come Back When You Grow Up, Girl.”
Everything by Chris Montez, especially his renditions of the late Richie
Valens’ hits, “Donna” and “La Bamba.” Most acts were accompanied by vintage
film clips of Bandstand regulars in ponytails and pompadours dancing for the
Lowlights: Bill Medley, the
remaining Righteous Brother, was on a different
show, so I missed “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin.’”
How much: $39 for the show
and $7 to get into the incredible Patch Collection
of 1957 autos on the lower level (or $15 to see the cars only).
Tickets and information:
1-877-588-1957 and www.dickclarksabbranson.com.
What: Neil Goldberg’s Cirque at the Remington Theatre
Highlights: This is not Cirque
du Soleil, the Montreal-based outfit, but
presents the same genre of a flimsy storyline with acrobats, gymnasts and
trapeze artists performing in colorful outfits in a mythical setting. While the
staging here is not as spectacular, the crew of muscular young athletes
performs stunts just as dazzling as those seen in Las Vegas theaters, at less
than half the cost. Voted Branson’s best live show in 2004 and 2005.
Lowlights: You feel guilty
munching popcorn and sipping soda while the cast
does things you couldn’t do even when you were in shape.
How much: $35.57
Tickets and information:
1-800-884-4536 and www.remingtontheatre.com.
What: Liverpool Legends at Caravelle Theatre
Highlights: The four lookalikes
perform Beatles hits from all periods; some of
the best were “That Boy,” “Something in the Way She Moves” and a beautiful
rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by George. John is a cutup, Paul is
pretty, George is spacey and Ringo hides behind the drum kit. If you loved the
Beatles, you’ll love these guys. John’s not dead; he’s in Branson. Louise
Harrison, George’s sister, appears on stage to take questions about the Fab
Lowlights: The Beatles were
the world’s greatest songwriters, and even two
hours is not long enough to perform all their hits. You might miss a favorite.
How much: $28
Tickets and information: 1-417-334-5100 and www.liverpoollegends.com.
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