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Courtesy of the Presley Family
For Branson's Presley family, 40 years is just the beginning
For Branson’s renowned Presley family, the summer of 2007 witnessed laughter and celebration, tears and grief. Through it all, the four generations who have made Presleys’ Country Jubilee an institution did what they do best. And what they do best, contrary to popular belief, would not be their combination of music and comedy, even though that is exceptional and has been profiled on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, Paul Harvey, Regis and Kathie Lee, and a host of other national broadcasts.
What the Presleys do best is stick together as a tightknit family, relying on their deep-rooted faith in God and a faith in the inseparable family bonds that have seen them through two-score years of good times and bad.
On June 30, 2007 the übertalented family of musicians celebrated their 40th year of performing on Branson’s 76 Country Boulevard. They were the first entertainers to build a theatre on that stretch of highway now filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Presleys were honored not just by friends and fans, but also by Missouri Governor Matt Blunt, the State Legislature, the City of Branson, the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Taney County Commissioners. It was a time of smiles and pride, particularly for the matriarch and patriarch of the clan, Lloyd and Bessie Mae Presley.
Just a month and a half later, on August 12, Bessie Mae passed away at the age of 84, succumbing to the pulmonary fibrosis and diabetes she had battled with nary a complaint for several years. Although each and every Presley was rocked to the core by the profound loss of their loving and seemingly indestructible wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, they found solace in the sources that had served them so well in years past—faith and each other. Eventually, they relied on the knowledge that their beloved Bessie Mae had lived a full and extraordinarily happy life, experiencing countless smiles at the fulfillment of professional dreams and, more important, infinite pride in the people her large family had become—people who care not just about one another but also about friends, strangers, and the community.
The Presley story begins in the 1850s, when the family first set foot in the green and rugged Ozark hills of southwest Missouri. However, the more modern tale starts in 1934, when ten-year-old Lloyd Presley, son of a Pentecostal preacher, watched his older brother, Don, trade a prized hound dog for a guitar. Such would be the impetus for a musical legacy that to this day shows no sign of slowing.
“That’s where the music started,” Lloyd says with a smile. “But that hound dog was a good ol’ dog, and I sure hated to see him go.” Both Don and Lloyd’s sister, Elva Mae, made token efforts to learn the guitar. However, both were teenagers and had other pursuits on their minds. The instrument was barely in its case and stashed under the bed before young Lloyd pulled it out and began to teach himself music.
“Of course me being just a little kid, I was really watching everything she’d been doing. When she quit going to lessons and quit playing guitar, I jumped right on it,” he says. “I had already learned the chords that she had learned, just by watching her play, and it all kind of went on from there.”
Lloyd had a natural aptitude for guitar and singing, and with another brother, Elwin, joining in with his harmonica and voice, the two began playing in their father’s church, at ice cream suppers and pie socials, and any venue that would allow them to pluck and sing from the back of a flatbed truck. And then lightning struck … the good kind. At age eighteen, Lloyd happened to be hanging out with friends near the bumper car rides at Springfield’s Doling Park. It was there, for the first time, that he laid eyes upon Bessie Mae Garrison. The two began dating (Lloyd always brought along his guitar), and in 1942, the couple married. They remained devoted and in love for nearly 65 years.
And though many of those early years were not easy, they were almost always fun. The couple’s four children would come soon. Deanna was born in 1943. Next came Gary in 1946, Janice in 1952, and Steve in 1956. Lloyd continued to play his music wherever and whenever he could in the 1940s, forming a group known around southwest Missouri as the Ozark Playboys.
However, music didn’t pay the bills. During the day, he operated a trucking business, providing and delivering produce to local grocers. He would continue operating this business until 1967 and, for years after that, earned extra money as a fishing guide on the area lakes and rivers (as well as giving angling reports as The Friendly Fisherman on Springfield’s KY-3 TV) for many years.
Though none of the Presley kids were ever forced into music, they naturally took to it like a duck to water. From the late 1950s until 1967, the Presleys performed in Springfield’s Fantastic Caverns and at the (now defunct) Underground Theatre near Kimberling City. By this time, Lloyd had been joined on stage by Deanna, Janice, and
Gary. It was in those damp and leaky caves that Gary, at age fifteen, added his comedy twists to the show, creating his hillbilly character of Herkimer. Herkimer was a hit from day one (he still is and is internationally trademarked).
In 1965, a young Steve first took the stage as drummer, a position he occupies to this day.
In 1967, taking a leap of faith, the Presleys purchased 10 acres on Branson’s Highway 76. A far cry from the glittering and glitzy thoroughfare it is today, Highway 76 was simply a desolate strip of broken asphalt in open countryside four miles from Branson.
“When we built the theatre in 1967, we built it with a flat floor and big, double doors in the backside. We didn’t know how the business would do, so Dad and Gary had the thought that, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work as a theatre, we can always use it for boat storage,’”Steve Presley says.
Steve, the youngest member of the group, was initially provided equipment just a tad south of high tech.
“Nobody was playing drums in the family; really, at that time, there weren’t a whole lot of drums in country music. So, they sat me on the stage with just a snare drum. I literally sat on a block of wood with a little piece of plywood nailed to the top,” Steve says.
The grand opening of the Mountain Music Theatre was on June 30, 1967 (the name has evolved to Presleys’ Country Jubilee). Recalling how locals sought to escape the stifling Ozark summers in the naturally cool cave theatres, the words “air-conditioned” figured prominently on the building’s sign. Admission was one dollar for adults and fifty cents for kids.
Every member of the family was involved with the production in one way or another. On stage, Lloyd played guitar and banjo, while Gary continued with his Herkimer character that had proven such a draw at Fantastic Caverns and the Underground Theatre. Sisters Deanna and Janice sang, as did Deanna’s husband Dave Drennon. The entire family continued to work day jobs to support the fledgling enterprise, and then performed six nights a week (in some years, two shows per night). Lloyd would guide fishermen from the wee hours of the morning. For years, Gary and Bessie made a daily drive to Royal Typewriter at Springfield, before finally landing jobs in Branson. By this time, Gary had married Pat Adams, who was working at a Branson bank.
It was a hard row to hoe.
“We enjoyed doing it and were dedicated to making things work. For the first three years, we didn’t make a penny. The only money we made at all was the change we found on the floor that fell out of people’s pockets,” Gary says. Everything else, every cent, it went to pay the entertainers we’d hired, or to pay expenses, or to pay the bank. When we finally made a little money in our fourth year, we were overjoyed.”
Much has changed in those forty years.
Today, the theatre is a state-of-the-art facility, packed most every night and holding 1,600 people. More important, the third generation of Presleys have moved to the forefront of the production, and the fourth generation appears to contain a few performers, too.
Gary and Pat’s trio of sons are crowd pleasers. Scott is the lead guitar player, and there are few harmonica players in the United States who can match Greg’s skills and talent. Eric developed his “Cecil” character, which now rivals his Dad’s “Herkimer” in popularity.
In 1976, Steve married Raeanne Miller and had three children. Nick handles all the video and electronic production of the shows. John is known for his showmanship and virtuosity on the piano, while seventeen-year-old Sarah plays both fiddle and saxophone.
Then there is the up-and-coming fourth generation. Lloyd and Bessie Mae were blessed with eight great-grandchildren from Scott and wife Malinda, Eric and wife Kelli, and Nick and wife Rhianna. Twelve-year-old Lauren Presley, Scott and Malinda’s eldest, is already showing her talent as a vocalist. It’s a true family endeavor, and every male member of the Presleys attests that none of it would be possible without the wives who were and are behind the scenes.
“On the family side, we always get all the credit because we’re the ones who are on stage. This is still true now, but in the early days, it was the wives behind the scenes that made everything go. They worked during the day and then at the theatre at night. They sold the tickets. They popped the popcorn. They ran the concession stands. Really, everybody just pitched in and was part of it,” Steve says.
Before her passing, Bessie Mae Presley had a standard response to the thousands of fans who would say to her, “You must be very proud.”
“We’ve been very blessed,” she would respond in her quiet and happy manner.
Truer words have never been spoken.