1 of 4
Courtesy of the Haygoods
The Haygoods, a group of five brothers and one sister from Texas, have performed in ten thousand concerts for more than five million people. The family moved to Branson in 1993.
2 of 4
Courtesy of The Baldknobbers Jamboree
Members of the Mabe family audition for and perform for The Baldknobbers Jamboree, but there are just as many family members not on stage, says Brandon Mabe.
3 of 4
Courtesy of Showboat Branson Belle
Silver Dollar City’s Showboat Branson Belle is about the same size as a football field.
4 of 4
Courtesy of ’70s Music Explosion
Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch, performs in the now retired show, Lunch with the Brady Bunch. He now performs in ’70s Music Explosion.
By Sarah Alban
With the passing of entertainment icon Andy Williams, a light shines on an empty spot in the Moon River Theatre. There’s an opening for Branson’s next big act. But there’s always been an opening. Always an audition for a hungry performer. Always a young person practicing somewhere today to become a Missouri starlight tomorrow. Always a Hollywood performer dreaming of a lifeless artificial than the one California offers after curtain call.
The Branson talent pool is less a melting pot than a sundae: A base of live, active performers whose recipe started in 1959 but stays fresh with creative additions. Not M&M’s and chocolate chips but new faces, sharper costumes, and modern special effects. The result is a five-decades-old formula folded with new flavors each year, and just like at the ice cream shop, there are more flavors than you can try in one visit.
What follows is a deconstruction of the Branson formula, a peek into how the old recipe has spread from one show in 1959 to more than one hundred today, and a glimpse at how new performers crack into the competitive schedule. We start with the old kids on the block: the Baldknobbers and the Presleys, who host Branson’s oldest show on the famous Country 76, or the Strip. We end with a preview of what’s to come, and we trace everything in between.
Act I: 1959 and Table Rock Dam
There weren’t many cameras in 1959. But there were lights and action, for 1959 is when Branson banged big.
That year, construction finished on Table Rock Dam, which brought massive electric power to the area. Fishermen swarmed to try some of the country’s best trout fishing on Lake Taneycomo. Mary and Bruce Trimble put on the inaugural outdoor performances of Harold Bell Wright’s 1907 novel, Shepherd of the Hills, at a stage a mile east of Branson. The year marked eighteen years since John Wayne had appeared in The Shepherd of the Hills movie and nearly eighty years since caves brought spelunkers to the area. One year later, Silver Dollar City would open around its single attraction, Marvel Cave.
More importantly, 1959 was the year Branson got its first live act: The Baldknobbers Jamboree Show. Brothers Bill, Bob, Jim, and Lyle Mabe performed a routine of country songs broken up by Ozark comedy twice a week at a skating rink. They used a four-part formula: God, country, comedy, patriotism.
Through everything that developed in Branson entertainment, those four ingredients remained.
Four years later, another family picked up instruments—inside a cave marketed as the Underground Theatre—and started a Saturday night show with the same formula. Although the Baldknobbers and Presleys share a formula, their shows differ a lot. Both are worth seeing, and, incidentally, both remain family-owned.
“There’s no business like show business,” says Brandon Mabe, grandson of Jim Mabe. “And there’s also no business like family business.”
Brandon and his cousin, Denton Mabe, used to sing “Tears in Heaven” into a plastic microphone when they were twelve. All night long, they crooned the Eric Clapton song to an audience of each other. Then at age twenty-one, each endured the rigorous rounds of Baldknobber auditions. Each made the cut. You’d think they were groomed for the stage. The catch is, their parents never groomed Brandon and Denton for the stage. The two groomed themselves. They wanted to enter their granddad’s business more than they wanted to become astronauts or play football. Plenty of Mabes wanted nothing of the sort. (Plenty more Mabes did want to join the show, but they didn’t have the chops at auditions.)
A half-mile west, the Presleys share the attitude that sons and daughters should choose to enter the business. Twenty-three-year-old Sarah Presley always assumed she would join the stage full-time after graduating from college in Nashville.
“But once I went away, I realized I didn’t miss performing, per se,” Sarah says, laughing lightly. “There’s enough Presleys on the stage.”
Today, Sarah works the business side behind the scenes. “We haven’t come up with a good name for it yet, honestly,” she says of her title, “but you can go with secretary if you want.”
For now, both the Presleys and Mabes draw just part of their casts from family. Each family has plenty of young potential heirs today, but some of them might want to become astronauts or secretaries.
And that’s okay. The stage is reserved for those who seek it.
Act II: Branson Explodes in the 1990s
The Presleys built the first theater on the Branson Strip in 1967, the Baldknobbers built one the year after, and more followed. Branson was getting a buzz in the music business. The 1970s and 1980s brought Roy Clark, Ray Stevens, Shoji Tabuchi, and Buck Trent. Then in 1991, Branson exploded nationally. Big media realized what was going on in Missouri’s southwest corner. Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, People magazine, and 60 Minutes all ran stories. Audiences rushed to the scene. Ray Stevens, Buck Trent, and Andy Williams built theaters. Johnny Cash, Wayne Newton, Tony Orlando, and The Osmonds performed.
Dolly Parton built Dixie Stampede, a rodeo dinner show with real buffalo. Silver Dollar City built the Showboat Branson Belle, a three-story dinner ship with music and comedy. Silver Dollar City also got new roller coasters, Kirby VanBurch brought a magic show, and Yakov Smirnoff served a comedy show with a side of breakfast. By 2005, Branson could out-seat Vegas or Broadway for audiences. It surpassed Music Capitol status. It had become an Entertainment Mecca. Entertainment
Meccas need lots of performers. Jim Moeskau has hired hundreds from other cities, states, and countries. The general manager for the Showboat Branson Belle and former talent scout for Silver Dollar City traveled to New York City to see—and then sign—violin-playing acrobat Janice Martin. He pulled award-winning unicyclist Anthony Mokrousov and his award-winning trapeze-ballerina sister Vanya from Russia. If someone outside Branson wants to perform here, Jim’s a good person to wow.
“In two to five minutes, I can tell if I want more,” Jim says. “You just know it.”
Jim seeks performers with experience, no matter where they get it. The ones who get contracts pour buckets of elbow grease into demanding performances. Every day. For months at a time. Branson is a long-term contract city, with shows running six to ten months, which means it’s hard to get a one-night-only deal. More importantly, Branson entertainers have to want to be in Branson. The shows Jim struggles to book are the ones that want to stop over for a few nights and then head back to the touring circuit.
“We couldn’t come to an agreement with pay, schedules, and showtimes,” Jim says of an America’s Got Talent act he tried to book, emphasizing the scheduling aspect.
One of Jim’s biggest success stories—certainly his longest-running—is the Haygoods, a group of six brothers and one sister Jim booked out of Texas in the 1990s. More than twenty years after playing their first gig at Silver Dollar City, which ironically was a two-week contract, Jim kept renewing until somehow eight years passed. The Haygoods have built a multimillion-dollar, multi-theater business on the Branson Strip. With ages from eighteen to thirty-five, the siblings manage more than a dozen shows, including 3 Redneck Tenors and Todd Oliver and his Talking Dogs, in a city where dozens of theaters host hundreds of shows, many of which fail. Yet most of the Haygoods’ shows succeed.
As it turns out, Jim’s longest-running success story might beget Branson’s next longest-running success story: The Haygoods might have tweaked the formula forever.
Act III: Something Old, Something New
The Haygoods not only know their audience, they data-mine it. They’ve hired a full-time researcher who tracks which people attend their shows in summer, in winter, and so on. They know an audience makeup by age and gender and even know who’s not attending their shows. The only thing the Haygoods don’t know is how an audience will react to a new song or dance. Everything else, piece of cake.
And the data are singing a new tune: Branson’s audiences are getting younger. Average age has fallen to the fifties. The Baldknobbers have noticed this, the Presleys have noticed this, and you might notice this: The Boomers have arrived.
The Haygoods are adjusting their shows accordingly. God, country, comedy, and patriotism remain, but they’ve added Michael Jackson, lasers, and fog machines to the mix. Whatever they’ve done, it works. The Haygoods have played for more than fi e million people.
A drive down the Branson Strip teems with billboards of the past. Not Branson past. Boomer past. Billboards promise the Beatles, the Eagles, John Denver, the Blues Brothers, the Rat Pack.
“They’re paying to see Elvis,” says Dean Z, a baby-cheeked impersonator born after Elvis died but who just nailed a performance at the Legends in Concert show in front of hundreds. Right now, Branson has a few Elvises (Elvii?) running around. Dean expects today’s pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake to replace his act on Branson’s billboards decades from now.
As for that prediction, the data will tell. The formula will adapt, but only so far. God, country, comedy, patriotism—and Gaga? Not scheduled yet.
One of the newest shows to Branson’s schedule is ’70s Music Explosion, produced by the Haygoods and starring Barry Williams, better known as Greg Brady.
“Barry was looking for a new place, and we were looking for a seventies show,” Timothy Haygood says.
The data basically said, “Ye Haygoods, getteth ’70s music!” So they grabbed Barry.
Act IV: Big Hearts and Big Shows
Branson performers come from all over. Some weigh the hefty choice to enter the family business. Some audition for enormously competitive attractions. Some get recruited by theater owners. Some practice Elvis moves in front of the TV while they’re toddlers. Most come to Branson because they’ve made a choice. They live by the formula: God, country, comedy, patriotism.
Russian-American comedian Yakov Smirnoff sold his $2.5-million mansion in Los Angeles because he dreamed of raising his kids, Natasha and Alexander, in Missouri, a place where he hasn’t locked his car in twenty years.
“My first words were ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,’ ” Yakov jokes. (I think he was joking.) Lasers, fog lights, data, cave performances, and celebrities aside, Branson is a place for people with big hearts to come and have a good time. So where does Branson get its performers?
They breed them, recruit them, train them, and even import them from Russia.
Optimism and openness to learn define performers who happen to have talent.
Are you still looking down on The Strip, Andy?
We think you’ll like what you see.