Courtesy Branson Variety Theater
Some things never change in Branson. There are still license plates from most of the lower forty-eight and the occasional one from Alaska. And although a recent bypass system of roads has made navigation of the Ozark hills a breeze, The Strip, which was once the only way through the city’s entertainment district, still occasionally sees bumperto- bumper jams. However, some things do change.
Branson isn’t originally known for famous sinking ships, fine dining, Beatles fanatics, and late night clubs, but in the recent past, this city has begun to boast the best mix of entertainment in the country. Branson’s original claim to fame was country music, and several Branson favorites are past the half-century mark. But within the past decade, many new theaters have opened, offering more than country.
“The perceptions of Branson are much different from reality,” Mayor Raeanne Presley says. “There is more to do than people think, more variety. I seldom hear ‘I was bored.’ ”
Marty Scott isn’t very hard to pick out of a crowd; just look for a moppy, bowl-cut hairdo and toothy grin. “I’ll be the one who looks like a Beatle,” he says—George Harrison to be exact. In 2006, Marty started performing with the Liverpool Legends, and fans have been screaming ever since.
“There’s no other show where a high school kid could agree with his grandparent,” Marty says. “Nobody has done that before; the Beatles are some freak of nature.” George Harrison’s sister, Louise Harrison, noticed Marty playing in a Beatles tribute band in Chicago, and the next thing he knew, he was sitting on a couch next to her and Paul McCartney. Before they settled down in Branson, the Liverpool Legends toured the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. “The Beatles will work everywhere,” Marty says. In Branson, they stick out like a sore thumb, but it works for them. Their goal is to recreate the whole Beatles mania and concert scene. “If people are sitting down, we want them to stand up,” Marty says. “We don’t want polite clapping, we want screaming!”
The Liverpool Legends aren’t the only performers making waves. Silver Dollar City gave Branson a taste of Jeerk, a Swedish group that performed at the KidsFest. Brad Schraeder, director of entertainment at Silver Dollar City, described them as a mixture of Stomp and the Blue Man Group. Silver Dollar City used to travel to places like New York City, Chicago, and Dallas looking to bring performers to Branson, but nowadays the performers come to them. “We hold an annual audition, and in two days, we see around two hundred people,” Brad says.
The Branson Variety Theater opened in 2003 and is the host of unconventional shows.
“Variety is part of the equation for being successful,” says Mark Bryson, former general manager of the theater. When Spirit of the Dance opened in 1998, it was “one of the first non-country shows.” It’s been running for eleven years now.
When Spirit of the Dance Productions bought the Bobby Vinton Theatre in 2003, they added Broadway! to the lineup. Broadway! Offers all of those great musical theater hits without having to fly to New York to catch them. Then, The Twelve Irish Tenors opened in 2007. It showcases some of Ireland’s best voices. They sing anything from Elton John to contemporary pop music.
Branson is home to some great family comedy and magic acts as well. The Hamner Barber Variety Show includes stand-up comedy for all ages, as well as original magic and illusions. Jim Barber, the ventriloquist and funny man of the show, says the performance is not only geared toward older adults but is also meant to be a shared family experience. “I do a lot of comedy that appeals towards teens as well,” he says. “Part of my comedy act includes an Austin Powers scene with a group dance.” Jim has a variety of comedy acts, including a Chihuahua dog named Chico, acts involving audience members, and his most famous act where his own dummy carries him out on stage, which earned him a spot on David Letterman a few years back.
Another aspect of the show is illusionists Dave and Denise Hamner, who are famous for a pirate-parrot act where tropical birds fly over the audience’s heads and land on stage. Dave manipulates cards and coins, making them appear and disappear, and at one point in the show, Denise can be seen levitating off the floor. Another magician calls Branson home, and his act features co-stars of a feline persuasion. Four white Siberian tigers and a lion in training star alongside Kirby VanBurch in his magic show. The show is one of the only magic shows in the world to use big cats. From a very young age, the animals are introduced to clapping, music, bright lights, and other loud noises that might normally startle them. There have never been any negative incidences with the big cats at the show, and since the Siegfried and Roy accident, the Kirby VanBurch Theatre has taken precautions to keep both the cast and audience safe; the animals are tethered at all times with a steel attachment to their collars whenever they are out of their cages.
The show has a personal feel, with mind reading and illusions developed by Kirby himself. It also has many tricks that appeal to the teen crowd, including young and hip music and a cool motorcycle illusion. Plus, there is also a backstage “cat compound” tour after the show, where audience members can see the dressing rooms, costumes, and where the animals are kept.
Branson’s entertainers, managers, and restaurant and retail owners agree the city will continue to change in the future. The shows and attractions coming in are diversifying the crowds even more, but the ability to pull visitors from across the country and talent from around the world is something that will remain the same.