As he comes to a stop at a traffic light, the Ukrainian jokester of 1980s fame cuts a sharp left and shoots us toward the alley of one of Branson's ubiquitous strip malls. The rented Chrysler, Smirnoff acknowledges, doesn't handle as well as his Ferrari or his Jaguar — the latter with vanity plates "CIA," for Comrade In America — but it's not bad, either. Soon we're hurtling past the loading docks and trash bins of Wal-Mart. Not exactly the "scenic tour" I had in mind when I asked Smirnoff to show me around his adopted hometown. But before I can complain, he whips a quick right and we're back on "The Strip," exactly where I wanted to be.
As tires squeal to a halt, Smirnoff lets loose his famous tagline with his equally famous wind-sucking guffaw: "What a country!"
Blocking out the setting sun is Branson's newest attraction, a marooned ocean liner that bills itself as the "Worlds Largest Titanic Museum Attraction." I'm left pondering where on Earth the tiniest Titanic museum might be when I'm struck by an even more outrageous tourist draw. Sprouting up like a Styrofoam iceberg across the street from the Titanic looms a 40-foot-tall Mount Rushmore. In place of the presidential faces are those of John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin.
In the distance — visible beyond Marilyn's Frisbee-sized beauty mark — the horizon gives way to the Christian-themed Sight & Sound Theatre, a $36 million venue that will become Branson's biggest building to date when it opens next year with a show titled Noah the Musical.
To the uninitiated, Branson's whole garish landscape might seem downright unworldly — like landing on the moon, only to discover it's been colonized by NASCAR and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. As Homer put it in an episode of The Simpsons, Branson is "like Vegas — if it were run by Ned Flanders."
In biblical parlance, the town's history might be summarized as follows: A sleepy fishing retreat begat a country-music hall, begat an amusement park, begat Go Kart tracks, begat motor inns, begat outlet malls, begat Andy Williams and Dick Clark, who — in defiance of age and the laws of nature — begat modern-day Branson. It's a time capsule to kitsch Americana nostalgia. In other words, it's just the kind of place where Yakov Smirnoff — best known for his comedy lampooning the former Soviet Union — can routinely attract crowds of 1,500 people. On a Wednesday. At 9:30. In the morning.
"I wanted to go to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but they didn't think I'd be funny anymore," Smirnoff explains. "Then I heard of Branson." It would be easy to poke fun at Branson if the folks down there weren't so darn accommodating and sincere. Take, for example, Lynn Berry, director of public relations for the city's chamber of commerce. The day before departing for Branson, I reach Berry by cell phone as she's heading to the hospital. It seems a spider has bitten her in the back of the head, causing a staph infection. She explains, "The doctors are going to take something like a melon baller and scoop it out of my head."