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."
Not to worry, though, for Berry promises to be back at work the next day. And sure enough, when I arrive with a photographer the following afternoon, there she is, greeting me at the door. "You all are going to have a ball in Branson," she says. "We're so glad you're here." (Surgeons, by the way, were able to extract the infection with a syringe and not a melon baller.)
The secret to Branson's success, Berry crows, is its Southern hospitality. It's the same welcoming spirit that author Harold Bell Wright documented a century ago, when his 1907 novel The Shepherd of the Hills first put the Ozarks on the map. In the book, Wright tells the tale of a hardscrabble hill family whose compassion triumphs over the ill will of the Baldknobbers gang, a vigilante group that terrorized southern Missouri following the Civil War.
The Baldknobbers disbanded in the 1880s, but their hooded cousins, the Ku Klux Klan, still remain active in parts of the Ozarks today. Fifty miles due south of Branson — in Compton, Arkansas — the KKK lists its number in the phone book. "We're a state-licensed organization concerned with white rights," says Klan membership coordinator Travis Pierce. "But we're not into violence. We don't advocate that." (Again, that Southern hospitality.)
In Branson, any hard feelings left over from the Civil War can be washed away each night at Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede. The audience at the buxom singer's indoor rodeo is split into sections, with one side cheering the North, the other the South. During my visit, trick horsemen dressed as Union soldiers won the rodeo. Dinner — chicken, pork, corn — came served by an African-American teenager dressed as a Confederate soldier. The show ended with Parton's videotaped image singing a patriotic ballad, reminding me that no matter our differences, we're all Americans. I stand proud and brave and tall/I want justice for us all/So color me America — red, white and blue!
Such a curious phenomenon is Branson that in December 1991, 60 Minutes aired a story calling it the "new" country-music capital of America. "The audience is the American audience," opined co-host Morley Safer. "They come here to the buckle of the Bible Belt to reaffirm their belief in a certain way of life. And in their time here, they'll never hear a dirty word or see a bare bosom — nothing here to offend granny. In fact, granny's probably here."
The town hasn't been the same since. "Many would agree that 60 Minutes launched a new era of growth," Berry says. "Performers, visitors, developers and new residents flocked to see what was going on." Since 1990, Branson's population has nearly doubled to 7,400 — and so has the number of vacationers, to nearly 8 million last year. While Branson attracts its fair share of young families, it will forever remain the retiree's Shangri-La — and the geezers aren't coming just to take in the shows.
Each day, the elderly arrive by the busload to scarf down golden-fried vittles at Branson's all-you-can-eat buffets and shop at stores like Dressing Gaudy (an aptly named clothing boutique) and Jiggling George's, a medical-device outlet where the geriatric can hook themselves to machines and, well, jiggle.
"Branson just keeps getting better and better," says sexagenarian Leanna Collins, who, along with her husband, Dick, has vacationed in Branson for each of the past 21 years. "Back then, the strip consisted of just a few tin-framed music halls. Now the town has everything."
By 10 a.m. on a muggy Friday, the Collinses have already taken in a breakfast gospel show when they stop by a store that rents Segways — those electric, stand-up scooters made famous by mall cops the world over. For a moment, the only people coursing along the Segway track are 69-year-old Dick, dressed in denim shorts and a plaid button-down shirt, and a 12-year-old boy in a T-shirt that reads "Jesus Never Strikes Out."
"God and country are number one in Branson," confirms Berry. Look no farther than the God & Country Theatre and the God & Country Inspirational Garden, featuring a 30-foot-by-60-foot American flag and giant obsidian replicas of the Ten Commandments. Even the local skate shop, Different Skateboards, has religious underpinnings. "The name comes from First Corinthians: 'There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord,'" explains the store's 25-year-old owner, Clint Sawyer. "The message I want to send is that Christians can have fun." Still, Sawyer admits that Branson can sometimes be a bit challenging for 20-somethings. "Until a couple years ago, the only music was country. Now there's some goth and punk."
The addition this year of a $420 million outdoor mall and convention center in downtown Branson, complete with bars and restaurants, has even created a nascent singles scene. Not that it matters for Sawyer. He met his wife at the scene of a car wreck. "The accident drew quite a crowd," he recalls. "Thankfully, we were just onlookers." Between 1990 and 2000, the number of theaters in Branson more than doubled with stars such as Wayne Newton, Kenny Rogers and Tony Orlando elbowing each other to get in on the action.
So heady was Branson's growth and so elderly its entertainers that it sparked a trivia game titled "Dead or in Branson?" To play the game, take the name of an aging or obscure entertainer and ask your friends whether the person is dead or working in Branson. Country singer Moe Bandy? In Branson. Boxcar Willie? Dead. (Willie was in Branson. He died there in 1999.)
Smirnoff arrived in 1993. But far from finding a place to die, the Cold War comedian discovered in Branson a place to relaunch his career. "There was no Disney or Universal here to tell you if you're funny or not," Smirnoff says. "If you work hard, you can be successful." So, while bigger-name acts — Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn — have come and gone, Smirnoff only gets busier. This year he'll perform a total of 184 morning and afternoon shows in his cavernous theater on the edge of town.
A 3 p.m. performance one day in late July begins with the national anthem and follows with a skit in which angels dance before the pearly gates of heaven. The voice of God commands Smirnoff to bring laughter into the world, and the comic spins onto the stage as though blinded by the light of the Lord. For the next 45 minutes, Smirnoff peppers the crowd with the fish-out-of-water observations that established him. ("When I came to America, I saw these signs in bathrooms that said 'Baby Changing Station.' I thought to myself, 'Wow! You don't like your baby, you just leave it here and pick up another. What a country!'")
In the second half of the show, Smirnoff offers the crowd advice on how humor can salvage relationships. Never mind that he himself is divorced. "The marriage seemed so solid on the surface," Smirnoff tells me after the show. "There was no drinking, drugs, infidelity. But there wasn't enough laughter."
In front of the crowd, though, Smirnoff is all yuks. While living in Los Angeles during the 1980s, the comedian shared an apartment with the notoriously foulmouthed comic Andrew Dice Clay. Today, the former roommates couldn't be more different, with Smirnoff careful not to upset any of the "grannies" seated in his theater. The most off-color joke of the day comes when Smirnoff comments on what he refers to as the real Cold War: "The battle of the sexes."
"Little girls get dolls and blankets when they're babies," Smirnoff says. "What do little boys get? Circumcised. Sure, my parents paid the bill for the operation, but I left the tip!"
The show concludes with Smirnoff dancing with the Statue of Liberty and delivering a teary-eyed Pledge of Allegiance. The crowd gobbles it up, rising to give the comedian and his performers a standing ovation. Yeah, it's corny and contrived — just the way they like it in Branson. Just ask the city's top official, Mayor Raeanne Presley. In the 1960s, her Presley family (no relation to Elvis) was the first to locate a music hall on Missouri Highway 76, now better known as "The Strip."
"If you want to walk on the wild side, then Branson isn't for you," Presley says. "We've done a pretty good job of shielding ourselves."
Three years ago, the Presleys and other Branson powerbrokers, including the Herschend family (founders of Silver Dollar City), successfully fought an effort to bring a casino to the nearby town of Rockaway Beach. "We don't morally judge people who go to casinos," the mayor explains, "but we didn't feel it fit the Branson brand."
Branson leaders have voiced similar disapproval of other perceived societal ills and have banned adult bookstores and condemned the sale of alcohol. "Alcohol is a poison," preached Branson Alderman Jack Purvis during a 2003 meeting to curb liquor sales in the city. "We went to war to fight terrorism. The biggest terrorism we face is alcohol!"
When I ask Smirnoff to show me Branson's red-light district, the comic swiftly responds with honking laughter: "We're going to need infrared goggles to find it." In 1978, the year after Elvis Presley died of a heart attack while sitting on his toilet, a statistician predicted that the King's surging popularity was so great that by the year 2020, one out of three Americans would be Elvis impersonators. Had the statistician narrowed his prediction to Branson, he wouldn't be far off the mark. The town boasts at least half a dozen Elvises, including a Hawaiian Elvis, a Cuban Elvis, and an Elvis who performs alongside a fake Garth Brooks and a fake Britney Spears. Then there's arguably the most underappreciated Elvis in town — Dave "Elvis" Ehlert.
On a recent Friday afternoon, I'm one of just 16 people who have arrived to see a show called "Elvis Sings Country" in Ehlert's off-the-grid theater in old downtown Branson. Dressed in a silk shirt and a black suit of a decidedly 1950s-era Elvis, Ehlert bursts onto the stage to the theme song of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. After a few hip-swinging melodies, Ehlert pauses to address the crowd. "Who out there is a fan of country music?" he asks. When no one responds, Ehlert turns the question around: "Who's a fan of Elvis?" Again, silence. "OK, you're a wonderful audience — even if you all came in the same car."
An hour later, Elvis has left his theater, and Ehlert settles in behind a bar stool next to me at a nearby pizza parlor. A native of Chicago, Ehlert boasts that he was the first person inducted into the Elvis Impersonator Hall of Fame. Still, Ehlert believes small acts like his are too often dismissed by the visitors bureau and other powers that be in town. "They view us as bottom-feeders, feeding off the advertisement they spend promoting the place," he says.
What's more, Ehlert doesn't always buy into the patriotism and religion that fuel so much of Branson. "Thankfully, Elvis sang a lot of gospel songs," Ehlert says. "So I get a free pass on that one."
In addition to performing as Elvis, the virtuoso Ehlert also impersonates Mark Twain, Hank Williams, Dean Martin, Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond. The one character he can't do is John Wayne. "We had a John Wayne working for us who would force everyone in the audience to recite the Pledge of Allegiance," Ehlert recalls. "After he berated a family from Canada for not following along, I told him he couldn't do the bit anymore. He spread nasty rumors all around town that I wasn't patriotic."
So what keeps the Elvis impersonator plugging away in Branson? It's the same thing, I suspect, that has led everyone, from Smirnoff to Andy Williams, to Branson. "I'm pretty much unemployable at anything else," Ehlert says .