Yakov Smirnoff provides this guided tour to his adopted home, a Shangri-La for the God-fearing.

Holy Kitsch 

Yakov Smirnoff provides this guided tour to his adopted home, a Shangri-La for the God-fearing.

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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."

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