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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."