Growing up in Louisa – Branson
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
My wife and I belong to a ‘travel club’ that has saved us tons of money over the years while providing the highest quality accommodations and amenities available in resorts around the world. We’ve been a number of places and have returned to some of them because of the special things we’ve discovered on those visits. Over the last several years one of the locations that were offered was Branson, Missouri.
I think that the first time I heard about Branson was about the time I graduated from Louisa High School, but I really thought of it as a mystery because big-name stars were building theaters out in a ‘no-name’ town in the Ozarks. That didn’t make sense to me because everyone knew that stars would be in Hollywood, or Los Vegas, or New York. I mean, if they wanted something in the middle of the country why not pick a place that was at transportation centers, with big airports and lots of other attractions? I found out this last week.
The rolling, and sometimes fairly high hills were full of theaters, shopping centers, restaurants, and big hotels. We were booked into a two bedroom condo in a resort. It was the size of any modern two bedroom, two bath apartment and decorated very tastefully throughout. The condo was fully furnished with everything we’d need, including a complete kitchen with appliances of all kinds, dishes, silver-ware, dishwasher, towels, soap, and big screen TV’s in the living room and both bedrooms. We were steps away from the pool (indoor and outdoor) and recreation center, yet we never heard a noise from anyone else. Nice.
Our first experience was to take in the drama, “Jonah,” a musical depicting the story from the Bible. We saw a huge, two ton ship sail on the stage and later discharge the prophet into the sea only to be swallowed by a super-large fish. The play literally took place all around the audience on a three hundred foot stage. Jelly fish dropped down to float just above our heads and fish swan over us and darted in and out of the coral. In the end, Jonah finally followed the Lord’s command and Nivea was saved.
The following day Suzy and I rode a train through the mountains and saw the sights from high trestles and hilltop, including some neighborhoods, plants, trees and wild flowers. Suzy had never been on a train before so I wanted her to have the experience. The engine was very like the first ‘streamliner’ that parked itself just up from the station. It could have been the same. We were on all kinds of mid-fifties coaches including the observation cars I used when I was shipped across country just after joining up. The gentle sway nearly put us to sleep, but the scenery was too good to miss, black-dark tunnels notwithstanding.
That night we went to see the Pressley’s, a family that had started with Branson way back in the fifties. They had begun concerts there because of the love of music, and expected nothing like what has happened to the little sleepy town. Besides playing all kinds of gospel and country music, they ran out country comedians that kept us in tears of laughter. Again, my mind clicked, just as it had in last week’s article.
Branson had some nice lakes for fishing, and had scores of stores selling all kinds of merchandise, including the first Bass Pro Shop, a thrown-back dime store, country western clothing, quilt stores, candy, soda shops with ice cream, and discount ticket offices. They had helicopter rides, and a riverboat show. Over the years it opened a Welk theater, Roy Rogers Theater, and an Andy Williams Theater, not to mention perhaps as many others of various sizes up and down the strip and side streets. Every hotel brand were there, as well as a huge convention center next to the Hilton. The have ‘Hard Work U’ that is much like Beria, where college students graduate with no debt by working in various trades to support the school and its fine stores and its restaurant. (College of the Ozarks.) Suzy and I took several meals there supporting those kids taking culinary courses. The food was reasonably priced and excellent. The waiters and waitresses were glad to stop and talk and give their stories. This Christ centered university aimed to hone their students through the development of the mind, character and hands.
From a marketing point of view I figured their assets was: A river, a railroad, local talent, room to grow, and a central location with access to interstate highways. In show business there is a negative side to being a star. That is, it is impossible nearly to go out into the public and not attract attention. Many stars of today enjoy performing, but hate having their dinner interrupted with fans seeking photos, autographs and the always present press thrusting themselves upon the poor fellow. After all, stars are people, too.
In Branson the stars still shop for their own groceries, eat out, go shopping, and drop in on friends. The difference is the environment allows for minimal interruption. When a fan does see a star they often smile and go on, with only a few asking for an autograph or passing them a compliment on their performance. This level was acceptable and allowed for people like Andy Williams and the Osmond’s to live a fairly comfortable and normal life.
So my vision became this. If someone would bring in a show a month, or perhaps a couple of times a year, either to the old Garden Theater, or to a larger one build over decaying properties, some draw of tourists and fans would come. The old ‘build it and they will come’ idea. Louisa has its local stars and occasionally hosts some national stars that were from Lawrence County stock. It would be a good public relations move and perhaps a tax deduction, while helping our once lovely little town. With a show, some publicity, and a promise to play nice, Louisa could build on the same attributes and draw folks from at least the tristate region, and they grow as more theaters, retail, and tourist trade develops.
One of the major attractions in Branson is Dick’s Five & Dime. It carries much the same line of merchandise we all saw in the fifties. Crowds shopped and bought the goods and were fascinated with the memories. We all remember our dime store and the corner store that was similar. In Branson, the tourists kept them alive.
In this case, the ‘by-pass’ actually helped bring in the tourists, keeping with the old Kentucky logo that appeared on the license plate, “Tour Kentucky.” Music, fishing, golf, train rides, boating, shopping and above all, music, has made a little Ozark town into a wonderful place to vacation. So the bypass that took business away could be used to bring business in. All it takes is a community of people willing to think of ways to market its attributes. A return on investment might take time and should be done with good business sense, but it could provide work and a future for generations to follow.
Drop me a note about your memories. I’d love to hear from you.