Ken Hathcock picks up the newspaper at Branson Cafe and joins a group of regulars seated around a table in back. Its 9 a.m. in southern Missouri, and tourists visiting the live entertainment capital of America are beginning to venture from their motel rooms.
Bransons pretty hectic in the summer, says Hathcock, a retired construction worker. But you learn how to cut through the neighborhoods and the back routes.
Locals such as Hathcock have been coming to the cafe for morning coffee and pancakes since 1910, discussing politics and the latest news. We talk about whatevers in the air, says Hathcock. Whatever somebody says, well say the opposite just to get a good argument going.
The cafe regulars are one part of Bransona town of 5,039 residents with one hospital, one high school, and one library. The other Branson has 350 restaurants, 21,000 hotel and motel rooms, and 59,000 theater seats to serve 7.5 million visitors a year.
Four stoplights away from downtown, 40 theaters showcase everything from country humor to Las Vegas-style shows. The town supports Dicks 5 & 10, but also sports 200 outlet stores in three malls. And Branson, on the shore of Lake Taneycomo, offers both the natural beauty of the Ozark Mountainsand the neon nightlife of Country Music Boulevard.
The scenic Ozarks have drawn visitors for more than a century. Tourists first flocked to Branson in 1907, searching for the real-life counterparts of the characters Harold Bell Wright described in his novel of the Ozarks, The Shepherd of the Hills, which sold several million copies and is still in print.
Fishermen were lured to Branson in the 1930s when a dam created Lake Taneycomo, and nearby Marvel Cave attracted thousands of tourists after World War II. In 1960, the opening of Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-style theme park, drew even more visitors to southwest Missouri.
Bransons development as a live entertainment mecca came in increments also. In 1959, the Mabe brothers snapped on overalls, told cornpone jokes, and performed as the Baldknobbers in the towns first country music and comedy show. They also performed as the first street band at Silver Dollar City and impersonated hooded vigilantes in the local Shepherd of the Hills Pageant.
We used to work together and help each other out, recalls Bill Mabe, whose family continues to perform the Baldknobbers Jamboree in Branson from March through December.
When the popularity of the show outgrew the seating capacity of the old City Hall, the Mabe family opened Bransons first theater. In the 1980s, the Mabes invited big-name country music artists like Dolly Parton and Mel Tillis to open their shows. The rest, you could say, is history.
Today, the town hosts entertainers ranging from Andy Williams and Glen Campbell to Yakov Smirnoff and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.
But big-name entertainers havent overshadowed Bransons hometown values. Most residents remain opposed to allowing gambling in town and are supportive of community projects.
Thirty years ago, local women turned a box of discarded books into the Taneyhills Community Library by plucking chickens, organizing box socials, and collecting cast-off clothes. Today, volunteers arrange celebrity benefits and run the downstairs thrift shop, sustaining the two-story, 40,000-volume library without any local tax money.
Pete and Jack Herschend, owners of the Silver Dollar City theme park, maintain their parents vision of an organization built on family values. They quietly give back to the community, sponsoring reading mentors for kindergartners, parenting/marriage enrichment workshops for adults, and donating to the boys and girls clubs.
They have remained true to their beginnings, says Ozarks Mountaineer publisher Barbara Wehrman. Their Silver Dollar City Foundation makes the community a better place to live.
In a town where the newspaper covers sixth-grade school awards and celebrities fund music camp scholarships, Hathcock may be right: Bransons just a small townwith a lot of people driving through.