Mention Branson to most folks and country music comes to mind. But the small town's 50 theaters and 100 shows feature a galaxy of stars whose multi-talents would knock the socks off even the toughest of skeptics. Count me among them.Vowing not to get caught up in the glitz and glitter that I associated with a town sometimes called "the Nashville of the Ozarks" or "G-rated Las Vegas," I recently joined a group of friends traveling to this once-obscure Ozark Mountain community in southwest Missouri that was best associated at the time for its hillbillies and their moonshine. While my friends were partaking of the musical and theatrical extravaganzas that run morning, noon and night in theaters along the town's garish marquee-studded "strip," I'd head to the serenely beautiful hills nearby to hike or bike, my usual "entertainments" of choice. I make no apologies for my sudden and whole-hearted change of mind. Only the snootiest of high-brows could fail to find something fun about Branson to draw them in. My three-day visit included twice that many live shows, a riverboat cruise, a descent into a nearly 500-foot deep cave, a visit to one of the country's foremost collections of Titanic memorabilia and a whiz through an arboreal canopy on a a series of zip-lines. Oh, and just to balance all that fast-paced fun with a bit of serenity in the woods, I did manage to find a pristine venue for a last-day bike ride. The key to enjoying Branson, I came to find out, is understanding what it is, and what it's not. Branson is short on Club Med facilities and haute cuisine. You won't find entertainers like Yo-Yo Ma, Rene Fleming or the Juilliard String Quartet. But what you do find are old fashioned, family style good times, served up by folks who truly want to treat you right. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the town of 10,000 permanent residents attracts an estimated eight million people a year, most of them drawn to the live entertainment, but staying long enough to enjoy amusement centers, museums and outdoor and lake activities as well. What follows describes only a few of the offerings that made this "been-there, done-that" cynic quickly change her tune:
Having never been to Branson before, I hadn't heard of Shoji Tabuchi, a master fiddler from Japan whose variety show plays to packed houses of casually dressed middle Americans. But I got up to speed fast. A true showman, Shoji is the hottest ticket in town - a town overflowing with musical talent of every ilk from magicians to Broadway-style musical productions, from aerial artists to acrobats. Besides a Japanese fiddler, there's a world-famous acrobatic troupe from China. And comic Yakov Smirnoff, another headliner who honed his craft in Moscow comedy clubs in years gone by and whose trademark refrain "What a country!" often brings the audience to its feet. It's no secret that Branson performers promote the kind of wholesome, all-American values held dear by the vast majority in their audiences. Their shows are family oriented, tow the line on good taste and unashamedly pay tribute to veterans who've served their country in the past. Another nice touch: performers mingle with their fans and sign autographs after they take their last bow. It's enough to make an old "groupie's" heart skip a beat!Many of the stars may be aging, (timeless favorites like Andy Williams, the Lennon Sisters, Pat and Debby Boone, Mel Tillis, Jim Stafford and the Gatlin Brothers) but their state-of-the-art theaters rival Las Vegas for technical wizardry and special effects. A slew of shows feature brother and sister acts or entire families whose members have performed together from the time they were kids. A not-to-be-missed experience is having lunch or dinner aboard the Showboat Branson Belle. While cruising past the lush Ozark Mountains on the crystal clear waters of Table Rock Lake, guests presently enjoy a delicious three-course meal along with a delightful show that features a comedian/magician emcee and the world's only aerialist who plays a violin while she's entwined in the folds of two vertical silk drapes. Spell-binding is the only word that comes to mind! The concept behind the Showboat Branson Belle is brilliant in its simplicity: offer the best of modern entertainment while treating guests to the scenic beauty that first put Branson on the map. Carolyn Schwartz is a travel journalist who attempts to explore destinations near and far with fresh perspectives and an open mind.