By Jug Varner

This may seem like preaching to the choir for you readers who've been to Branson, Mo., but on our first visit it exceeded all expectations we gleaned from the second-hand information of friends. You had to be there to really appreciate it, but I'm going to tell you about it anyway.

If your preconceived idea is that Branson is strictly a country music venue, guess again. It offers plenty of that, but also a variety of other music and entertainment, even a little opera, an New York's famous Radio City Rockettes' Christmas show. The beauty of it, for those who are tired of smut forced on them at every turn, is the absence of the four-letter words, raunchy jokes, and sexual innuendoes — and the abundance of good, clean family entertainment and fun. Also, ticket prices are more reasonable than just about anywhere else you can go. It offers a fine alternative to Hollywood, Las Vegas and late night entertainment, with equally good talent and artistry.

Visiting Branson is like stepping through a time warp to a more genteel and patriotic era. Every show included a special salute to servicemen and veterans, and every year on November 11th, all the shows are free to veterans and their families, even food at some restaurants.

Mid-June was an ideal time to go, with plenty of rooms available — thus, smaller crowds, less traffic, and better access to good show tickets (although it is always a good idea to make advance reservations for accommodations and tickets). The weather was pleasant, not yet into the typical hot summer. Branson will no doubt be considerably different during its busiest season from Thanksgiving to Christmas — when all the stories come true about wall-to-wall people and traffic jams. The travel tour business had already booked up most of these Christmas shows and hotel rooms while we were there.

With three days in Branson and so much to choose from, what do you see? Your choice depends on personal preference, of course, but we opted for these six shows, five of which feature stars we don't ordinarily see on TV or otherwise:

Jim Stafford, droll comedian, musician and songwriter, is one of the funniest guys around. He has the knack of making you feel he's your friend. His wife and young son are part of the act and he plays it for all its worth—which amounts to a laugh a minute—except when he's playing a guitar or other instrument to showcase the seriousness and scope of his musical talent. Most of his songs are anything but serious.

The Sons of the Pioneers, America's top western music group, originated by Roy Rogers, is still active after more than 50 consecutive years and better than ever. Hearing their original songs and melodious harmony took me back to my youth in Lubbock, Texas where I listened to them faithfully on the local radio station.

Shoji Tabuchi, the gifted Japanese violinist, is a very funny man whose great variety show features music for all tastes. In fact it is Branson's most popular show, ringing up more than $41 million in ticket sales last year. He does it with a bang: laser lights, unusual acts, sound effects and lots of talented people.

Wayne Newton is Mr. Show Biz, a native American Indian, bigger than Life, and the master of many musical instruments. Ladies of all ages love him and he “plays” that pretty well, too. He and Tony Orlando share their new theater called “Talk of the Town,” the last word forming their initials — T.O. and W.N.

Tony Orlando, whose voice is as good or better than it ever was, is one of the best-kept secret in Branson. What a showman and crowd-pleaser! Even if you can't carry a tune, he'll have you jumping and jiving right along with him before the show is over, because he'll be down there in the aisles with you. I don't know where he's been since his network show and hit record days, but the audience seemed glad that he is back.

Country music stars M-M-Mel Tillis and daughter Pam (who is more popular than her dad with the younger fans and appears on his show on Tuesdays) played to a packed house. Both were superb! Mel's other daughter Carley studies opera. She made a brief appearance, too, and knocked us out with two arias that seemed as far from country music as you can get! Or maybe not: opera has been described as country lyrics in a foreign language sung by fat people with high-pitched voices. If so, Carley's voice and body may be too beautiful for opera, but she has what it takes for stardom. Papa Mel has a special charisma not captured on TV or in his movies. In person, his presence is magnetic, with dynamic audience appeal. He's a funny, down-home, outstanding performer — a country boy dressed in city slicker clothes (that must have cost a fortune).

All of these performers are multi-talented perfectionists who obviously enjoy sharing their artistry with the audience. We missed seeing headliners such as Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, The Osmonds, Yakov Smirnoff, Roy Clark, Mickey Gilley, Boxcar Willie, Barbara Fairchild, The Lennon Sisters Welk Show, and many other shows, more than enough to satisfy any musical taste. Contact the Branson Chamber of Commerce, a travel agent, AAA, or search the world wide web for a complete list.

It is not uncommon to meet folks who have returned to Branson several times. The shows are the big draw, but numerous other attractions offer great diversion. Maybe we'll see you there when we come back for the Christmas shows. The spectacular lights alone are said to be worth the trip.

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