The line was 20 or 30 deep for the bathrooms at the Soji Tabuchi theater, so I started a conversation with the old guy in front of me.
“Having a good time?”
“I hate it here. Wife made me come.”
“Really? I think it’s a lot of fun. Kind of like Las Vegas.”
“No gambling, no booze, no broads. Like Vegas without the fun.”
Branson, MO is a town of not quite 10,000 residents, nestled deep in the Ozark Mountains. It is also one of there most popular travel spots in America. In fact, Fodor’s named Branson one of the top 10 Family Destinations in the World. Other nominees included Belize, Washington, DC, Italy, and any US National Park.
Branson has broad appeal. It draws outdoors types with its lush landscape and fine hunting, hiking, and fishing opportunities. It also offers amusement parks, waterways, and bungee jumping. But Branson’s unique appeal is its music theaters, over 50 of them. Here you can take in two shows a days—or more, if you have the stamina—featuring international celebrities of yesteryear, newcomers, and any number of Branson-bred talent.
Over the years Branson’s theaters have presented the likes of Andy Williams, The Lennon Sisters, Tony Orlando (without Dawn), The Osmond Family (minus Donnie and Marie), Glen Campbell, Bobby Vinton, Pat Boone, Kenny Rogers, Charo, Anita O’Bryant, and so many others. It has also been the home of Soji Tabuchi, the Baldknobbers, the Acrobats of China, and the Presley family (no relation to The King).
I first went to Branson, MO seeking country music in 1995. What I got instead was . . . well, Vegas without the fun. Actually, I liked Branson a lot more than my bathroom-line friend did. But then I hate Las Vegas, despite the awesome gambling, booze, and broads.
What I liked about Branson was the shooting opportunities and the stories I could collect. I also liked the crazy color. As a long-time black-and-white shooter, I was determined to see Branson through that lens. But I soon changed my tune, and began shooting with two cameras—one with black-and-white and one with color. This was before digital cameras, which allow you to make your choice after the fact.
Anyway, I shot for about a week and went to New York to try to sell a book on Branson. I managed a meeting with legendary publisher Peter Workman because he was a big fan of illustrator Pierre Le-Tan, who I worked with on a dog and cat diaries several years before. One thing leads to another in this business, and it’s hard to tell when you are leading and when you are following. You just have to keep moving.
Amazingly, Peter was also a country music fan. Good luck for me, I thought. However, he was also a savvy publisher and saw this book more broadly—as an Americana story, not a country music story. He sent me along to Leslie Stoker, who was heading up Artisan Books, Workman’s new illustrated imprint. She agreed with Peter about the Americana thing, and eventually I did, too. Especially after she offered me a $25,000 advance—short money for a best selling novelist, but a score for a photographer on a personal journey. The money would pay for me to make several trips to Branson, eat at Olive Gardens, stay at Motel 6, make a lot of pictures, and have adventures. And at the end someone would even publish a book of the work.
I did have adventures in Branson. Wayne Newton kicked me out of his theater; I hung with a tiger in her cage; Anita Bryant’s theater manager tried to pick up my assistant. For readers under 60, Anita was a very high-profile anti-gay activist. Her manager was female. So was my assistant.
Mainly, I made pictures and met amazing people. Probably top of the list was the Lennon family, headed by The Lennon Sisters, who starred at the Lawrence Welk Champaign Theater. If you don’t know it, the Lawrence Welk Show (1951-1982) was an early hit television show and the Lennons were billed as “America’s Sweethearts,” a beloved teenage singing foursome. Peggy, Kathy, Janet, and Dianne could sing a bird off a tree. And their music was relentlessly positive and more than a little corny. You watched them and thought, what very nice girls they must be.
Were they ever.
“Are you having a good time in Branson?”
“Are you getting to photograph everyone you want to?”
“Andy Williams won’t return your calls? Very naughty of him.”
“Kathy, why don’t you call Andy and ask him to meet Henry? Andy will do ANYTHING Kathy asks.”
Kathy called and I got a session with Andy Williams. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought the Lennons were nice.