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Which Branson Show Wins The Bragging Rights?

There are little advertising feuds among shows in Branson with some making the same claims as others for the most popular, winner of best show, the oldest, the oldest on the strip, the most this-or-that, etc. These aren’t Hatfield and McCoy battles, but it is a little confusing for visitors to know what is what. To make matters even more confusing, they are all correct in their claims; it’s just a play on words and/or yet another award given by some relative or the buddy of a member of the cast.

There is one claim we can “almost” settle: the first show. Well, don’t ask an old timer around here because he might tell you it was his grandpap standing on a cinder block playing a fiddle at the train depot for tips.
Just like old pappy, shows come and go, so we are going to look at those that have hung in there for decades, some of which you might know and some that fly under the main radar. Still yet, this gets confusing.

The first PLAY that is still performing is the Shepherd of the Hills, BUT it wasn’t a music show and it didn’t start fulltime until 1960. The show was done a few times in the 1950’s, was and still is based on the book of the same name, which arguably started the first steady flow of tourists in the early 20th Century. Although the show was to stop last year, it is still going albeit on a reduced schedule.

Fishing helped create and sustain the first MUSIC show. In 1959 the Mabe family started the Baldknobbers Jamboree, a hillbilly/country show along the lake front in downtown old Branson. Story has it that wives were dragged on these fishing trips and wanted something to do in the evening besides cleaning fish. I suppose fishermen’s wives are the reason for the Baldknobbers’ initial establishment and success.

In 1967, the Baldknobbers were thrown a blow when Presley Country Jubilee put up a tin theatre way out on Hwy 76. Being miles out of town, you wouldn’t think it would hurt business, but that tin building was between Branson and the Shepherd of the Hills Show and Silver Dollar City theme park that opened the same year as Shepherd in 1960. (Silver Dollar was little more than an 1880 craft village in those days created to draw people to Marvel Cave. The cave is still there – as if you could move it – but not many people even notice it.) You did two things in those days: Silver Dollar City by day, Shepherd of the Hills by night and if you stayed another night, you saw the only other show – the Baldknobbers – but now there was competition.

The Presleys’ started a major ad campaign that had a huge impact: they stood along the road and waved at cars and pickup trucks headed to and fro. That was it. The Baldknobbers promptly packed up and moved near them not long after. The 76 strip was slowing being born and the ad feud began. Baldknobbers – first music show. Presley’s – first show on the strip.

Go cart tracks, water slides, t-shirt shops, etc. began to pepper Hwy 76 from Branson to Silver Dollar and Shepherd. A few more country shows popped up too, but then someone put in a variety show in the 1980’s that featured a Japanese fiddler. A Japanese fiddler? Instant success.

Shoji Tabuchi performed in the Starlight Theater (not to be confused with the present Starlite Theatre) and soon got his own place and became the tour bus king of Branson. As the first “different” show, Shoji is now in his 27th season as a solo act in his purple theatre with world famous bathrooms (I’m not making this up) and is the longest running production show in town.

Guitarist and comedian Jim Stafford is celebrating his 25th season in 2015, which may or may not include the year he wasn’t here when numbers slowed. Jim was a favorite and a spokesman for much of the city advertising in the 1990s. Like many shows, he has tightened his belt as competition has increased, but is hanging in there as the longest-running, still-remaining comedian with Yakov Smirnoff a close second; but this is Yakov’s last year.

With 19 seasons back to back, the longest running MUSICAL PLAY is Smoke on the Mountain; a small, gospel musical comedy with all live music and actors portraying characters from the 1930s in a Southern Baptist Church. It has been in many locations but has stayed in the Little Opry Theatre at the IMAX for the last seven years. The life expectancy of a musical is 2 to 5 years in Branson. The Sight & Sound Theatre has enormous, multi-million dollar productions and their shows only stay a few years, yet the intimate Smoke on the Mountain just keeps plugging and an estimated half of the audience is repeat business.

Another long-running show that you may or may not know is Red, Hot & Blue. A high energy journey of decades of music from the 1920s to the 1980s, this fast-paced, aerobic workout of dance and song has been burning the stage since 1996. Although it bounced between a few venues, it has settled into the Clay Cooper theatre and Clay’s wife assists with the production.

These are a few of the long-running, survivor shows of the area but don’t be fooled; they aren’t rolling in the dough these days and they fight for every guest that comes through the door. Competition is tight and the market saturated. Big names couldn’t make it full time and now pop in and out in concerts or short runs. It still boils down to advertising, finding a niche market, and having a quality product.

These long-running, Branson-only-famous shows might be here for many years to come if we perhaps stock the lakes with more fish.

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