From the Archives: Unpacking Branson: A Thanksgiving Improbability
For Thanksgiving in 2012, I was single and Mom decided that I should come out to my step-sister's place in Branson, Missouri for a good old-fashioned country Thanksgiving. The carrot was family. The stick was Missouri.
In the late 1960s it was pretty much a tiny city in the Ozarks known for roadside stands peddling wares that proliferated the hillbilly stereotype. And, sure enough, there are still today roadside stands that exist only to continue to make fun of that stereotype. It's an odd thing to walk into a business in the middle of the Ozarks that sells you the stereotype it tries to escape from. Like buying a taxi cab medallion from an East Indian store or an “I’m a Wetback” T-shirt in a store that sells Mexican merchandise.
It is said you cannot judge a book by its cover.
This is true most of the time, but there are some things you can judge immediately by its cover and pretty much know what your getting.
An Ann Coulter book.
A FOX News broadcast.
I assumed that Branson, Missouri would fall into this latter category. I was right and wrong. And the complexities made it a real trip to remember.
Branson is where the Beverly Hillbillies came from before moving to California.
A winding series of roads littered with signs and theaters and restaurants. Lots of bumper stickers that declare “I’d Rather Be Dead Than SOCIALIST” and random tributes to past GOP glory. In the three days we trucked around the city, I counted perhaps one hundred people of color the entire time — I didn't start the trip by calculating this but after a bit, it was hard to escape. Thousands of old white people with canes and wheelchairs abounded but that doesn't really look that much different than Navy Pier or the audience at Chicago Shakes — old white people like to be tourists and Branson is, after all, a haven of tourism.
My step-sister, Hannah, tells me that the crack business booms among the residents of Branson and there is evidence around if you’re looking for it. The place is slightly schizophrenic in its place as a home to rednecks and hillbillies while trying desperately to distance itself from that by appealing to the tourist trade. There are places that stink of what one expects in Ozarks — a biker bar called the Hawg Trough that even my pro-GOP brother-in-law avoids and a Smoke Shop that doesn't sell cigarettes and has a pit bull guarding the door. But there are surprises that popped up during my three-day Thanksgiving vacation that defied my pre-judged expectations.
The surprises came in weird ways. When I arrived, we ate at a place called the Rowdy Beaver — a place with T-shirts that trumpeted “I Like Bald Beaver” and “That's A Mighty Nice Beaver” and had washboard walls. The thing that surprised was that the food was out of this world. It was delicious and well prepared and not at all what I expected. “Our chef prepares everything from fresh ingredients,” trumpeted our waitress who seemed completely fine with her job at a place filled with such juvenile innuendo.
The Hollywood Wax Museum was fun but the wax figures left me a bit wanting — a frequent refrain of our visit was my niece saying “Who's that?” and me doing my best to figure it out. I tried to convince my family to go to Silver Dollar City so I could find and steal a urinal cake but it was $60 per person and even I couldn't argue that $300 was reasonable for me to complete a toilet cookie tale. We had tickets to a magic show billed as the World's Largest (by the way, every attraction in Branson is billed as “Show of the Year,” “The Most Amazing in the World,” and “Mindblowing”) but the show was cancelled due to illness. Turns out Kirby VanBurch’s greatest trick is to take your money and disappear.
Our replacement show for the afternoon was going to be either Jim Stafford (I desperately wanted to see this) or SIX (the nieces had heard it was awesome). Stafford only did an 8 p.m. show, so SIX at the Mickey Gilley Theater it was.
SIX is six middle-aged brothers who debuted on the Donnie and Marie Show and have fashioned themselves as sort of an older version of an a cappella boy band. As soon as they started with a cheeseball version of Don’t Stop Believin’, Hannah and I turned to each other with a look of pained resignation. These guys had pretty good voices and the arrangements were fine but the self-consciously hip pose and cornball attempts at cool banter was unbearable. I learned that wanting to see an awful Branson show and actually sitting through one are two different things. I also learned that I will never, as a middle-aged white guy, ever use the words “homie” or “peeps” ever again. To be fair, the second act was better — a selection of Christmas songs and a tribute to their dead mother. Apparently this tiny woman had ten children, all boys, and I suspect she isn't dead but just got the fuck out of there before having to bear an eleventh kid. But the damage of the first act left me scarred and a little terrified of that evening’s show — Legends at the Dick Clark American Bandstand Theater.
Legends is a show that debuted in Vegas and moved to Branson. It is a rotating cast of celebrity impersonators ranging from Barry White, Marilynn Monroe and Tim McGraw to the staples of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Our bill was George Strait, Whitney Houston, the Blues Brothers, Liberace and Elvis. As we entered and sat down, once again surrounded by octogenarians, I steeled myself. This was going to be fucking awful.
And it wasn’t.
Really. In fact, it was a blast. The Whitney Houston knocked it out of the park, Liberace was funny but completely inappropriate in a callback to the dark days of The Gay Closet and the Elvis impersonator was so fucking good, if we had been sitting in the nose bleeds it would’ve been like actually seeing Elvis live. My mom, a huge Elvis fan from when he was alive, commented that he was the best Elvis impersonator she had ever seen. Hell, even my teenaged nieces enjoyed the show.
But we saved the best, most Branson-y show for Saturday. Yakov Smirnoff. Holy shit. I couldn’t wait. I was absolutely certain it would embody everything I expected Branson to be — cheesy, cloying, the very portrait of a has-been celebrity stretching out his 15 minutes of fame as paper thin as he could in the heart of the Vegas of the Ozarks. We were greeted by a giant Yakov head making awful jokes about... the size of his head! Inside, it turned out that Yakov was a painter and had his paintings for sale!
The beginning of the show was the longest version of the national anthem I’ve ever heard (who know there were, like, nine verses?) and then I was hit with another fucking surprise. On the video screens came an old Paul Harvey “The Rest of the Story” about a painter known as Jacob who painted and commissioned a painting in tribute to the fallen at Ground Zero in NYC following the Attacks of 9/11. Painted on the side of a building overlooking the rubble, it was the backdrop to the first anniversary of the attacks. The painter was an anonymous Yakov Smirnoff. He paid for the commission out of his own pocket.
Some of his show was what I expected: a revisitation of his “What a Country!” schtick from the ’80s—a sketch of him as the president answering questions from the audience, and he actually quoted the Lee Greenwood God Bless the U.S.A. as a closer. But other parts were not at all what I anticipated. Turns out that Yakov went out and got a Master's Degree in psychology and decided that his show could also serve as a relationship counseling session as well. Sort of like Defending the Caveman meets a less arrogant Dr. Phill with the takeaway being that we begin relationships laughing and giving each other little gifts and that, if we simply return to giving each other gifts and finding laughter in our relationships, we’ll be happier, healthier people.
Was it a great show? Not really. The dancers were cheesy and only there to fill time, the jokes were funny in a “Yeah, I remember that one” sort of way, the political stuff was tame (although at one point, Yakov asked the audience who was happy with the results of the latest election — a smattering of applause that included my mother and I enthusiastically cheering — and who was ticked off by it — a thundering, slightly ugly ovation — with the Russian comic commenting “Yeah, that's about even...”) and the recurring pro-America stuff was hard to hear after a while. But the thing is... I liked him.
I mean, I really liked the guy. He was so overwhelmingly sincere and genuine. Christ, I wanted to hug him. And, while his show is corny and inoffensive and gentle and perfect for the Branson tourist crowd, this is a guy who lives in Branson, Missouri suggesting that people spend time laughing and loving one another instead of being shitbags.
Prejudice is a funny thing. Judging books by their covers is what we do as people. I imagine it’s a hard drive instinct. But, as I am often heard saying, while we are all unique and precious snowflakes and each of us is completely distinct, we are all made of fucking snow. We all are simply people trying our best to get along in the world. Yes, that means that our baser, uglier instincts come to play like ordinary people rioting in a Walmart on Black Friday to get a discount on a portable DVD player. It also means that our better, more generous nature comes into play, and sometimes it's nice to be reminded that even in Red State Hell, Yakov Smirnoff is telling thousands of people every week to just be fucking nicer to each other.
On Thanksgiving, the point is to be with friends or family and celebrate those things in our lives we are (or should be) thankful for. Sure, the holiday is laden with cultural markers that include the genocide of the Native Americans and our national quest to bequeath every American with diabetes but the point is gratitude. Gratitude can come from a lot of places and I’m thankful to remember the lessons I learned in Branson.