Ten years into the future, the chairman of the Branson (Missouri) Tourism Council will issue a proud press release: “Tourism in Branson is better than ever! We’re noticing that our town has begun to attract vandals who are spray painting the sides of the abandoned theaters on the Strip—as well as ghost town enthusiasts who wander about the hundreds of deserted timeshare developments scattered here in the Ozarks, taking photos and climbing around the dilapidated condos. With the sinking of the Showboat Branson Belle, we feel confident that curious scuba divers will soon be flocking to Table Rock Lake!”
That may sound like an exaggeration, but not by much.
For one thing, the Branson Tourism folks always spin things as positively as they can. When Jim Stafford, long-time celebrity performer, abandoned his large theater on the “Strip” back in 2014, after he refinanced it, and left the bank to repossess it, the official reaction from the Branson Tourism, Convention and Chamber-type folks was, “Hey! This is great! More opportunity for new performers! We couldn’t be more pleased that one of our anchors is leaving and his theater is closing!”
Yakov Smirnov, the last out-of-town celebrity performer to hold out, performed his final show in December of 2015—so that Branson now has no out-of-town celebrities left.
This is quite a change from the mid-1990s, when Branson, a small fishing resort community in the rugged Ozarks of southwest Missouri, reportedly had more theaters than Broadway, boasted of more than one hundred performances a day (breakfast shows, matinees, evening shows all over town), and featured an impressive list of out-of-town celebrities performing in their own theaters, including Box Car Willie, Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, Jim Stafford, Ray Stevens, Mickey Gilley, Moe Bandy, the Osmonds, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Tony Orlando, Bobby Vinton, the Lennon Sisters and more.
Now they’re all gone. And only the local talent remains—the Baldknobbers and the Presleys, who started the craze—along with a number of second-string variety shows, with more and more theaters sitting vacant. Silver Dollar City seems to be doing well, but the show they produce on board the Showboat Branson Belle is not nearly as good as it used to be. Aside from a talented comedy magician who serves as the show’s M.C. and a talented saxophone player in the boat’s house band, the entertainment is much more amateurish than it’s ever been.
Branson, it seems, is in a long decline.
The reason is, in part, demographic. In the 1990s, tour busses from all over North America were flocking to Branson, carrying senior citizens who longed for the mixture of musical variety shows, patriotism and corn-pone hillbilly humor—along with all-you-can-eat buffets—that made Branson a huge success. But this generation has largely passed on, and in its place are middle class, middle-aged Americans who don’t plan on seeing eight shows in three days, who have no idea who the Lennon Sisters were, and who are certainly leery of the timeshare explosion that drained a good deal of money from Branson visitors in the past. Google “Branson timeshare” and the most popular result is the website, “Sell My Timeshare Now!” The new typical Branson visitor does not seem capable of or willing to support the bizarre Branson Boom of twenty years ago.
And so Branson exists, for me at least, as a kind of sign. It’s the abandoned suburban shopping mall of the Ozarks—or at least is fast becoming that. But it’s more than that, and has always been more than that. It’s been a sign for a number of things, the best and the worst things in showbiz and the best and worst things in the American economy.
For Branson at its height—and even now—was and is a strange mixture of endemic Ozark culture, garish Americana, cheesy and manipulative entertainment, funny comedy, sometimes excellent music, showbiz exuberance, natural beauty, mom and pop businesses, and the sort of “only in America” experience that you can imagine—in all its excess and unpretentious charm. But, while the shows are often family produced, and while many of the businesses in town and on the Strip are locally owned, where Branson is failing is precisely where Branson has not been distributist. For Distributism is about more than just family-run businesses. Distributism is primarily about sanity, and sanity is about scale—about being the right size—and about being true to an underlying reality.
My wife and I just returned from a three-day visit to Branson, and while we were down there, we saw the film The Big Short, a brilliant movie that manages to convey the root cause behind the crash of 2008—namely, fraud: the collusion of Big Government and Big Finance in blowing up a bubble that deliberately separated money from value. Money is supposed to represent wealth— “wealth” being the combination of labor and natural resources, which combination produces things that have intrinsic worth. The closer our economy reflects enterprises that produce, market and trade in things of actual value (real wealth), the more sane and happy people are. But the housing bubble and the derivative market and the profiteering off of financial instruments that had little or no intrinsic value—this gigantic flight into Unreality, this is what nearly toppled the world economy, and this is what may topple it yet. In addition to that, the perpetrators had contempt for the victims. Greed will do that to you.
And speaking of bad economic decisions, let’s get back to the Showboat Branson Belle. My wife and I paid $60 each for the New Year’s Eve cruise on the Showboat Branson Belle during our three-day visit. We were promised dinner, a show, a cruise, and fireworks. We were packed in like sardines and herded like cattle. The food was good enough, but not great. The show (other than the highlights I mentioned) was lame, and at times almost high school talent show quality. This seemed to be a deliberate choice of the producers and directors, for the entertainment was “safe” and the band toned-down and the whole thing exuding a corporate “let’s spend as little as we can on this, because they’ll pay for anything we put on this boat” feel to it. Oh, and the fireworks were not the boat’s. A hotel on the lake set off the fireworks. The boat was positioned so that we could view the hotel’s fireworks at midnight, which meant it took an hour to get back and dock. Maybe the boat paid to view this otherwise free show of someone else’s fireworks, but I doubt it, and the fact that it inconvenienced the passengers was just part of the price we, the end users, were expected to pay.
And so, when a decline picks up speed, as it does in Branson, the Ghetto begins to form. Producers cannot afford to produce and consumers cannot afford to buy, and quality gets sacrificed. For example, in the mid-90s, Jim Stafford used to have a very talented back-up band, sprinkled with a few celebrity bluegrass musicians. Twenty years later, Jim performs to pre-recorded tracks and brings his adopted kids out on stage to play piano and drums. And this is a trend that was happening all over town. The Ghetto is encroaching.
So here’s the sign and what it means. Where Branson gets it wrong is where it has mimicked the subject matter of this economy in The Big Short, imitating the economy of exaggeration (huge theaters now sitting vacant), the economy of fraud (worthless timeshares now sitting empty), and the economy of contempt for the end user (bad shows cheaply produced, featuring an encore of someone else’s fireworks). Where Branson continues to get it right is where it offers its own unique value—the hillbilly “jubilee” shows, the shops and restaurants in the old downtown, the beautiful scenery that somehow survives the sprawl.
If Branson endures for another ten years, it will be with shows and businesses that fulfill simpler and saner and longer lasting needs. After the bubble bursts, perhaps something more real and simpler, and rational will remain. And eventually, as distributists point out, this will have to happen beyond Branson—it will have to happen everywhere.