THE LIGHTS OF BRANSON:  Nighttime view of Highway 76, where many of Branson’s  37 theaters are located. (Getty Images)

Branson, Mo., with open arms and venues, welcomes back audiences eager to be entertained

Memorial Day weekend 2020 was a watershed moment for Branson, Mo., the self-proclaimed “Entertainment Capital of the World”— which, if you could add the words “Wholesome Family,” would more accurately describe the programming.

Branson has reopened some of its roughly 40 venues ahead of most U.S. markets after state officials put an aggressive plan in place for restarting Missouri’s economy, including this slice of homespun Americana in the heart of the Ozarks, a tourist destination flush with lakes and mountains.

In late April, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson released his “Show Me Strong Recovery” plan, which called for an early May reopening with expanded COVID-19 testing, increased PPE, monitoring health care capacity and improving the ability to locate and predict public outbreaks.

“On May 4, we basically reopened the Branson economy,” says Jeff Seifried, the president and CEO of the town’s Chamber of Commerce. “The Board of Aldermen’s actions and the governor’s actions allowed us to open up live venues as well, with a foundation of no limit on people but maintaining social distancing, managing crowds and making sure we have regular cleaning of touch points.”

While Branson’s commercial businesses slowly reopened their doors, the town’s 37 theaters with a combined capacity of more than 50,000 have been more cautious. The chamber, plus 100 members of the local business community, formed a peer-to-peer task force. They were grouped by industry: restaurants, retail, hotel/lodging, live shows and attractions.

“Those businesses within each particular industry came up with recommendations based on what they’re seeing nationally and how we can do it better in Branson,” Seifried said. “Each industry has a specific set of recommendations they’ve come up with that they’ve agreed to follow in terms of safety. It’s been a great effort of competitors coming together to really lift Branson up and make sure that we open up successfully.”

Tourism remains Branson’s core industry and there’s a lot at stake for the community. In 2019, the city drew 9.1 million visitors, generating $3.5 billion in economic impact, according to chamber statistics. Live theater is among its biggest draws. The chamber CEO ticks off some of the more popular shows, such as Dolly Parton’s Stampede, The Hughes Brothers, The Presleys’ Country Jubilee, The Duttons and the Haygoods.

Branson’s history dates back centuries, beginning with the Marvel Caves, originally discovered in A.D. 1500 by the Osage Native Americans and much later by miners in 1869. The caves opened to tourists in 1894 and are now part of the nearby Silver Dollar City amusement park (which has yet to reopen). In 1907, minister Harold Bell Wright published his novel, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” a tribute to the beauty and people of the Ozarks, which helped draw visitors from across the country. The homestead, where the novel is set, became a tourist site with live reenactments.

Live music came to Branson in 1959 with the three Mabe brothers calling themselves the Baldknobbers, a name for Ozark vigilantes from the 1880s. It marked the beginning of the country music variety show combining country hits and comedy still seen in many of today’s shows.

Comedian Dennis Miller labels Branson “Las Vegas for people with no teeth,” others call it “Las Vegas if Ned Flanders ran it,” and a spokesperson for the chamber says you won’t “hear a swear word from its stages” — but family fare sells. If you’ve been to the Vegas Strip lately, you’ve seen the stroller-set lining up at M&M’s World store, the High Roller Ferris wheel and shows like Disney’s “Frozen The Musical.”

Still, many country music legends gravitate to Branson and park their buses along the town’s main strip on West 76 Country Boulevard. Over the years, Mel Tillis, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Andy Williams, Roy Clark, Ray Stevens and the Gatlin Brothers all performed in town. Today, you’ll find performances by the Oak Ridge Boys, Jim Stafford and comedian Yakov Smirnov. 

WE ARE FAMILY: The Hughes Family Show has been a mainstay in Branson since 1995. The cast features 39 members of the Hughes family. (Courtesy Hughes Entertainment Inc.)

On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend (May 23) a handful of venues held performances, including The Americana Theatre, The Dutton Family Theater, The Hot Hits Theater, Hamner Variety Theater, The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoors, Kings Castle Theatre and the Hughes Theatre, formerly the Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre, which opened in 1983 as the first Branson venue to be named for a country star. Clark, who died in 2018, was a frequent performer there in the 1980s and ’90s and helped put Branson on the map as a music destination.

“It’s nice to see traffic,” says Lena Hughes, president and CEO of Hughes Entertainment Inc., whose Hughes Family Show features 39 of her descendants, including four of her sons, their wives and children. “During those two months we were all shut down and it just seemed like a ghost town,” Hughes said. “The traffic actually looks normal for this time of year.”

This, combined with the upward attendance trajectory of the theater’s first few shows is encouraging news.

“We opened on Thursday (before Memorial Day) so we’ve done three shows,” Hughes said. “We’re very happy. The first two shows were about the same, the second show was a little bit more, but then we were up by about 30% for the third show.”

Officials, however, have implemented social distancing around groups of ticket buyers, which vary depending on attendance.

“If everybody came in twos, we could probably have up to 200 people,” she said. “If they came in larger groups, 10 or more, we could have 700 people. It’s a huge difference.

“We have to train our box office to know how to place people to keep everybody safe because it’s not just the four seats on each side of you. For a group of six, all six seats in front of them and behind them would have to be empty too.”

The logistics can get complex, and it’s one reason why some theaters are opening later.

“We’re excited to be opening in Branson on June 16,” says Katie Miller of Sight & Sound Theatres, a 2,050-seat venue featuring Bible-themed productions. Currently, “Noah,” is celebrating its 25th anniversary and has attracted 5 million attendees since it first debuted, according to Miller.

“We have about 250 employees on site in Branson and that number includes 50 people in the cast and another 70 backstage, plus our guest services and frontline team, our administrative support facilities team and animal care team,” Miller said.

NOAH, LIVE LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN HIM BEFORE: “Noah,” playing at Branson’s Sight & Sound Theatre, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. (Courtesy Sight & Sound)

The show features 100 live animals, everything from camels, llamas, horses and donkeys to goats, sheep, birds, rabbits, dogs and cats, as well as puppets and animatronic animals. All told, “Noah” costs between $6 million and $8 million to produce, Miller said.

Sight & Sound officials had forecasted 600,000 people attending this season in Branson with 373 performances. Now, after furloughing 95% of their employees, they’ve scaled back the forecast to 250 shows for the remainder of 2020.

As difficult as it’s been to reopen, Miller remains optimistic about the future and the demand for Branson’s wholesome style of entertainment.

“Live theater goes back thousands of years,” she says, “It’s been a part of society forever. There may be a different way that performing arts adapts this season, but it’s not going anywhere. People crave that sense of connection, inspiration and creativity. For us, we place so much value on being able to be a part of that and a part of what happens when society goes through this (crisis) and we come out on the other side together.”