Branson, Mo. Branson residents talk about the changes that have occurred, and are still occurring, in the Ozark tourist town.
Charles and Shirley Collins have been watching the changes that have come over Branson.
They've seen traditional Ozark music replaced by glitzy, white-hatted neo-Nashville. They've seen country music stars build giant theaters and then leave a year or so later when they couldn't fill the venues' seats.
They've seen roadways bottlenecked by cars and exhaust-spewing buses with license plates from across the United States, and $107 million spent on bypasses to relieve that traffic congestion.
They've seen red-eye gravy and homemade pies with baked-egg meringue all but disappear from menus and franchise restaurants multiply as fast as the trout in nearby streams.
They've seen the numbers: Branson population, 3,700; tourists per year, 6 million; estimated tourist dollars per year, $1.5 billion.
"Thirty years ago, you just had the Presleys and the Baldknobbers," Mr. Collins said, referring to the first musical shows established on West Highway 76, known as "The Strip." "They'd put on shows on the weekends and musicians would come here."
"This has always been a tourist town," Mrs. Collins added. "Before the dam (on Table Rock Lake), to float and fish on the White River was a big excursion. It's gotten more urban. There's more people, and they're more sophisticated than the people who started out."
Casinos and uncertain counts
Mrs. Collins grew up in log cabin with a dirt floor and no running water in Hollister, a town about two miles south of Branson. Her daddy and granddaddy were preachers and walked through the hills to church meetings to share the message of the Bible. Her father also farmed and worked for the White River Rural Electrification Administration.
The family occasionally went to Branson to see the speed boat races or to shop. She remembers the vanilla-scented blue bottles of "Evening in Paris" perfume that lined the shelves of Dick's 5 & 10, a store still doing business in Branson's old downtown area.
Mr. Collins grew up in Ozark, a small town about 20 miles north of Branson. He remembers childhood trips to the Branson area because the winding, up-and-down ride through the hills would always make his stomach churn.
Today, the Collinses live part time in Springfield, where Charles works in the customer service department of Stone Container Corp., and part time in a phoneless trailer on Branson's northern edge, between BoxCar Willie Avenue and North Lake Drive.
While the Collinses sometimes long for the good old days, they have only one nagging concern: the possibility that an Indian casino might put down roots, ruining the town's family atmosphere.
"I'm worried that gambling will come in, and if that happens it will ruin everything," Mrs. Collins said, issuing a reminder that Branson sits right dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. "Indian casinos are not accountable to anyone but themselves. Anyway, the people who come here aren't interested in gambling."
Beth Wanser, who works in the marketing department at the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Mrs. Collins is right.
"There's a strong opposition to gaming. ... The town has held very fast to its opposition," she said. "From a marketing standpoint of providing a unique niche, it doesn't make much sense."
Something else that is raising the eyebrows of chamber staff is the 6 million tourist count touted by officials in the past.
"I question the ability to come up with accurate figures. There's no methodology to do it," Wanser said, adding that visitors are now being tallied by the number of motel rooms used per night.
One thing is sure, though. Visitors to Branson typically fall into two categories: families or senior citizens. Wanser said 56 percent of the tourists in July are 54 or younger, while 68 percent of the visitors in October are 55 or older.
Singer Andy Williams, owner of the Moon River Theatre on The Strip, understands those figures. At a recent afternoon show, he looked out at a nearly all white-haired audience and told them that he does have younger people show up for his performances.
"In the summer, the audiences have lots of children," he said. "One day we had 30 to 40 under the age of 12."
They come and go
While Branson's musical-theater pioneers -- Presley's Mountain Music Jubilee and Baldknobbers Jamboree -- still draw large crowds, some entertainers, like Glen Campbell, Wayne Newton and Willie Nelson, who came to Branson looking for a boost in their careers and pocketbooks, have pulled up stakes or joined ranks with other performers at other theaters.
Newton, for example, did not return to the theater bearing his name a couple of years ago because of a contract dispute with its owners. This year, however, he will perform 100 times at Tony Orlando's Yellow Ribbon Theater. And Brenda Lee is joining Mel Tillis at his theater in hopes of boosting ticket sales.
Some theater owners, like Melvin Hall, are looking for new ways to draw audiences. Hall has purchased the old Glen Campbell theater and plans to book three different performers a day, for a week at a time, beginning in September.
Hoping to cater to bus tours, most tickets will be sold by the day, not by the performer. Charles Smith, the theater's entertainment manager, recently explained the strategy.
"This theater is like a giant cow," he said. "He eats the same thing all day every day. So the more times you can milk him, the better off you are. We're going to milk him three times a day."