The Biker Babes Do Branson, Part Two
10 May 2000, Wednesday
Did you know that there are 21 breakfast shows running in Branson? Red, Hot & Blue is one of them, although we did only the show, not the breakfast. (Hey, they didn't start serving until 8:30, and we ate ours at 7!) Still, it was dynamite! The six young singer/dancers served the breakfast in pajamas and robes – a cute touch – and then disappeared for a quick change backstage. Then they came leaping back out in the most high-intensity, non-stop show in town! This joint was really jumping! The costumes were lush, the changes frequent, and the music ran up through the century (a common theme in the Branson shows we saw, most of which were new and honoring the concept of the millennium). All six had excellent voices (I was partial to Scott, the baritone who had sold me the tickets!), and just incredible energy. They thoroughly enjoyed getting the crowd involved, too, coming offstage during several numbers to play to audience members and, in one number, to pick out boogie dance partners from the audience. It was great fun well done.
We had the rest of an absolutely gorgeous day to play outside tourist, since our next show wasn't scheduled until 8:00 at night. With the sun pouring down like honey from a clear blue sky, we went to Table Rock Dam and toured the dam and powerhouse. At $3 each, it was the cheapest tour on the trip (well, the Lincoln house up in Springfield was free, except for the parking...), but fascinating. We actually walked inside the dam near its base, with thirty-two feet of concrete between us and the 200-foot deep level of Table Rock Lake. They weren't running the big generators, because Table Rock is only a backup system used to augment the regular power grid when demand is high – as it had been on hot Monday, when everyone was running air conditioning – but we could see the big generators as well as the small one that powers the dam systems themselves. Neat!
From the dam, we went to the Shepherd of the Hills homestead to tour the grounds and go up Inspiration Tower. SOH is *the* book that made Branson a tourist stop in the first place, back in the very beginning of the century. Harold Bell Wright, a young minister traveling through the Ozarks and benighted at the Ross cabin, turned his notes about the people he had met into a melodramatic novel called "Shepherd of the Hills." The book became the first American novel to sell over a million copies, and supposedly remains the fourth most read work of historical fiction. People wanted to see the places and people Wright had written about, so Wright effectively created Branson tourism.
At the SOH homestead, we took their tour, which includes a guided trip on a wagon pulled by a jeep, a chance to ride a Clydesdale-drawn wagon, and a ride to the top of Inspiration Tower, which provides a spectacular 360-degree lookout over the countryside. It's well worth the price of admission. The guided tour takes you through the real cabin that belonged to the Ross family, although the tour guides slip back and forth between using the real names and the fictional ones from the novel; sometimes the name comes out as Ross, but most often, it's Old Matt and Aunt Mollie. The tour also goes right across the "stage" where, every night for the past forty-odd years, the SOH story has been re-enacted with the biggest cast in any Branson show: 23 speaking roles, at least as many extras, 20-30 horses, a hand of mules, a herd of sheep, and a kerosene-fed fire extinguished by the actors in a bucket brigade. At intermission, which happens during a square dance in the story, the audience members are invited to "c'mon down" and join in the party, learning to square dance if they don't already know how. We didn't see SOH because it doesn't start until 8 or 8:30 (and runs past Mom's bedtime!! <grin>), but that would be a fun thing to do if we get back there again and can plan for it.
The homestead itself is pretty and makes for nice walking. The tour is fun, even including someone from the tour group getting roped into "blowing up" a moonshine still. Hilarious!
After the tour, we rode the Clydesdale-drawn wagon up to Inspiration Tower and caught the glass elevator up to the observation decks over 200 feet up. There are two levels: one is glassed-in, while the deck right below it is open to the very windy air. The views are spectacular.
Wednesday night, we went to our one late (but not terribly long) show, featuring the incredible acrobats of the New Shanghai Circus from China. These people were amazing, including a fellow who juggled a 35-pound ceramic pot, even catching it on its lip edge on his head; a contortionist who put herself into and through a tube only 12 inches wide and 36 inches long; a couple who did a pair lifting routine with the woman balancing a pagoda of bowls on her head; a woman who balanced twelve filled liqueur glasses and thirteen candles on a full champagne glass which was, in turn, balanced on her nose; a team of male acrobats who dove through hoops; and the current gold medalist gymnast in China, a small young girl who did an aerial acrobatic routine, suspending herself through a long series of maneuvers on just one hand, occasionally changing hands but never using more than one at a time. They were astounding! After the show, they formed a receiving line in the lobby to greet people, and Mom couldn't get over how tiny they were.
11 May 2000, Thursday
We started off with the Lennon Brothers (yes, the younger brothers of the Lennon sisters!) show at the Welk Resort at 9:30 in the morning. We met Dan Lennon before the show, while we were sitting in the theatre lobby; he was drawn by the Harley shirts, and told us about some upcoming events that the Welks are trying to plan, in part because their general manager – a fellow named Bliss, whom we also met – is a Harley fan and the local HOG (that’s Harley Owners Group, for you non-biker types) group president. They're hoping to have a HOG event in 2002, or so. Quite apart from Harley things, they are having a huge event this Labor Day, when 40 of the old Welk stars will be coming to participate in a show being taped by PBS. There will be special shows featuring most of these folks over the entire week, so that would be Welk fan heaven! Might even be worth planning a flight out...
The Lennon Brothers consist of three of the boys we used to see on the Christmas specials of the Lawrence Welk Show, plus Gail, the wife of Bill Lennon. They put on a wonderful swing music show, and did it without an intermission. Their band was excellent in its own right, and the Lennon Brothers added style, loads of humor, and superb close harmonies arranged by Gail. The show had perfect timing and flow, running from energetic to quiet and from sentimental to nonsensical. We were sitting in the second row, and Dan Lennon played some things directly to us. It was a blast!
In the early afternoon, we took a ride on the Ducks (shades of the Wisconsin Dells!) around Branson and onto Table Rock Lake. It was fun and damp, and gave us more good views of the beautiful countryside, including The Chateau (a famous resort and restaurant on the Lake), and both Table Rock Lake and Taneycomo Lake, from some different perspectives. We saw the mooring for the Showboat Branson Belle, a big sternwheeler that sails every day with lunch and dinner show cruises. There's a lot of trivia about the Belle: she's the biggest ship built and launched on an inland lake, and she was built just above where she's now docked. When she was first dedicated and slated to be launched, well, they couldn't use any petroleum products to grease the skids and slide her into the lake – hey, Table Rock Lake is the local water source, and pollution is a no-no – so they greased the slides with bananas and linseed oil and slipped her into the water on banana peels! I forget the staggering number of pounds of bananas which were crushed in the effort, but it was impressive! Her dramatic slide sideways into the water also remains her record speed: she can sail at a maximum of about 12 mph, but her sideways maiden voyage reached the breathtaking speed of 14 mph. She was faster going sideways than steaming straight ahead! If she were ever to lose engine power, she would be towed by the Ducks; they've actually done it once, in a test requested and observed by the Coast Guard to make certain that the idea would work.
Our Duck (or, more properly, our DUKW, to give it its military designation – the Ducks were amphibious landing craft in World War II ) was the very Duck used in John Wayne's movie about Guadalcanal, so it proudly bears the name "The Duke." We were all equipped with Wacky Quacker duck-call noisemakers to help quack the Duke up hills and to generally make nuisances of ourselves (as if we needed the help!).
Our last show stop in Branson was the wild and wooly fun of the Dixie Stampede, a meal with a horse show. Mom ate a meal with no utensils at all! All that they give you is a plate, a bowl, a cup, a Mason jar, and a bunch of napkins. Dinner – which was excellent! – started with soup and a biscuit (you drank the soup out of your bowl and cleaned the bowl with the biscuit), and then progressed to a whole small roast chicken, a slice of pork chop, wedges of herbed potato, a hunk of corn on the cob, and an apple turnover for dessert. Your beverage choices were coffee, iced tea, or Pepsi, and you indicated which you wanted by how you arranged your cup and Mason jar. The entertainment was pretty unique, starting with the preshow – a trick roping and whip demonstration by Vince (whose last name I can't recall), a cowboy from the wilds of west ... London, England?! Okay, so his accent made his "Yee-HAW!" a little funny, but he was something to watch with lassos and with bullwhips! The main show was styled as a competition between North and South (gee, guess how they had the audience split? You guessed it; half designed to root for each side!), and included trick riding; a chuck wagon race (shades of "Ben Hur" in a *much* smaller arena!); barrel racing; spearing rings on swords at the gallop; chicken herding (yes, you got that right; two pairs of kids from the audience were brought in to try to herd their side's chicken over a finish line down at the far end of the arena from where they started; what a trip!), pig racing (yes, that's right too); the ostrich derby (ever seen two ostriches running with riders? Hint: the riders can't do anything to actually control them!); and stickhorse racing. That last takes a little explaining. The setup was that, the most often heard request at the Stampede was that people wanted to be able to ride the horses, and tonight, for the first time ever, members of the audience would get to do just that! Eight high school kids were brought in, in boy-girl teams, and the boys were told to pick their horses. Of course, they made a beeline for the gorgeous beasts still standing there from the previous act, only to be halted in their tracks by a different selection: toy horses with stuffed heads on long stick bodies! Each team was "mounted" on a horse, and then had to race around a track of barrels. We were laughing too hard to eat! Of course, during the competitive events, we yelled and screamed to cheer our team, and we stamped our feet if our hands were full; proper Southern wild west manners!
Between "competitive" events, we were treated to feats of horsemanship including a square dance on horseback and a courtship between a man and a woman exemplified by haute ecole dressage danced by the man's horse. Lovely!
The Dixie Stampede was the source of our only Branson souvenirs: Terry and I both bought t-shirts with horsy themes.
I closed off the day by going down to downtown Branson and shooting pictures with the last of the light in the day. In the morning, we would leave.
12 May 2000, Friday
We hit the road by 5:00, this time sticking to highways rather than scenic routes. The trip up to Springfield, IL was uneventful, and that's saying a lot: we skirted the edge of a moving storm front, and stayed in sunshine all day. Even in Springfield, hours after we'd settled in, we didn't see much in the way of storms: they split around us, north and south, and hammered every place except where we were. Our trip continued blessed! We drove, we swam, we lazed in the sun, and that's all we did for the day.
13 May 2000, Saturday
We hit the road about 5:15, and made it to Milwaukee at 12:30. In many ways, this was the most challenging travel day: we had a sharp crosswind out of the northwest, and it was COLD! Next time I ride in something like that, I want long johns and a pair of dancer's leg warmers – I thought I could hear my knees creaking every time I managed to step down off the bike. We finished things off with a trio of goodies: lunch at Ned's Pizza, church on Saturday so that we could sleep in Sunday, and finally, Leon's custard. Perfection!
When we reached Leon's Custard, the official end of the road, we had logged a grand total of 1,800 miles for our Branson road trip. The Biker Babes made it!