For more than 100 years, the Branson/Lakes Area has been attracting visitors to the Ozarks, lured by natural beauty and outdoor recreational activities.
Branson itself was incorporated as a town on April 1, 1912. But the history of settlers and visitors coming to this beautiful part of the Ozarks goes back more than a half-century before that.
The first family attraction to draw visitors was Marvel Cave (beneath the property where Silver Dollar City theme park is currently located). First called Marble Cave because its limestone walls were thought to be marble, the cave was described by geologists in the 1860s and explored in the 1880s by adventurers who lowered themselves on ropes 200 feet into the main chamber.
Scientific American magazine described the cave in 1885, and word of the natural wonder spread throughout the continent. Canadian mining expert William Henry Lynch read of the cave, purchased it sight unseen, traveled to the Ozarks and, with his two daughters, opened the cave for public tours in 1894.
On the advice of his physician, minister Harold Bell Wright traveled from his home in Kansas to the Ozarks in 1898 to seek a more suitable climate for his health. He stayed at the homestead of John and Anna Ross, whom Wright later immortalized as the characters Old Matt and Aunt Mollie in his best-selling novel “The Shepherd of the Hills.” Published in 1907, the book told the story of the self-reliant and stoic hill people he encountered in the area and of the wooded valleys, the mountain “balds” and the incredible cave he had seen.
The book was a huge success. Millions of copies were sold in several languages, and four movies were filmed, including a 1941 version starring John Wayne, in his first Technicolor film. Wright’s novel has become the fourth most widely read book in publishing history.
Following the publication of “The Shepherd of the Hills,” local residents began noticing a great influx of visitors. Many came to the Ross homestead. The Rosses eventually sold their homestead to Miss Lizzie McDaniel of Springfield, who began presenting the very first dramatization of Wright’s story, right on the front lawn.
When Ozark Beach Dam (also called Powersite Dam) was built in 1913 near Forsyth and Lake Taneycomo was created, the area became quite a haven for outdoor enthusiasts who came to fish, boat, swim, hunt and enjoy the rugged beauty of the Ozark Mountains. Travelers flocked to the Ozarks on the newly-built White River Line railroad that stopped in the neighboring town of Hollister.
TV Shows and Hydroelectric Power
The area first gained national prominence in the entertainment industry in 1954 when Red Foley, a legendary country singer with 38 top ten hits, moved to Springfield, Missouri, from Nashville, Tennessee, to host “Ozark Jubilee,” one of the first successful network television shows.
In 1959, the area was changed forever with the completion of Table Rock Dam. This brought much needed power to the area, spurring the growth of many area businesses. Until 1959, Rockaway Beach, located just a few miles east of Branson on the banks of Lake Taneycomo, had long been a playground for America’s rich and famous with movie stars and U.S. presidents among those who retreated to the small resort community.
Construction of a dam created Table Rock Lake, nationally renowned for bass fishing and water sports. In addition, the cold water from the bottom of Table Rock Lake that was now flowing into Lake Taneycomo changed it into one of the country’s most popular trout fishing lakes.
In 1959, Mabe brothers Bob, Bill, Lyle, and Jim began performing twice a week in a converted roller skating rink on the Lake Taneycomo waterfront in downtown Branson. The brothers combined popular country tunes with Ozark Mountain music and threw in a dash of comedy to entertain audiences. In 1969, the Baldknobbers, as the brothers called themselves, built a theater on Highway 76, making their act the longest continuously running show.
Shepherd of the Hills Homestead & Outdoor Drama
A few miles east of Silver Dollar City, Dr. Bruce Trimble and his wife, Mary, began staging an outdoor pageant in 1959 based on the best-selling novel “The Shepherd of the Hills.” The amphitheater was actually located on the site where the models for author Harold Bell Wright’s characters lived. Under Mary, her son Mark and his wife Lea’s direction, the production grew into one of the nation’s most popular outdoor historical dramas.
In 1985, Gary Snadon (school teacher and former cast member of the outdoor drama) along with his wife, Pat, purchased the homestead. They added the 230-foot tall inspiration tower in 1989, and in 1990, had the Morgan County Church relocated to the homestead to signify the churches where Wright once preached.
Today, the Shepherd of the Hills is the longest-running outdoor drama in the world and boasts a cast of more than 80 actors, dozens of animals, pyrotechnical displays and authentic props and sets. The Sons of the Pioneers perform in a chuckwagon dinner show on the Homestead grounds.
Silver Dollar City
In 1960, the long-term plans of Hugo and Mary Herschend came to fruition with the opening of a small, old-time Ozarks village attraction atop the long-popular Marvel Cave, about 10 miles west of Branson on Hwy. 76. They called it Silver Dollar City, and it offered an 1880s steam train ride, demonstrating craftsmen, themed shops and music. The first year, it drew 125,000 people.
Following Hugo’s death, Mary and her sons Jack and Peter continued to direct the growth of the family business, and by 1963, Silver Dollar City was Missouri’s top tourist attraction. In 1967, Silver Dollar City received national exposure when the popular “Beverly Hillbillies” television show filmed five episodes at the park.
The company later expanded to include other popular Branson attractions: White Water water park, the Showboat Branson Belle and Celebration City theme park. Today, Silver Dollar City has grown into a multimillion dollar entertainment complex with thrill rides and attractions, shows, dining facilities, dozens of musicians and an evening music show with a professional cast. The park also hosts six themed festivals each year.
In 1998, Silver Dollar City was given the Applause Award by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions as the top theme park in the world. The familyowned company, Herschend Family Entertainment, currently owns, operates or partners in 19 properties in nine states.
In 2004, Jack and Peter Herschend were inducted into the Hall of Fame of the amusement industry’s largest organization worldwide, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Presleys’ Country Jubilee
In 1963, the Presley family began a music show at The Underground Theater near Talking Rocks Cavern in Kimberling City with special guests from “Ozark Jubilee,” including Red Foley. They made history in 1967 when they built the first music theater on Hwy. 76. Today, Presleys’ Country Jubilee stars four generations of Presley family members including three original members of the show: Lloyd Presley and his sons Gary and Steve. Together with other cast members, they perform a variety of musical styles on a wide range of instruments, and do comedy skits.
Early Theater Development
1970 – Mutton Hollow Entertainment and Craft Village opened on west Hwy. 76, at the site where scenes from “The Shepherd of the Hills” novel took place. Shad and Mollie Heller opened the Corn Crib amphitheater on Hwy. 76 with “The Toby Show,” which ran for 17 years.
1973 – The Foggy River Boys and The Plummer Family opened. Dolly Parton, Buck Trent and Porter Wagoner performed at the Baldknobbers Jamboree. Buck Trent returned to open his own show in 1991 and today performs at the Clay Cooper Theatre across from the Titanic. Dolly Parton later opened the Dolly Parton Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show.
1976 – Bob Mabe sold his share of the Baldknobbers Jamboree to his brothers, purchased land further west on Hwy. 76, and built an 1,800-seat theater, the largest in the area at the time, named Bob-O-Links Country Hoedown. The Burdette Family Cloggers performed with the show from 1977 until the late 1980s when Bob retired and sold the theater to The Texans. The theater is now the Clay Cooper Theatre.
Stars Put Down Roots
1980 – White Water, the Ozarks’ largest water park opened on Hwy. 76 and today offers dozens of water rides, interactive play areas and a 500,000-gallon wave pool.
1981 – The Wilkinson Brothers Theater, the Hee Haw Theatre, and Chisai Child’s Starlite Theater opened. Japanese fiddle player Shoji Tabuchi debuted at Starlite.
1983 – Roy Clark opened a theater and hosted Mel Tillis, Box Car Willie, Ray Stevens and Jim Stafford. The Lowe Family Theater opened. Lilley’s Landing started serving fishermen with marina, lodging and tackle on the trout waters of Lake Taneycomo.
1984 – The Sons of the Pioneers performed at the Lowe Family Theater joined by guests Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Vern Gosdin and others.
1985 – Bill and Janet Dailey bought the Hee Haw Theatre and renamed it Country Music World. Shoji Tabuchi performed there on a regular basis. The Braschler family opened at Musicland USA on Gretna Road.
1987 – Box Car Willie bought the Wilkinson Brothers Theater and performed there until just before his death in April of 1999.
1988 – Ozark Mountain Christmas began.
1989 – Shoji Tabuchi and his wife, Dorothy, opened at the Ozark Theater (formerly the Ozarks Auto Attraction).
On December 8, 1991, the popular “60 Minutes” TV program proclaimed Branson the “live music capital of the entire universe.” There were only 22 theaters in operation. Today, Branson has more than twice that many, due in part to that turning-point proclamation. Many agree that “60 Minutes” launched Branson into a new era of growth by revealing to the world the wonderful playground of fun and entertainment this small southwest Missouri town had become. Performers, visitors, developers and new residents flocked to see what was going on.
Throughout the 1990s, Branson not only saw tremendous growth in the number of theaters, but the number of hotels, motels, Bed & Breakfasts, lakeside resorts, restaurants, attractions, shopping malls, condominium and housing developments, service businesses, and healthcare facilities grew proportionally as well.
Big Cedar Lodge, Pointe Royale, Thousand Hills, Holiday Hills and Top of The Rock added resort and golf amenities to the area. Branson Creek Golf Course opened in 1999 and received top honors by industry publications such as Golf Week and Golf Digest, including being ranked in the Top 100 courses in the nation.
Silver Dollar City made several expansions in the 1990s including the addition of a children’s water attraction called Geyser Gulch and dozens of shops, restaurants and theatrical events.
The City of Branson and Taney County undertook major infrastructure projects in the 1990s to accommodate the influx of new visitors and residents. Over the past 10-plus years, the City has invested more than $40 million in road improvements, making it easy to get around town.
1990 – Shoji Tabuchi built his current theater on Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. Mel Tillis opened at the former Ozark Theater. Mickey Gilley purchased Country Music World. 76 Music Hall, now Grand Country Music Hall, become the first theater to offer three different shows daily. Jim Stafford performed at the Stars of the Ozarks Theatre. Moe Bandy bought the Plummer Theatre.
1991 – Jim Stafford bought the Stars of the Ozarks Theater, Ray Stevens built a new theater and Bob Nichols opened Branson’s first Morning Show at Campbell’s Ozark Jubilee Theatre.
1992 – Andy Williams built his Moon River Theatre and The Osmonds, Willie Nelson, Dino Kartsonakis, The Gatlin Brothers and Jimmie Rodgers all opened shows. The $13 million, 4,000-seat Grand Palace opened and was the largest of all the theaters in Branson until Sight & Sound Theatre opened in Spring 2008.
1993 – The Grand Village shopping complex, Branson’s IMAX Entertainment Complex and Branson Scenic Railway opened. Wayne Newton, John Davidson and Tony Orlando opened. Pump Boys & Dinettes, “50’s At the Hop” and “Jennifer in The Morning” opened. Bobby Berosini and Kirby VanBurch headlined at Five Star Theater, and Mel Tillis built a new theater on Hwy. 248.
1994 – The Bobby Vinton Blue Velvet Theatre, a new Mel Tillis Theater, the Glen Campbell Goodtime Theater, The Charley Pride Theater, and the Lawrence Welk Champagne Theatre, starring the Lennon Sisters, the Lennon Brothers and other Welk TV show stars, opened. Mel Tillis’ theater became the Will Rogers Theater and starred Pat Boone in the Broadway production of “The Will Rogers Follies.” Dino Kartsonakis played his Christmas show there. Doug Gabriel opened his morning show at the Jim Stafford Theatre. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum opened. The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes were at The Grand Palace for the holiday season, the first time they ever performed outside New York City.
1995 – The Braschler Family built a new theater on Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. The Gettysburg Theatre (now the Kirby VanBurch Theatre) opened on Hwy. 248. Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show and the Showboat Branson Belle were built, and “The Promise” show opened. Jennifer Wilson moved from the Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre to the Americana Theatre. Regis and Kathie Lee did three live shows from The Grand Palace. The Hot Winter Fun season promotion was started to attract visitors to Branson during the winter season.
1996 – The Hollywood Wax Museum opened. Barbara Fairchild purchased the Ozark Country Jubilee Theatre. The Lowe Sisters built a new theater.
1997 – The Five Star Theater became the Remington Theater (now home to Faith Life Church). The Chateau on the Lake Resort and Conference Center was built.
1998 – Pam Tillis performed with her dad, Mel Tillis, at his theater. The Oak Ridge Boys opened at The Grand Palace. Wayne Newton and Tony Orlando performed at the Talk of the T.O.W.N. Theater.
1999 – Spirit of the Dance opened at the Grand Mansion. The Starlite Theater opened with Doug Gabriel, Lost in the ‘50s and the American Kids Show. In 1999 and in 2000, the Miss USA Pageant was broadcast live on CBS from The Grand Palace.
2000 – Silver Dollar City opened a 1,000-seat indoor theater on the theme park grounds. White Water added Rain Tree Island, and the Veterans Memorial Museum opened to large crowds. The Hughes Brothers bought the Celebrity Theater. Glen Campbell joined Andy Williams. Pierce Arrow Theater opened.
2001 – Silver Dollar City opened the Wildfire roller coaster. The Dutton Family purchased the Box Car Willie Theater. “Dino’s Easter Spring Spectacular” aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network worldwide.
2002 – The Haygoods opened at Music City Centre.
2003 – The $40 million theme park Celebration City, and the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum with its Happy Trails Theater opened.
2004 – “Siegfried and Roy Presents Darren Romeo, the Voice of Magic” opened at the Welk Theatre. Ann-Margret joined Andy Williams during part of the season. “Celebrate America” opened at The Mansion. “Comedy Jamboree” opened at Grand Country Music Hall along with “Red, Hot... & Blue.” The Branson Variety Theatre added “The Rat Pack – Direct from Las Vegas,” and The Sons of the Pioneers moved to the Shepherd of the Hills Historic Homestead Pavilion. The Branson Landing development broke ground. “Daniel O’Donnell Live from Branson” aired nationwide on PBS from the Tri-Lakes Center.
2005 - Silver Dollar City’s PowderKeg explosive-launch roller coaster was named best family thrill ride on the planet by thrillride.com. Petula Clark joined Andy Williams at the Moon River Theatre, and Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers paired up with The Lennon Sisters during the holidays at the Welk Resort Theater. Siegfried and Roy paid a visit to Darren Romeo. The Branson Convention Center and Hilton Hotel broke ground. The New Shanghai Theatre was built for the Acrobats of China, and The Branson League of Theater Owners and Show Producers raised over $120,000 with a telethon concert for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
2006 - Branson Landing opened, a $420 million, 95-acre lakefront development blending retail shopping, dining, luxury lodging, river walk, condominiums, a town plaza, several marinas and nightlife into a dynamic, waterfront setting. Other exciting developments in Branson included the multi-million dollar Titanic: The World’s Largest Museum Attraction, towering 100’ over the 76 Strip, with a permanent collection of 400 items and offering an interactive experience; Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater starring Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, Paul Revere & the Raiders and other ‘50s and ‘60s rock legends; ‘57 Heaven, the world’s largest collection of 1957 automobiles and memorabilia; The Butterfly Palace and Rainforest adventure with more than 1,000 species of live tropical butterflies; and Chateau on the Lake Resort’s new $6 million, 14,000 sq-ft Spa Chateau complete with 10 treatment rooms, in a picturesque setting overlooking Table Rock Lake. Branson was named a “Top 10 Worldwide Holiday Destination” by Pauline Frommer.
2007 - Overlooking Lake Taneycomo and the Branson Landing, the new state-of-the art Branson Convention Center and adjoining 12-story Hilton Hotel opened. Groundbreaking took place for the Sight & Sound Theatres. The longawaited Branson Airport broke ground in July and plans to welcome its first scheduled flight arriving in mid-2009. Gage’s Branson Landing Marina & Shoppes opened with Branson Landing Cruises offering daily excursions aboard a luxurious 100’ yacht or authentic 100’ paddlewheel riverboat on Lake Taneycomo. RFD-TV purchased the Ray Stevens Theatre.
2008 - Sight and Sound Theatres opened “NOAH—The Musical,” the first of its Biblical theme productions. The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre opened. Midwest Living magazine named Branson Top Pick for Family Reunions. Murder Rock Golf Course held its grand opening. Branson Landing hosted tryouts for the Late Show with David Letterman. Ahead of schedule in the construction, Branson Airport moved closer to the May 2009 opening. The Welk Resort Theatre welcomed The Rankin Brothers Classic Music Revue. The Downtown Branson Fiddle Festival returned. Mel Tillis and the Tillis Family Reunion performed at Welk Resort Theatre. Country Music Star Joe Diffie opened at Yakov’s Theatre. Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers played at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater. Silver Dollar City opened their Culinary & Craft School in a charming 1880’s style timber-frame farmhouse. Payne Stewart Tribute Golf Course opened 9 holes. Lt. Colonel Oliver North was keynote speaker during Veterans Week. Branson welcomed our nation’s Capitol Christmas Tree en route to Washington, D.C.
2009 -The Live Music Show Capital celebrated 50 years. The Baldknobbers Jamboree opened the first show in 1959 and Shepherd of the Hills followed with its outdoor drama. The Great American Pie Show was held during Ozark Mountain Spring with NBC’s Al Roker. The Branson Airport opened with a 2-day air show featuring the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Peter Pan, starring Cathy Rigby, brought Broadway to Branson at the Mansion Theatre. Moscow Circus was welcomed to Yakov’s Theatre. Neal McCoy performed at Yakov’s Theatre. Brulé & AIRO (American Indian Rock Opera) brought Native American music and instruments to RFD-TV: The Theatre. Lee Greenwood and the Bellamy Brothers were at Welk Resort Theatre. Lt. Col. Oliver North returned for Veterans Week with appearances on FOX & Friends live from Branson. Miracle of Christmas debuted at Sight and Sound Theatre.
2010 - Silver Dollar City and the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama celebrated their 50th anniversaries; Hwy. 76 skyline changed with the addition of New York City skyline atop the Hollywood Wax Museum; Three ziplines were the latest additions to the tourism industry: Vigilante ZipRider, Adventure Ziplines and Branson Zipline Canopy Tours at Wolfe Creek Preserve; The Chinese national company’s Legend of Kung Fu opened at the White House Theatre; Diana: The People’s Princess opened at the Branson Exhibition Center; Table Rock Lake Dam guided walking tours returned having been absent since 9/11; and a new downtown bridge was completed over Lake Taneycomo.
2011 - Dick’s 5 & 10 celebrated 50 years as a Historic Downtown landmark, with over 50,000 different items and several unique collections on display; Silver Dollar City opened a million-dollar play area for little explorers. Half Dollar Holler’s centerpiece is a vintage hand-carved carousel; The Showboat Branson Belle launched ENCORE! With the biggest changes in her 15-year history featuring the only fiddling aerialist in the world, Janice Martin, and a new male vocal group, The Showmen; White Water opened Aloha River at Hula Hula Bay, an 800-plus-foot water ride; The Track Family Fun Parks celebrated three decades in Branson with the Heavy Metal High-Rise; Wolfe Creek Preserve added Ol’ Blue gemstone mining, Wolfe Creek Photo Safari Walking Tour; “Hooray For Hollywood!” debuted at the Branson Variety Theatre; Louise Mandrell & Lee Greenwood performed together for the first time at the Welk Resort Theatre; 3 Redneck Tenors were at The Mansion for 32 weeks; Marty Haggard was at the all new Clay Cooper Theatre with a tribute to his dad, Merle Haggard; Branson’s newest theater, The Icon Theater is home to The Rat Pack, the Platters. and Chubby Checker; Andy Williams & Ann-Margret were together again at the Moon River Theatre; Ground was broken for the new Dewey Short Visitor Center near Table Rock Dam.