Kitsch and tell

Nestled in the Ozarks, the hetero haven of Branson, Mo., proves that there’s more than meets the eye — if you know where to look

BAZAAR EXPERIENCE  |  Dick's 5 & 10 in Branson's historic downtown district offers everything you could need or want, but claustrophobics beware. The tiny aisles are always crowded.

BAZAAR EXPERIENCE | Dick's 5 & 10 in Branson's historic downtown district offers everything you could need or want, but claustrophobics beware. The tiny aisles are always crowded.

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer

On the surface, Branson, Mo., does not hold a lot of appeal to the LGBT community. With its reputation as a sort of Las Vegas lite, the tourist town seems to cater to an older, retiree crowd.

But while shows featuring acts like Tony Orlando and The Osmonds might not hold much sway for hip gay crowds, even ironically, Branson does have its charm that can woo even the most skeptical traveler. Just look closer. And if you’re a Christmas-holic, you might think you’ve gone to heaven.

Marketing Branson as a travel destination for gays is a hard sell, but locals want LGBT people to know they shouldn’t be afraid of the city. Granted, it is not the party destination of, say, South Beach or Provincetown, but that’s not what the place is about, even for straights.

“For the gay traveler, they are not coming here because it’s a gay destination,” says Mark Bryson with the Branson Tourism Center. “It’s a holiday destination and we offer a lot of recreation as well. The nightlife may not exist, and we’re not the stop for something like the White Party. We just want to prove that the gays don’t need to be afraid of Branson as they long have.”

LANDING STRIP  |  Branson Landing is a new development that  offers an unexpected sophistication, in town with high-end shops  and restaurants overlooking Lake Taneycomo.

LANDING STRIP | Branson Landing is a new development that offers an unexpected sophistication, in town with high-end shops and restaurants overlooking Lake Taneycomo.

As an out gay man, Bryson knows his stuff. Branson is a pleasant sort of Twilight Zone that shuts out the rest of the world but welcomes all to its happy, little corner.

And he’s right. The city succeeds in courting a mature crowd, but it does not lack in alternative offerings for those uninterested in kitschy stage shows. With a beautiful landscape, there are plenty of recreational activities.

Ziplining is big in these parts, and for good reason. The hilly terrain makes for an ideal ride that should get the heart racing. Murder Rock and Thousand Hills are among a large list of golf courses within a small radius. Take a scenic tour of Branson by boat on Ride the Ducks — a car-boat if you will — or by train on the Branson Scenic Railway, a 90-minute round trip that takes you through the Ozarks and into Arkansas. Both offer holiday options such as Holiday Lights Duck Style through Dec. 11 and The Polar Express through Dec. 3.

Branson ups its game with the Branson Landing, an outdoor mall complex located on the waterfront of Lake Taneycomo. Shops and restaurants run from high-end such as Level Steakhouse and White House|Black Market to easily accessible like Cantina Laredo and Chico’s, but the centerpiece of the Landing is its $7.5 million water fountain exhibit, which features shows synchronized to lights and music. During the lighting of the grand Christmas tree, the fountains danced to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.” That’s pretty gay.

The Landing includes the Hilton Promenade that makes for a convenient stay. Blocks away is the historic district where the charm kicks in small-town style. An array of homey shops feature all the trinkets and tchotchkes you’ll never need, but are nevertheless irresistible.

The anchor of the district is Dick’s 5 & 10. This large store hosts a heavy crowd hungry for good deals and perhaps a step back in time. The store is cramped, with aisles that offer everything from candy, sewing patterns, tools and souvenirs. It’s kind of ridiculous and it’s also cool. But if you’re claustrophobic, do some serious consideration. The crowd is a heavy mix of tourists and regular shoppers and weekends are almost impossible to navigate through.

Dining options are hit-and-miss. Local eateries like Mel’s Hard Luck Diner and Moon River Grill offer bland tastes at breakfast and dinner, respectively. The city fares better with desserts. The Downtown Diner in the historic district has sublime homemade pies and singer/pianist Dino Kartsonakis backs up his claim at 24 Karrot Cake Company in Branson Landing that his carrot cake is the best.

The Christmas season in Branson starts Nov. 1 and if you must do the strip, head to the main drag (W. 76 Country Blvd.), which has either incorporated holiday music into the act, or presents a blowout extravaganza of Christmas such as the Andy Williams Moon River Theater, a grand venue with an adjacent restaurant. A small trail of trees and greenery are lighted, adding to a holiday ambience, even if the weather can sometimes be a muggy 70 degrees. But it’s a fantasyland nonetheless and the Andy Williams Christmas Spectacular is just that. A variety of acts including The Lennon Sisters, Bob Anderson and sometimes Williams himself perform as if Christmas were around the corner and the magnificent sets house an impressive orchestra and dancers.

SEASON’S GREETINGS | Singer Andy Williams, who revealed a serious illness just last week, is still responsible for the Andy Williams Christmas Spectacular, which shows that Branson is serious about the holiday, already underway. (Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice).

SEASON’S GREETINGS | Singer Andy Williams, who revealed a serious illness just last week, is still responsible for the Andy Williams Christmas Spectacular, which shows that Branson is serious about the holiday, already underway. (Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice).

While those names may not ring  many bells, the crispness of the show makes it worthy and at the very least, the Russian Adagio Dance Team Pasha and Aliona will blow your mind away. Simply put, they are quick change artists and it’s Aliona who puts drag queens to shame with her nanosecond dress swap — onstage. When Pasha waves a tasseled hula-hoop over her and one dress morphs into another, it is jaw-dropping and electrifying.  You might spend the whole night thinking, how did they do that — and multiple times?

The Knudsen Brothers’ SIX, at the Hughes American Family Theater, strays from corny impersonations like the passable Legends in Concert show at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater. Instead, they perform songs from the Beach Boys, Lady Gaga and more with arena like flair but sans instruments. When they drop U2’s “With or Without You” on the audience, they fill the room with music all from their own stunning vocal tricks.

Other holiday musts include the Shepherd of the Hills Trail of Lights (through Jan. 2) and An Old Time Christmas as theme park Silver Dollar City (through Dec. 30), but prepare for your ankles to ache — the slopes are killer.

The roads are as well, but get lost and drive through the curvy roads to see the natural landscape of the area. The trees in fall are picturesque and the Ozarks flank the roads. They are both intimidating and inspiring.

True, Branson isn’t going to be the place for boys in briefs dancing at the bar, but for those willing to just let go of the frenetic energy of everywhere else, the city can be a magical one for both LGBT families and couples.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Ich bin gay Berliner

Despite its history, the gay-friendly capital of Germany may be Western Europe’s best kept secret

MARK LOWRY  | Special Contributor

WILLKOMMEN, BIENVENUE | The remnants of the Berlin Wall are a sobering reminder of the city’s past, but the German metropolis is now a feast for travelers — literally, as street pretzel vendors prove. (Photos by Mark Lowry)

Of all the great cities in Europe, Berlin is probably not the first one that comes to mind when Americans make travel plans. Paris and Prague are more glamorous. Rome and Athens are more scenic. Amsterdam is more… well, everything.

But Berlin, with its troubled modern history, has been making a comeback on the world stage — even among the gay community, notable considering how gays were treated in Germany during the 1930s.

That’s actually been the story for about a decade. Apparently, those who are helping it come back, including the nearly 15,000 Americans who have moved there since the Berlin Wall came down, don’t want the secret out. The main selling point: It’s the cheapest of the major cities of Western Europe for lodging, shopping, eating and sightseeing. That’s good news for the budget traveler who doesn’t want to sacrifice comfort or good grub.

There is rich history to take in (much of it a reminder of evil regimes from not so long ago) and brilliant museums to tour. For the gay traveler, there’s a vibrant and large scene, eager to accommodate every fetish.

Like all of the other major European cities, it’s extremely easy to get around Berlin, thanks to a proficient bus system and underground and aboveground rail systems (U-Bahn and S-Bahn, respectively). Oh, and beer, which is big in this part of the world, is allowed on mass transit. And the drinking age starts at 16 — good to know. (Don’t worry about all the drinking, though, because the region’s carb-heavy foods, including schnitzel, sausages and curry wurst, usually soak that up. Plan to gain weight on this trip.)

Here are a few tips and must-sees for your Berlin excursion.

East vs. West vs. the World

It’s impossible to think of Berlin without images of Hitler, the Holocaust, the Soviet occupation and the Berlin Wall. That history is significant to this once-divided city, and while there are many reminders present to prevent such things from ever happening again (such as the bombed-out but still-standing Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche), it’s still a sensitive topic among German residents. (It’s best to take advice from Fawlty Towers: “Don’t mention the war!”)

Touring that history can easily take several days, and that’s if you’re just staying in the city and not taking charter buses out to some of the closest concentration camps. Start by visiting the only part of the Berlin Wall left standing, in the “Around Unter den Linden” section of the city. The wall is a powerful symbol (as are the cold, Stalin-esque buildings next to it, where the Nazis officed), but walk though the outdoor exhibit next to it, “Berlin: Between Propaganda and Terror,” and visit the museum on its grounds.

A few blocks down, in the Kreuzberg section, is “Checkpoint Charlie,” the entry point to the American sector of the formerly divided Berlin. The checkpoint stand and American military officials are there for photo ops. Also telling: Note the McDonald’s a few feet away.

After taking a stroll on the nearby Unter den Linden and to the historic Brandenburg Gate, you can wander to another powerful reminder of the past, the Holocaust Memorial, with its concrete slabs in a grid pattern. The memorial opened in 2005, and underneath is a museum dedicated to Jews murdered in World War II. Not far away, in the Tiergarten section, is the famous neo-Renaissance home to German parliament, the Reichstag. In the 1990s, an elliptical globe, designed by Sir Norman Foster (who designed Dallas’ Winspear Opera House) was added so visitors can walk up and around it. If you want to do that, arrive early — the line is long.

Museum Island

Museum Island is exactly what it sounds like, and you’d be remiss not to tour a few of its major museums, notably the Pergamon Museum, which houses a mammoth altar excavated from the ancient Asia Minor city of Pergamon. There’s also a brilliant section dedicated to Islamic art. Also worth trips on Museum Island are the Old National Gallery and New Museum, all in historic 19th century buildings that mostly survived the bombings in World War II (much of the rest of the city didn’t, although many historic buildings were purposefully not targeted by Allied forces).

You can get a good overview of that part of the city, as well as parts of Tiergarten, by taking a tourist boat on the Spree river, around the City Centre. On that ride, you’ll take a tour of German architectural history, from Baroque (the Berliner Dom, a church that warrants a an indoor visit) to Modern (the Bauhaus Archiv). Along the way, you’ll see the home of the Berliner Ensemble, the theater company that Bertolt Brecht ran, which still does excellent productions of his (and others’) works.

For the gay traveler

Like much of urban Western Europe, there’s now a progressive, accepting attitude towards homosexuality in Berlin, and gay establishments proudly fly their rainbow flags throughout the city. Most of them are located in the Schöneberg section. There are several guides to gay Berlin, but we found the one produced by Queerline Media the most helpful.

Apparently, most of the dance clubs open late and let the pretty people in first, but if you’re into rough trade or leather, there are plenty of options. Fetishes are proudly trumpeted (many of the guides list special events, such as “golden shower Thursday”). Leather stores display military, bondage and gas mask paraphernalia (gas masks, really — considering this city’s history?) in their windows. There are many options for gay-specific lodging, but if you stay at Tom’s Hotel you’ll get passes for area cafes (such as the popular Sissi), saunas and other establishments.

Given Berlin’s history with gays, who were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the Nazi regime, it’s fitting that there is a gay museum, the Schwules Museum in the Kreuzberg section. Housed in two multi-level residential buildings, it features a fascinating pictorial history of gay Germany, with occasional special exhibits. And you can always seek out Marlene Dietrich’s grave.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens