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
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.”
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.
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.