Originally created 11/07/96

Branson losing bit of country



BRANSON, Mo. - It will remain an oasis of country music, but there's no doubt the departure of Roy Clark - the first celebrity to put his name on a Branson theater - marks a time of change for this Ozark town.

Along with Clark, who opened the Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre in 1983, the Rhinestone Cowboy himself, Glen Campbell, is also leaving after this season.

And Boxcar Willie, who performs six or seven shows a week at the 900-seat theater he opened in 1987, is cutting short his season after being diagnosed with leukemia. His finalshow of the season will be Tuesday.

"Branson is bigger than any two or three entertainers," Mr. Clark said before a recent sold-out show. "I would like to think we're going to be missed. But I don't think that it's really going to show in the number of tourists who come to Branson one bit."

Mr. Clark, who starred on television's Hee-Haw for 25 years, said he was leaving after his upcoming Sunday show to pursue television and motion pictures - and to remind his fans outside Branson that he's still around.

"They say, `Is Roy dead, or did he retire?"' Clark joked.

Mr. Campbell said he yearned to travel and to get out of the rigorous schedule demanded at his 2,200-seat Glen Campbell Goodtime Theatre, which will be taken over by performer Dino.

"I've been coming out here six years," said Mr. Campbell, who lives in Arizona with his fourth wife, Kim, and three of his children. "I don't want to do eight shows a week. It's such a grind. It's too much work right now. I wanted to kind of slack off."

Mr. Clark had barely heard of Branson when he was first asked about setting up a theater in the early 1980s.

Back then, the southwest Missouri town was a predominantly summer destination where family shows such as the Baldknobbers and the Presleys entertained with their hillbilly routines. And Silver Dollar City and Shepherd of the Hills were bringing in tourists, but no nationally known celebrity had set up shop.

"It was very hard to explain Branson," Mr. Clark said. "Everybody would say, `What is a Branson?' Well, I don't know. `It's sort of like a Las Vegas, without the gambling.' That's what most of them would say."

That remains a common description of the conservative city of 3,700, which attracts about 6 million visitors a year.

Its main strip, 76 Country Boulevard, now is dotted with more than two dozen theaters - featuring more country music shows than any spot in the nation - and even more restaurants and hotels.

The Roy Clark Celebrity Theater opened in 1983 and quickly became the first venue for performers who eventually settled in Branson - Boxcar Willie, Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley, Bobby Vinton.

"I guess about everyone except Andy Williams that now has a theater of their own worked this theater," Mr. Clark said.

Now, with Mr. Clark and Mr. Campbell leaving, some of the country flavor is departing, too.

Investor-promoter Jim Thomas, who is credited with igniting Branson as an entertainment destination by bringing in nationally known talent, said Mr. Clark's departure is not cause for concern.

"I think it's the natural cycle, in a sense," Mr. Thomas said. "The greatest surprise is how long some of (the stars) stayed, quite honestly."

A huge growth spurt in the past decade has left many hotel rooms and theater seats empty. And discount coupons and a lack of a solid marketing strategy by the city has left some performers cold.

Mr. Clark conceded that he was leaving in part because of the sparse crowds in all but September and October, the busiest months.

"If I was out here playing to a packed house every show, I don't know if I would have sat down and thought about, well, there's some other things I can do," he said.