Celebrating its centennial this year, Branson, Mo., is typically thought of as a haven for silver foxes. So what does the town have to offer a 20-something? As it turns out, plenty.“Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
The audience immediately towered above me as if they were already expecting this cue while I scrambled obediently to my feet. The Pledge of Allegiance? Here? Now? My mind wandered to the last time I recited the Pledge, standing proudly in my second-grade classroom with my hand over my heart, holding out for the promise of a gold star and an 8-ounce milk box. Somewhere along the line, it seemed the country stopped opening classes and shows by pledging allegiance; I guess I assumed we all knew we were, indeed, allegiant to the flag.
Even so, I appeared to be the only one in that dimly lit Moon River Theatre auditorium who had grown unaccustomed to this patriotic ritual. Elderly men displayed their gleaming white hair as they removed trucker-style hats with the words Veteran and B-52 embroidered front and center, while we began in unison, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America … .”
Once it was finished, as if by another unspoken cue, the audience disappeared from eyesight to their velvety seats, leaving me standing alone with my hand frozen to my heart as the curtain came up to reveal the reward for our patriotism: a group of beautiful, middle-aged ?vocalists — whom I’d never heard of before.
I was in Branson, Mo., and it was clear that I was in someone else’s world.
Anything I’d heard about this city had come from nondescript mentions from members of my grandparents’ generation. Things like, “Branson is so beautiful,” and “There’s just so much to do there,” and even a very enthusiastic “You have to experience the Ozarks at least once in your lifetime.” Despite its obvious acclaim, it seemed no one could nail down what exactly was going on in Branson, which is why, when the opportunity came up to visit during the city’s 100-year anniversary, I jumped at the chance to see if this southwestern-Missouri spot could charm my 20-something, city-girl heart.
Branson was incorporated as a town in early 1912, but it wasn’t five months before it faced its first case of adversity, testing the proud new residents’ resilience and their principles of faith, family and country. On Aug. 29, 1912, the mild Missouri summer heat was torched by flames ripping through downtown Branson, a fire rumored to have started with an explosion in a hotel caused by someone filling a coal-oil stove with gasoline. With no fire department, townspeople rode out the blaze and tried to keep it from spreading. It’s hard to say whether it was this first unified act that solidified the town’s collective pride, but residents have maintained that mission to preserve their city ever since.
Over the years, the town has remained relatively unscathed by mainstream culture, its people staying faithful to the family-friendly values established more than a century ago, even turning the seemingly derogatory word hillbilly into a term of endearment — one they use often to describe themselves. Branson has a uniquely untouched allure that makes visitors feel as if they’ve traveled back to an era when it was safe to leave a window open or a door unlocked before heading to Dick’s Oldtime 5 & 10 on the downtown strip.