From the air, the 129-mile man-made lake, with its 1,375 miles of curving, jagged shoreline, looks like a great landlocked sea monster. Strung out on its back like gaudy beads are 200 resorts, hotels, motels, cottages. Not to say golf courses, marinas, go-cart tracks, disco parlors, wax museums, Wild West arcades. Fifty years ago, say Ozark historians, there was nothing down here, in rural Missouri, save woods and some shotgun shacks with chickens in the yard. Now the annual tourist business exceeds $100 million, most of it in summer.
Going to the Lake of the Ozarks is the Midwest equivalent of crossing the Bay Bridge on Friday afternoon and gunning it to Rehobeth. In the same way that San Franciscans go down to Monterey, or West Texans up to the mountains of southern New Mexico, or New Yorkers out to the Hamptons.
Del Peick is waiting at the airport (made partially of logs with no radio and one fat kid on duty). Peick, a soft-spoken, middle-aged former St. Louisan, retired to the Lake of the Ozarks several years ago. After a couple of months, he got tired of loafing. Now he's a chauffeur for Tan-Tar-A Golf and Tennis Resort, a 550-acre manicured complex with five restaurants and a pass-through security gate. He takes guests back and forth in Cadillac limousines.
Most people drive here in their own cars, Peick says humming the caddie through a lush state park, out to the main road. St. Louis and Kansas City bring in the bulk of the business and are about equidistant - three hours away. Other cities within a one-day's drive are Dallas, Indianapolis, Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago.This is where mid-America cools off.
At the lake, flags are limp on their poles. Sailboats sit motionless on blue glass. Around every pool at every roadside motel lie oiled and addled bodies. They don't stir. They are coated with a baker's glaze.
At Tan-Tar-a, in Mr. D's lounge off the lobby, Rod Sellers is entertaining with his guitar. Rod is beefy, bearded, open-collared.
"You gotta squeeze her hand on this one, guy," he says in the direction of a suple who are apparently on a honeymoon. "It's in my contract." Then Rod breaks into a soaring John Denver song.
At the other end of the complex, past the indoor tennis courts, the pin-ball parlor, the 15-store shopping arcade, another entertainer is hard at work. His name is Heavy, and he is a-9-year-old myna bird, once a regular on the Smothers Brothers TV show. Now he spends his days badgering every female who comes by. His spoken repertory includes "heavy," "far out," Oh, yeah," and curiously, "put your bikes away."
Tan-Tar-A is 17 years old. It's name, in Osage Indian, means "fleet of foot." Somehow, though, the architectural and decorating motif - down to lettering on soap and stationery - is oriental. Supposedly, someone once convinced the owner the setting was reminiscent of northern China.
Tan-Tar-A was the Lake of the Ozarks' first major resort, and put the region on the map. Up until then, the area consisted mainly of fishing camps and 1950s-style motor courts. Though the lake was formed in 1931, by a giant hydro-electric dam that impounded the Osage River (where steamboats early plied), it wasn't until after Tan-Tar-A was established that Midwesterners discovered they had a kind of inland seashore in their own backyard - or at least in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.
Nowadays they come by the carload. Two and a half million people stayed overnight in the area last year. The wealthiest put up at Tan-Tar-A, or around the lake at the equally plush Lodge of the Four Seasons, where the room tariffs can average $75 a day.
At Tan-Tar-A, the compleat resort, you can ride horses, work out in the health club, sail, play tennis (in or out), play golf (miniature or regular), play billiards. There are hayrides and splash parties, beach cookouts and moonlight cruises. In peak season, 3,000 people a day cram the place. They range from families in for a week, some with their own cooking facilities to conventioneers (Prudential, McGraw Hill and IBM have recently held meetings), to honeymooners. This last group is considerable - the Lake of the Ozarks is fast becoming the Poconos of the Midwest. Some of Tan-Tar-A's guests never leave the grounds. In fact, that's the idea. There's great disparity between the people who stay at Tan-Tar-A and those who stay out on the highway. The class system.
The enclave was built by Burton Duenke, a shy, 58-year-old St. Louis millionaire who looks a little like Papa Hemingway. Duenke (rhymes with "pinky") made his early fortune as a residential contractor; he estimates he's put up 9,000 houses in St. Louis. He quit school at 12 to go to work.
Over the years, his pet project has grown like Topsy, with added-on wings here, and new sections there; an underground parking lot one year, another pool the next; to the point where the resort is now a plush, Rube Goldberg maze of hallways and subterranean passageways. Occasionally this makes for some incongruity: The hotel's gourmet restaurant sits beneath its bowling alley.
Tha's okay, though. The Steak Dinane in the cool, dark Der Krug (where a band soothes while you eat) goes for a modest $10.50, and that includes a sound and light show by Steve the headwaiter (shag hair and ruffled blue tux) who works from a rollaway table. He flips. He forks. He powders. Finally the tortured meat emerges from its flaming pan. "I think it's time for your dining pleasure," Steve says an artist fulfilled.
Last year, his health beginning to deteriorate and the lodge having grown impossibly large, Duenka sold out to the Marriott Corp. He was looking for a quality chain, he says, one that would feel a commitment to the area. Already, Marriott has a $4 million renovation underway.
All day long, and now all evening long, "the strip" at Bagnell Dam is bumper-to-bumper cars. Motorcycles, too. In gangs. Cacophonous music pours from the Disco Inferno. At the Crazy Horse, down the road, three men of diverse age and rustic dress sit in a booth. "Granddaddy," says one, "did you ever drink beer out of a boot?"
By 9 p.m. the crowds have lined up outside a low, barnlike building in Osage Beach. This is the home of the Ozark Opry, a country music and cornpone comedy show celebrating its 25th anniversary. Every week since 1955 the opry has been telecast by stations in Sedalia and Jeff City, pumping out Ozark culture to the rest of the Midwest. The show is a spectacular success, primarily, some people say, because it's never tried to be anything other than what it is.
There are two shows this evening, and the second is starting up now. Out comes a troupe of performers, the men in green blazers with gold buttons, the women in long dresses. Somebody plays "Down Yonder" on a sax.A Loretta Lynn lookalike takes the mike to sing. She is backed up by cowbells and washboards and banjos. In 10 minutes, the audience is clapping and stomping.
"Whatever you do, don't give up your milk route," says a performer called "Goofer" to an antagonist. Goofer is in bib overalls, a straw hat, a tie drooping to his kneecaps. He is a kind of local Clem Cadiddlehopper.
At the center of the music and comedy is Lee Mace, owner and founder of the opry. Mace has a stringbean body and huge, popping eyes. He clearly loves his work, banging on his base fiddle nearly nonstop. At one point, he asks the audience for a geographical show of hands. Missourians constitute the largest block, but a dozen other states are represented, as far apart as New Jersey and Texas.
A couple of days later, Mace puts the land where he was born into perspective. He speaks about the Ozarks with only a tinge of regret.
"All that you see around you used to be patches of farmland. I grew up farming. We had corn and hogs and ran some old cattle up in the hills. Back then I never knew about such things as class, just people who had principles and those who didn't. My daddy taught school in the Depression for $30 a month. For awhile he was a country sheriff. On Sundays, after church, we'd go visiting. I'm not saying that's all dead now, or even that I wish it was still exclusively that way. Sometimes, when I miss it bad, I go over on Bear Creek. You can still find real folk over there."
People say Mace is a cold-cash millionaire. All he will say is he has interests in a Howard Johnson's, a shopping center, various amusement arcades and souvenir shops along the highway. He's also on the board of directors of a local bank. "Everything I own in this world I can get to in 15 minutes."
He pauses, seeming to remember something. "Back in the early days, when our show was just developing, these old city boys from Chicago and places would be coming down all the time. The first thing they'd say was 'Where can I find m a hillibilly?" You know, they'd be looking for some old boy in a black hat to jump out at 'em with a fiddle. Eventually, I swore I was going to get me some genuine hillibillies if I had to go to Chicago and hire them."
He sputters in laughter.
Then he sobers. "You don't want people to come in and rape your land. That's for sure. And yet, I wouldn't be driving two cars today if it weren't for something called tourism. I never forget that. But, I guess all of us down here have mixed feelings.
"But I still say let 'em come."
Duenke, the godfather, more than keeps his hand in nowadays with his development of Tan-Tar-A Estates, an expanse of strikingly beautiful homes (180 so far) that wind around coves and perch out on channels. The estate are part of the Tan-Tar-A grounds. Duenke leases the land to investors (one estate owner, a Wall Street broker, hasn't been down in three years), or to rich Midwesterner who want a private retreat, sometimes even to corporations who use the place for private weekend parties. Estate owners get to use the facilities of the resort (for a fee). What Duenke and others refer to as "the element" is kept handily out.
Duenke himself lives in the estates. In fact, he's owned five of the homes there, including the "Pedestal House," so named because it squats impossibly over a hook of land with a postcard view of the lake. Duenke designed that one, the story goes, on a match cover. The Pedestal House now belongs to Fred Olsen, a Chicago electrical contractor. Olsen's speedboats strain at their moorings a few yards from his front door. He and his wife and children will spend the summer.
"I grew up on a farm around here," says Olsen, not really wanting to talk. "And wasn't smart enough to buy up this lake property. Now I have to pay their prices. But it's worth it, I guess. We feel this is the greates spot in the world."
For his part, Duenke, who is easing into retirement, says: "You've got to understand something about the Lake of the Ozarks. Around some parts here, you could find a $400,000 home with a trailer or maybe an abandoned car next to it. But in here we've got restrictions."
He hesitates: "This is still the Ozarks."