I don't know who Bobby Vinton is. I faintly remember Mel Tillis from "Cannonball Run." And I tend to confuse Andy Williams with Anson Williams, who played Potsie on "Happy Days." So what was I doing in Branson, Mo., that living museum of easy-listening entertainment in the Ozarks, where all of the above perform?
Blame it on a friend of a friend. This acquaintance (I refrain from naming names) had escorted his grandmother there, and much to his shock, ended up having a smashing time -- once Granny was tucked in for the night. Then I heard that a popular guidebook had ranked the city as a "hot, emerging" destination.
Branson? Where 65 percent of visitors are "mature" travelers? Where most of the acts predate Woodstock the Original? This I had to see.
Branson, a city of more than 6,000 about 250 miles southwest of St. Louis, bills itself as the "Live Music Capital of the World," attracting 7 million visitors a year. With up to 80 shows per day, it's got more theater seats (61,714) than Broadway. In addition to Vinton, Williams and Tillis, regular headliners include the Osmond Brothers (minus Donny and Marie); George Jones, who was a chart-topper a half-century ago; and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, featuring ostriches, horseback-riding singers and a four-course meal (but no Parton) set inside an eponymous theater as flashy as the star herself.
The city has been rated the No. 1 motorcoach bus destination in the United States by the American Bus Association, as well as the top place in the country to retire by Searchers Inc., a company that caters to "senior lifestyles." Average age of the Branson visitor: 56.
More reassuringly, though, at least for someone who has yet to pluck a silver hair, Branson also contains some of the best vacation ingredients in the Midwest: a never-ending supply of live music, outdoor activities aplenty, flea markets, cheap home-cooked buffets and a J. Crew outlet.
So I booked a room at the Hillbilly Inn and bought tickets to the edgiest shows I could find: Jim Stafford, an all-around entertainer who's been compared to David Letterman, and Shoji Tabuchi, who is all the rage in town for his mix of singing, dancing and violin playing. Both shows were suggested by a local tour operator who was born during the Carter era.
The shows sounded promising, but as I wandered around town, peering into theaters and flea markets, I felt out of place amid all the white-haired tourists in elastic-band pants who seemed to surround me -- boarding buses, standing in ticket lines, pawing through boxes of dusty, warped records that they'd probably once bought as new releases.
"We're stuck in Lawrence Welk Land. Most of the people who come here are over the age of 55," said Tim Haygood, who at 25 is the oldest member of the Haygoods, a family act similar to the Osmonds. "But that is going to dry up in five or six years."
I'd spotted Haygood, a less-toothy Matt Damon type, at the Shoji Tabuchi show, and tailed him as he bolted past the oldsters in the lobby. I wanted him to be my friend, or at least tell me where he hangs out when he's not onstage. "What do you do for fun around here?" I chirped, realizing that it sounded like a bad pickup line. He told me he drag races at the old airport, bounces on his trampoline and plays music.
I pressed on: "Is Branson really caught in a time warp, as it seems?" His response: Yes and no. The town definitely draws a Golden Oldies crowd, he said, but the place is getting hipper and younger.
For example: It now offers a '70s revival show, as well as "Legends in Concert," which features celebrity impersonators of stars like Elton John, Shania Twain and Michael Jackson. Then there's Stafford, a singer-comedian who mixes hokey jokes with irreverent asides and naughty antics, such as tossing wet (non-organic) cow patties into the audience. Stupid pet tricks -- Dave would be so proud.
"There is a new wave of entertainment here," added Haygood, who said he hopes to incorporate 'N Sync moves and KISS-like staging to his family's show. "And we are at the cusp of what we hope is the next generation of Branson."
Cool. But would I find "the next generation" this weekend, or in a decade or two? I could grow old waiting around, so I began my quest without pause.
It's Showtime, Folks
Branson's spectacular natural landscape, dotted with woolly hills and lakes that seem to shimmer even on sunless days, is known for inducing religious awakenings. The region inspired 19th-century minister Harold Bell Wright to write the popular homestead novel "Shepherd of the Hills," and it has spawned more than a few Christian proselytizers, Mormon family acts and country-music zealots. But its true spirit sits somewhere along the neon-blitzed "Strip."
Forty-nine theaters line the two-lane road, which is clogged round-the-clock with tour buses. Most visitors come with organized groups and watch back-to-back shows, starting with a morning performance at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and winding down in the evening at a marquee theater.
A number of the big-name performers, many of whom have their own theaters, are in the same age bracket as the audience: Andy Williams (75), Bobby Vinton (67), Lawrence Welk (dead). Yet, if you look closely, past the stars' Grecian-dyed locks and waxy faces, you can see the stirrings of a youth movement among their backup bands. The musicians are young, comparatively speaking, and for many of them, the Branson gig is just a day job. After hours, they are free to rock out.
But I didn't know that right off. The late-night joints are not obvious; they're tucked into hotels or along the far ends of the Strip. So once I got settled, I enlisted some help from locals -- or anyone who looked faintly hip. That included a college-age employee at J. Crew and a robust guy idling in a rusted Volvo with a mountain bike in back. Yet it was elder statesman Stafford who saved my first evening out.
I met the affable performer after his show, once the theater had emptied and the last bus had chugged out of the parking lot. I was determined to not end my night at the frighteningly early hour of 10, so I asked the impresario (and longtime Branson resident) for some under-55 entertainment guidance.
"Rap, rock, grunge? That's a ways away," he said, quashing my optimism. "Maybe one day there will be some kind of oldies circuit for a crowd that is younger than our oldies."
But what about tonight? Help!
He pointed across the street.
Club Vegas is a shadowy lounge where a crowd years away from a midlife crisis was knocking back cocktails and grooving to beats recognizable to most of the MTV generation. The band veered between Top 40 tunes and wedding-song staples, and I was thrilled that after having faked my way through Stafford's repertoire, I could finally sing and dance my age. "La Vida Loca" -- know it. "Turn the Beat Around" -- ditto. Disco -- bring it on.
Club Vegas is among a handful of places that offer apres-theater entertainment, many with musicians culled from local shows. On Saturday nights, for example, the Ain't Misbehavin' theater thrums with the music of the Horndogs, a band comprising 10 performers from five theaters. The band's lead singer is Bucky Herd, who impersonates one of the Blues Brothers in the "Legends" show. The night I was there, he was stripped down to faded jeans, a black tank and a raspy voice. On sax was Marvin Short, whose hair was still sculpted like a curling tidal wave, part of his '50s-show attire. But tonight, there would be no sock hop.
The band belted out funk, classic rock, anything with a beat and a jive. Girls in paste-on jeans and guys in stylish leather jackets ditched their beers to strut on the dance floor. They twirled and swayed and skimmed their knees against the floor, oblivious to a fight brewing outside.
As last call neared, the band slowed the pace, playing Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl." But Herd couldn't end on a sappy note. As the band packed up its gear, he chanted, sans accompaniment, a steamy Tom Waits song about pasties, cleavage and G strings.
A far cry from "Tiny Bubbles."
Back to School
The College of the Ozarks, off the Strip and across the lake, is no U Beta Party. Nicknamed Hard Work U, it has deeply religious roots and Ivy League study habits: The 1,348 students all work for their tuition, which leaves little time -- or temptation -- to cut loose.
The campus, however, is far from sleepy. It offers a small motel; a rec center with a pool table; the Ralph Foster Museum, which covers Ozark heritage, including the original vehicle from "The Beverly Hillbillies" (it was filmed at nearby Silver Dollar City); and two restaurants.
I was desperately in need of a young-person fix, so for pre-theater dining, I headed straight for the school cafeteria. For one thing, what kid can resist a dining room with its own waffle-cone maker?
A student server behind the hot-meal counter seemed puzzled to find me standing there. "I'm sorry, but you look too young to be a parent, and you're not a student," said Sarah Farris, 18. "So why are you here?"
I'd been hearing that a lot, second only to, "For a good time, go to Springfield." Of course, I immediately grilled her on stuff to do. The answer: Plenty. You can mountain bike or horseback ride in one of several nearby parks; JetSki, fish, parasail or scuba dive in Table Rock Lake; or shop at the outlets ("Cheaper than Wal-Mart").
And the No. 1 suggestion: Go barn-swinging.
The Sport Swings, halfway between Branson and Springfield, trumps any of the amusement-park rides at Silver Dollar City or the 200-foot plunge at the White Water fun park. For the past 18 years, locals of all ages and acrobatic abilities have spent weekend nights perfecting their flying. Housed in a former dairy farm, the contraption -- for lack of a better word -- lets the fearless jump from a tall platform and float high above a cushion of mattresses and tapestries (think bungee jumping with wings).
When I showed up, Mike Millikan, a 19-year-old employee, helped strap me into a sling no wider than an obi. Before I could even test the softness of the mattresses, he nudged me to the edge of the mat, to a strip of worn duct tape that instructs fliers to Fling Self Off Here.
Suddenly I was flyyyiiiing. Okay, not really, I was screammmming and doing a crazy wounded-bird motion, as if I could defy Newtonian Law -- or avoid a trip to the ER. Advanced swingers can circle around the interior, or even twirl simultaneously with two or three others a la Cirque du Soleil, then land at the starting point on their feet. I, however, twirled to the ground like a lopsided top and thudded to the floor. Then I got up for another whirl.
But first Millikan showed me his zippy Superman stunt. Wearing a harness made of looped rope and metal latches, he jumped off a second tower stationed outside (no mattresses here, just hard-packed dirt), his arms shooting out in front, legs rigid and trailing behind. He swooped around, then -- ta-dah! -- came to a halt. A perfect 10.
Then it was my turn. I opted for the Lois Lane maneuver: Take girly leap off platform, squint eyes to dam tears, holler head off. Lois needs some practice, I'd say. Super Mike concurred.
Batgirl and Cavemen
Barn-swinging was like a frolic at the playground compared with caving at Talking Rocks Caverns, just outside Branson proper -- another activity recommended by the kids at the College of the Ozarks. The 10-cave network helps bolster Missouri's claim of being the "Cave State." Three of the subterranean warrens are open to the public, each one a notch higher in difficulty and intensity.
Open commercially since 1969, the 100-foot-high cave formerly known as Fairy Cave was first explored via ropes, sticks and pulleys. These days, it's more of a precarious walk up and down slippery steps, as the guide points out geologic formations that looked to early discoverers like the manger and Three Wise Men but to me looked more like a sea of bobbing jellyfish. The tour winds down 265 stairs, and the denouement is a sweeping-yet-subtle light show synchronized to a Van Halen song.
Powell Cave, less than a mile away in dense, nubby woods, was more strenuous -- with crawls in tight, narrow spaces and face time with tiny bats no bigger than a curled leaf. It was Indian Creek Caverns (pet name: Mud Cave), though, that got my adrenaline pumping.
Slipping on hard hats, head lamps and white coveralls, we crept like cat burglars into a two-mile-long cave that seemed to be made of melted chocolate. Thick, gooey mud was everywhere -- on the walls, under our feet (when they were not drenched in knee-high water), cushioning our derrieres. There is no grace or modesty in spelunking, so don't even try to look elegant. You just have to splay, squish, splosh and do the butt slide -- whatever it takes to get up and down smooth, slick mounds that turned us into wriggly brown worms.
The Wild Cave Tour can take up to six hours, but guide Chris Gertson and I covered only a third of the cave in a half-hour, because, yes, you really do get stuck in the mud. What lay ahead? More mole crawling and water-slide sloshing, as well as maneuvers like the Ear Dip (stand neck-high in water, tilt head to breathe) and Ceiling Sucking (smooch the cave wall for oxygen). But those adventures are only for the experienced, the fit and . . . the young.
Could I -- gasp -- be too old for Branson?
Nah. Deep down, I know that when I can't spelunk, swing or shimmy any more, Jimmy Osmond will be waiting in the wings for me.