Here in the lush foothills of the Ozarks it is barely 9 a.m., with temperatures inching toward 100, and already throngs are pushing into Silver Dollar City. It's an 1880s-era theme park that launches every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, hosts four packed Sunday Christian services and requires customers to dress in appropriate family attire.
This is the way visitors like it in Branson, where 7 million people a year come for live shows at about 45 theaters -- more seats than Broadway -- as well as camping, fishing and all-you-can-eat buffets. Offering wholesome entertainment, Branson is a popular Middle America summer destination for families, veterans, conservatives and others seeking affirmation of traditional values with a strong Christian influence. "The best way we can serve you is to offer prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ for any need you may have," a bedside card at the Honeysuckle Inn offers.
Now, city officials and business leaders are banking it is the right time for this small, homey town to reposition itself to attract a more sophisticated following among the prosperous conservative movement that has taken root in the country. Moving beyond its roots as a working-class resort, next year Branson will see a $400 million lakefront complex open with two Hiltons, a large convention center and upscale shops, such as Ann Taylor Loft and Brookstone. Branson Landing has leased 80 percent of its national retail space and sold $75 million worth of condos.
"Branson will always be a slice of America," said Ross Summers, president of the local chamber of commerce. "We never intend to alienate our base. . . . [But] we're aiming at a new market that might be more upscale -- people who have a preconceived notion that Branson is just country shows, traffic, buses and senior travelers."
Since the early 1900s, when people came by the trainloads to enjoy the town's 800 miles of lakeshore and leafy mountains, Branson has been a low-cost vacation spot. In the 1950s, Branson made its mark as a Christian community after a local artist built an enormous, lighted Nativity scene that grew to draw tens of thousands to see the Christmas lights.
In the past two decades, Branson has seen exponential growth, becoming famous when a country-music boom brought acts such as Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn to town.
In addition to family, God and country, the past is also memorialized here, with retrospectives on entertainers such as Patsy Cline and Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack." Shows are expected to offer the clean entertainment of another era -- no dirty jokes, no sexual innuendoes, no bad language.
There is a museum dedicated to war veterans, a highway "strip" lined with American flags, and Bobby Vinton, a regular live act, can still be heard crooning on the local radio station.
"Branson is a metaphor for red state America," said Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, who has written extensively on the intersection of culture and politics.
"There are those on the coasts that might snicker in their sleeves, but the town represents what many conservative people in the Midwest see as America, the America they want, the America they hold in their heads from yesterday. Maybe it is part mythical -- but it's the America they want to cling to."
Andy Williams, who first arrived in 1991, remains one of the more popular shows in town. Williams said in an interview that he decided to build his Moon River Theatre here because he was "burned out" on traveling and on Las Vegas. Although Williams, 77, was a friend of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy's, he said he is a lifelong Republican who grew up in Iowa singing in church choirs and feels right at home in Branson.
"There's no doubt in my mind that people on the West Coast -- L.A. particularly -- and the East Coast have no clue at all about what's happening outside their own little bailiwick. And they think everybody is stupid because they are not sophisticated," he said. "People on the East Coast just look down their noses on Branson. But this is America."
Steve Presley, whose family started the first live show on the "Branson Strip" -- Highway 76 -- here 40 years ago, describes his audience as "very much a blue-collar crowd . . . probably real close to the Wal-Mart customer. They value the dollar because they work hard and save for vacation. They tend to follow tradition."
The average Branson visitor today has an average household income of $55,000, stays less than four days and spends $217. About 40 percent come from within a 300-mile radius. Presley said the challenge, as Branson reaches out to a more well-heeled clientele, will be to keep "the personal, hometown feeling that built Branson."
Veterans show up by the thousands for the town's annual week-long tribute to them in November to coincide with Veterans Day. Tony Orlando puts on his Yellow Ribbon Show, and the mothers of service members are honored. Outlet stores offer discounts to active-duty soldiers. Last year, the local Radisson hotel hosted at least 30 veteran reunions.
Wally and Ruth Landis like the way veterans are treated here -- "with respect," he said. He is 84 and served in the Pacific during World War II; she is 79. They have traveled to Branson from their Lansing, Mich., home six times.
They finally persuaded their son, Terry; daughter-in-law, Cindy; and two grandchildren to make the drive this time, taking them to the "Dixie Stampede," a dinner show that opens with bison storming the arena. "We love everything about it," Wally Landis said.
It is hard to find an African American face in Branson's crowds, and it is equally hard to find a visitor willing to criticize the Bush administration's policy on Iraq -- or the president himself on just about anything.
"You wish we weren't there, but you support the president, you support the troops," said Michael Rose, 35, visiting Silver Dollar City with his wife and their two children. "That's just the way it is."
Last year, a state casino referendum that could have brought tens of millions of dollars in revenue to a town 20 miles away was resoundingly defeated by statewide vote, with the religious leaders heading up the opposition.
"The clientele would shift from the heart of America, the core values, to the clientele who comes down with the plan of playing at the casinos with dreams of something for nothing," said Pete Herschend, who with his brother owns Silver Dollar City and several other venues. "In marketing terms we own a brand: that this is the place where you can bring family with safety and security. It changes the brand, it changes who we are."
Every visitor approached by a reporter during a recent visit professed to be a practicing Christian. Still, Herschend said, non-Christians would be at home at a theme park that offers four Christian Sunday services in Wilderness Church. "We are a Christian corporation, we make no bones about it . . . [but] our job is not evangelism," he said. "Our job is to do a job we think our Lord would be proud of. . . . Most of the Midwest is Christian-based, and so the answer is yes, we are a reflection of Middle America."
For David and Melissa Egli of Fort Dodge, Iowa -- first-time visitors with their six children -- the Christian themes and family-friendly atmosphere will bring them back.
"It's a draw for us . . . very important," said Melissa Egli, 34, who home-schools her children. "Any more you're made to feel uncomfortable being a Christian."
David Egli works for the railroads, so the family is able to travel around the country for minimal cost. But they have found that "larger cities are almost hostile to large families," he said. "You sit down with six kids, and it's like they roll their eyes."
In Branson, Egli said, "it's like birds of a feather flock together. Christian families are getting larger and larger, taking the biblical approach in trusting God for the number of children. . . . Here, we found a lot of people like us. We found a place where we connected."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.