Dinner Theater and Loathing in Baptist Vegas

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A woman standing atop two horses rides them through a ring of fire as American flags fly in the background. The scene captures one of the acts performed during the popular tourist attraction Dolly Parton’s Stampede. Lily Qian

Branson, Missouri, is touted as a wholesome, family-friendly tourist destination where dinner-and-a-show thrives. But here, everyone’s trying to sell you more than just a ticket.

by Amy McCarthy

Illustrations by Lily Qian

You can’t smell the horseshit, until it’s the only thing you can.

I’m walking along a lengthy pathway, toward a building that looks much like the big white plantation houses that litter the American South, when I notice that it is lined with hydrangeas that are, for early April, uncharacteristically bright. I lean closer, touching a cluster of blue petals, and realize they are made from silk before the oppressive smell of manure suddenly makes sense. As I turned the corner, I entered the Horse Walk, a corridor of outdoor stalls showcasing the “32 magnificent horses” that are the backbone of the show at Dolly Parton’s Stampede, the crown jewel of Branson, Missouri’s thriving dinner theater scene.

Depending on who you ask, Branson is either the Live Music Capital of the World or Baptist Vegas. Home to a little more than 12,000 people year-round, it’s a place that sits right at the heart of the Bible Belt while boasting more theater seats than Broadway in New York City.

Dinner theater has all but disappeared across the United States, even at the cheesiest tourist destinations, but in Branson dinner and a show thrives, even outside of the traditional dinner theater setting. At Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, a ’50s-themed diner that’s the “home of the Singing Servers,’’ waiters serenade the crowd with show tunes and pop hits, reaching for soaring high notes over the clatter of silverware on plates. At Fall Creek Steak & Catfish House, servers playfully toss soft yeast rolls to patrons as they sit at their tables. And of course, there are also the celebrity restaurants — Guy Fieri’s Branson Kitchen and Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen — that offer their own distinct connection to the world of entertainment. Even at Billy Gail’s Restaurant, a local mini-chain and popular breakfast spot, everyone stops and stares as servers bring out massive 14-inch pancakes that drape over the edges of a regular dinner plate. Here, every single meal has some element of showmanship, and the people who work in these establishments are determined to make sure that you have a good time — even if you don’t want to.

But I was there to have a good time. Growing up in Northeast Texas, I heard stories about the Stampede and the magic shows and the theme parks from friends who vacationed in Branson. It was only about a five-hour drive, a reasonable road trip in this part of the country, but for whatever reason, my family never planned a trip there. It has since loomed large in my mind as a mythical place of sparkle and showmanship, where big hair, rhinestones, and country music are always fashionable, and in fact preferable, to the minimalist austerity that’s eternally en vogue. And as I planned my itinerary, I looked forward to immersing myself in the kitschy themed shows set against the backdrop of the beautiful Ozarks, in the name of childhood nostalgia.

A waiter in a ‘50s-style polka dot dress at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner singing into a microphone as they deliver a milkshake in a retro fountain glass. Lily Qian

Still, I was aware that the Branson of today has a decidedly mixed reputation. Those who love it say that it’s a wholesome destination for good, clean, Christian fun in the Ozark Mountains, while its critics would suggest that it’s a haven for aging white baby boomers who are clinging to their God, their guns, and their wistfulness for a bygone era. In the midst of a 35,000-square-foot arena on the city’s theater-packed Strip, Dolly Parton’s Stampede is proof that it’s both — and a whole lot more.

Stepping inside the building, I’m directed to walk through the gift shop before claiming my souvenir boot-shaped mug at the bar. But despite looking and functioning like a bar, there is no alcohol to be found anywhere here. There is, however, a menu of mocktails, which I decide is better than nothing. Moments later, a bartender fills my mug with a Stampede Stomp, a concoction of Sprite, orange juice, grenadine, and cranberry juice that recalls a virgin tequila sunrise and is so sweet my teeth ache with every sip. I head to my seat on the “North” side of the building, a fact that becomes important when I realize that, like at Medieval Times, the crowd here is divided into distinct camps that cheer for their own team of actors as they compete in a variety of silly games and perform acrobatic stunts, feats of horsemanship, and songs and dances.

This dividing line, a flight of stairs separating the two sides, makes a whole lot more sense and feels so much more fraught considering that this place used to be called Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Its main attraction was a show about the Civil War in which people whooped and hollered as actors wearing Confederate soldier uniforms paraded around the arena on horseback. In 2018, that all changed: Dolly dropped the “Dixie” from the Stampede, and the show was scrubbed of any Civil War references. But the vestiges of the old show are still here, and it’s perhaps not a surprise that many people, including the family that entered the building just before me, are actively excited to sit on the South side of the building. I was also not surprised that the hooting and hollering on that side was much more fervent than that coming from my compatriots in the North. I am not the only person who has noticed this phenomenon.

Spectacle, and indeed, magic, has always been part of Branson’s story. According to local lore, in 1541, Spanish explorers went spelunking in Marvel Cave, what would eventually become the town’s first major tourist attraction, in search of gold — and as some legends say, the fountain of youth. Branson sits in the basin of the White River, which snakes through the Ozarks and offered a trade route from the eastern United States to the rapidly growing West after Missouri became a state in 1821. In 1882, a man named Reuben Branson opened a general store in the town that would eventually bear his name; Branson was officially incorporated in 1912.

The statue standing in front of Billy Gail’s advertises the restaurant’s towering stacks of fluffy pancakes. In the background, the restaurant looks warm and inviting. Lily Qian

In 1946, a Chicago couple named Mary and Hugo Herschend took their first vacation to Branson and fell in love with the region’s natural beauty. By 1950, Hugo Herschend had purchased a long-term lease on Marvel Cave, and Mary and the couple’s children would run it in the summers while Hugo worked his day job at the Electrolux company to make ends meet. The cave was already a budding tourist attraction, with people lining up to walk through its impressive stalactites and rock formations, but under the Herschends, its popularity flourished.

An entertainment empire was born.

In 2023, Herschend Family Entertainment is the “largest family-owned themed attractions organization in the country,” per the company. Marvel Cave remains an attraction, along with thrill rides and shows and old-timey demonstrations of glass blowing and candy-making, as does the frontier-themed Silver Dollar City, which opened in Branson in 1960. It also owns the Harlem Globetrotters and operates a massive portfolio of theme parks, resorts, and attractions, in Branson and beyond, all of which promise good, clean fun. Herschend Family Entertainment’s most notable attractions are the ones the company co-owns with Dolly Parton, including her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Dolly Parton’s Stampede locations in Branson, Pigeon Forge, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

The Dolly’s Stampede location in Branson debuted in 1987 and is widely considered to be the best dinner attraction in town. It arrived at a boom time for Branson. Nearly 20 years after the Presley family (no relation to Elvis) opened Presleys’ Country Jubilee, the town’s first live music theater, a new crop of country music stars like Charley Pride, Barbara Mandrell, and Kenny Rogers looked to the city as a place to revitalize their careers as they aged out of Nashville. Many artists, including Pride and Rogers, owned and performed at their own theaters. Other theaters, like Mickey Gilley’s Grand Shanghai Theatre, hosted Branson’s equally popular magic shows, featuring illusionists like Kirby Van Burch and Rick Thomas, along with a number of variety and comedy shows.

Now, most of those artist-owned theaters have shuttered or been sold to new operators. Billboards for the Ukrainian comedian Yakov Smirnoff brag that he is the only remaining “national celebrity” in Branson after all these years. Magic shows, however, endure — there are still nearly a dozen illusionists performing in theaters across the city.

It’s easy to get caught up in the carefully constructed magic of the Stampede if you don’t think too hard about the metaphorical Mason-Dixon line in the room. There are flashy costumes, spackled in rhinestones, and beautiful horses capable of legitimately impressive feats. And yes, the songs are corny, but you can’t deny that they’re catchy. At one moment in the show, as I’m dunking a buttery biscuit into my bowl of creamy vegetable soup, a woman rides two horses at the same time, standing up, through a ring of fire. Stunned, my own hoots and hollers leave my mouth before my modesty can catch them. And every time the host, wearing a sequined vest and heavily affected Southern accent, says the word “stampede,” I dutifully, but joyfully, stomp my feet on the floor with the crowd.

It’s all going great until about 45 minutes into the show, when the music takes a dramatic turn and a man wearing a “buckskin costume” decked in neon beads and a braided wig parades into the arena with his version of a war whoop. The host tells us that Native Americans, in the past, lived lives “steeped in mystery and magic,” and as stirring instrumental music plays, a trained bird soars across the arena. There is no explanation for what exactly they mean by “magic,” and fortunately, this part of the show is brief. Less than five minutes later, the show lurches forward to address the Westward Expansion (aka colonization) with a jaunty song. The scene has been roundly criticized by Native activists.

Ultimately the intended message of the show at Dolly Parton’s Stampede — once the pig races and the rescue dog derby have finished, and the South has been declared the winner under a set of rules I don’t fully understand — is one of purported unity.

At the end, the actors shed their red (North) and blue (South) costumes, and don red, white, and blue outfits decked out with twinkling colored lights; they hoist American flags into the air as they parade around the arena on horseback. The cheery announcer reminds us that, despite our positions on opposite sides tonight, we’re all on the same side in real life, because we’re all good-hearted Americans. The subtext: Despite the country’s deep political divide, there’s nothing that the magic of eating a meal and singing a song together can’t fix. Dolly’s patriotic anthem “Color Me America” blares in the background, and a man a couple of seats down from me stands and places his U.S. Navy veteran’s baseball cap over his heart, a tear glinting in his eye. At the same time, a cast member in the now dimly lit arena whisks away a bucket of horseshit.

Then, “God Bless America’’ rings out over the speakers, and as the horses triumphantly gallop around the arena and digital fireworks scatter across the videoboard, I’m suddenly reminded that I am in Missouri, a place that passed some of the country’s harshest restrictions on gender-affirming care, both for trans adults and children, about a week earlier. The day after my dinner, a judge halted the law, setting up a court battle that will likely drag on for months.

While you’re visiting, Branson all but demands that you forget that politics exist altogether. That is, of course, unless you want to shop at the Trump Store, which is exactly what it sounds like. Or if you want to buy yourself your very own Confederate flag from the Dixie Outfitters shop that sits just before the highway on your way out of town. Or if you want to buy any number of Bible-verse-emblazoned souvenirs from one of the explicitly Christian-themed shows, like Queen Esther, which plays at the popular Sight and Sound Theater.

The next day, after eight full hours of totally sober sleep, I drive to Branson’s second-most-lauded dinner theater. Also operated by Herschend Family Entertainment, the Showboat Branson Belle is a hulking vessel, powered by five enormous diesel electric propulsion motors and two 16-foot paddle wheels. Inside, it can hold about 700 passengers, all of whom file into this floating theater twice a day for a few hours of dancing, music, and — what else? — magic. (Fortunately, this time, it is just regular magic that involves playing cards and rope tricks, not the incredibly dubious “Magical Native American” variety.) Our master of ceremonies for my lunchtime cruise is Christopher James, a magician-cum-real estate agent who has the unenviable task of firing up the crowd as they tuck into a three-course meal. There is, yet again, not a single drop of alcohol on this boat.

An effervescent waitress named Tamara approaches my seat, and cheerfully asks if I’d like ranch or blue cheese dressing for the salad that’s about to hit the table. I request ranch, and when it arrives, I notice that it’s from a bottle and not homemade — a Southerner can always tell — which feels a little chintzy for someone who’s paid nearly $100 to sit in the Captain’s Club, the boat’s premium seats that offer both a balcony view of the show and “premium protein options,” per my menu. But as soon as I smell the chargrilled steak coming towards me, I am starving. Served with a couple of roasted potato chunks and a pile of limp green beans, this steak is the best meal I will have the entire time I am in Branson.

A spot illustration depicts the Showboat Branson Belle, a hulking vessel powered by five enormous diesel electric propulsion motors and two 16-foot paddle wheels. The boat has multiple stories, ornate wooden railings, and enough space to hold 700 passengers. Lily Qian

After lunch service, there’s a short intermission where guests are encouraged to get up and walk around on the outer decks of the boat, which offer expansive views of the actually stunning Table Rock Lake. I’m examining rock formations and staring into the still water when an announcer calls us back into the theater because the show is about to begin. When I return to my seat, there’s a thin slice of gooey butter cake topped with strawberry sauce waiting for me. It tastes like the inside of a refrigerator, and I make the mistake of looking out the window as the boat motors across the water while I chew my first bite. The Showboat Singers launch into a classic rock medley, somehow flowing Journey’s “Open Arms” seamlessly into Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and the motion sickness hits. After a few minutes of deep breathing with my eyes closed, I successfully manage to stop looking out the window, and my nausea subsides.

It returns a few moments later, when one of the Showboat Singers introduces the Christian portion of the program. When I reserved my ticket for the Showboat Branson Belle, it promised only that I could expect an “incredible musical variety show,” not a religious experience. Yet, moments after they wrap up a medley of Elton John songs, the Showboat Singers return to the stage in angelic, all-white costumes, and sing a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The show ends after a patriotic medley complete with “God Bless the USA.” In the crowd, seated patrons jump to their feet to salute the digital flags on the Showboat’s video screen. “This is a place to put aside our differences, to laugh and sing,” says Christopher James, ending the show. “To me, that’s what makes Branson magical.”

There’s no way to make someone feel more catered to, more served, especially en masse, than to entertain them while feeding them. This kind of immersive service demands a perfect, relentless veneer of cheeriness from the city’s performers and servers, many of whom struggle to find affordable housing in the city where they work. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a singing magician try to prod a bunch of uncomfortably sober octogenarians into a gag that requires audience participation. What is less compelling, though, is the sense of insidious nostalgia that permeates Branson and its attractions. Whether it’s the 1800s at Stampede or the rockin’ ’50s at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, the message is clear: Branson offers a wholesome, clean alternative to the sin-riddled entertainment that’s being pumped into our homes every single day via the television and our cell phones. But what, exactly, does wholesome mean in a place like Branson?

In reality, very little. There’s no swearing in the shows, but if you want to go buy a “FJB” T-shirt, you can just head to the Trump Store. There’s no alcohol in the theaters, but you can buy a bottle of booze to drink in the privacy of your timeshare at any gas station in the area. As someone who grew up in the Baptist church, the description of Branson as “Baptist Vegas” feels especially correct. It’s not that there is no sinful behavior, just that it’s hidden away out of sight in favor of a meticulously crafted image that exalts God, guns, and country. If you look closely at all, though, you realize that image is mostly another magic trick, smoke and mirrors hiding something more sinister.

That’s especially true when you consider just how much real estate in Branson is devoted to schemes seemingly designed to part tourists from their money. Downtown, you have to physically dodge people selling questionable timeshares to browse the quaint shops. Most of the folks selling cheap tickets to tours and shows are, actually, representatives for companies hoping to sucker you into a multi-hour pitch about their properties. Here, high-pressure sales tactics are a feature, not a bug, and it’s easy to find yourself roped into a long conversation about some crap you don’t want to buy just by saying “Hi” to a friendly looking stranger. It is, truly, a huckster’s paradise.

It’s also happy to sell you a reality where, for a few weekends each year, you can pretend that your whole world is a white, Christian, conservative utopia as you have a little good, clean fun among the tree-draped Ozarks. But as those lush trees part to make way for a sea of billboards advertising Reza the Illusionist and a slew of ramshackle purple buildings hawking timeshares and half-price tickets, the horseshit is inescapable.

Lily Qian is a NYC-based illustrator with a passion for both traditional analog and digital techniques. Lily’s had the honor and pleasure of working on a variety of projects in editorial, books, publishing, advertising, fashion and beauty. She lives and work in Brooklyn with her lazy cat assistant, Walnut.

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