Christmas Tintinnabulation

Ann wanted to go to the library last night, and when we got there we chanced on a performance of the Random Ringers, a handbell ensemble. They were playing in a part of the Schaumburg Township Library sometimes given over to movies and small concerts, with about 50 people watching.

The ringers were more than half finished when we got there. Ann wasn’t especially charmed by the music, but I insisted on staying for a few songs, because I liked them—especially the large bells. The handy “Major American Handbells Sizes and Weights for Diatonic Pitches” says that the bells can weigh as little as 7 oz. or more than 18 lbs. I’m not sure the largest of the Random Ringers’ bells were at the large end of that scale, but they looked big enough to be weapons.

The Random Ringers include 12 performers and a conductor, Beth McFarland of Mundelein, Ill. “Random Ringers is a community-based choir and not affiliated with any religious environment, but most members ring in their own churches,” says the concert program (leaflet, really). “Members hail from the North and Northwest suburbs and practice in Arlington Heights each Monday night.”

We heard “Welcome Christmas,” “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “He is Born” and “Silent Night.” A fine tintinnabulation, it was.

Branson Leftovers

Back again on Sunday, as the long Thanksgiving weekend peters out. We will be home for the occasion, since just the thought of going anywhere is tiring.

Branson is full of shows, but Joseph beat everything else I saw for sheer spectacle. Joseph is a South & Sight Theatres production, whose specialty is elaborate stagings of Bible stories, but “elaborate” hardly does it justice. The theater’s enormous, seating about 2,000, with a large stage that accommodates massive sets, large troupes of actors (including live animals, such as goats and camels), and impressive lighting and effects. The sets alone for Joseph—fittingly evoking ancient Egypt much of the time—would be worth seeing all by themselves, but fortunately not all of the effort went into sets and effects. The script tells the story of Joseph well, both in song and dialogue.

Christopher James, emcee on the Branson Belle showboat, told the trip’s best joke. I forget the exact wording, but it was a line about knowing better than to shine a bright light on stage, since too many of the audience would respond by getting up and heading toward it.

Indeed, at some of the shows I was a youngster compared to most of the audience. Such shows were heavily spiked with ’40s and especially ’50s nostalgia. But the showmen of Branson are preparing for the future. At one point, we had to wait for a few minutes outside a theater as the audience emerged from a John Denver tribute show. That is, a show spiked with ’70s nostalgia. The audience looked much younger than at most of the other shows—roughly my age.

No presidents were from Branson or are buried nearby, unless you count Harry Truman up in Independence, Mo. But I did see one presidential item: a bronze of the elder George Bush, as a young naval aviator, at the Veterans Memorial Museum.

We also visited the College of the Ozarks, which is a few miles from Branson. It’s a private Christian school whose students pay no tuition, but rather work for the school 15 hours a week. The fruits of all that work are many: among other things, we saw the greenhouses that grow orchids, a crafts building, the small hotel that the school runs, and the school’s restaurant, where we had Sunday brunch, done as a large buffet. The food was really good. Much of it is raised by students on the college’s farm.

Speaking of food, I had breakfast at a number of other places during my visit, and none of them—not even at the College of the Ozarks—offered grits. I was puzzled. I thought Branson would be south of the Grits Line, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Biscuits and gravy were widely served, but not grits. Odd.

Janice Martin, Aerial Violinist

A favorite fact about the showboat Branson Belle, which plies the waters of Table Rock Lake, Missouri: when the ship was launched in 1995, she slid into the water on a ramp greased with 4,000 pounds of bananas. The yellow fruit was a eco-friendly alternative to standard lubricants, and perhaps even cheaper, though I’m not up on the economics of boat launching.

Branson Belle is the property of Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., the company that also owns Silver Dollar City and a lot of other properties.– including Dollywood, but that’s part of another tourist-magnet area. The showboat’s a paddle-wheeler – two twin wheels, 24 feet in diameter each, and it’s a smooth ride, because while sitting in the theater I didn’t notice the ship getting underway. Later I wandered around taking pictures, making it as far as the topmost deck.

The 4 pm show included dinner plus entertainment: magician-comedian emcee Christopher James, who told the best jokes among the various shows I saw, a number of musicians, and “the world’s only aerial violinist,” Janice Martin. That alone was worth getting on the showboat for.

Janice Martin also happens to be a fine singer and pianist, which was part of the act, but I think everyone was waiting to see just what an aerial violinist would do. Climb up a couple of silk lines and do the kind of act you might see in a circus, to begin with. But strapped over one of her shoulders somehow was a special violin built for the purpose, which she played skillfully while dangling from the silks in one way or another. Flat-out amazing.

How did the remarkable combination come about? From the little she said, she’s been a musician always, including training at the Julliard. As for the aerialist skills, she said she first learned rope climbing during her stint in the U.S. Army as a musician. At what point did a light bulb go off? – hey, I can do both of these at the same time. Couldn’t say, but it did, and I hope the Branson Belle is making it well worth her while.

It Isn’t Christmas in Branson Until Andy Says It Is

The Andy Williams Moon River Theater in Branson is a theater, naturally, and a spacious and well-designed one, but it’s also an art gallery. I didn’t see everything, or even that many works, but included are paintings and sculptures by Willem de Kooning, Henry Moore, Kenneth Noland, Donald Roller Wilson, Jack Bush, Jacque Lipchitz, and Robert Motherwell. There’s also a collection of pre-modern (or maybe Meiji era) kimonos, which are in glass cases on the back wall of the theater. The nearby Moon River Grill also displays artwork, for that matter, with Andy Warhol works especially prominent.

The story I heard was that Andy Williams lived near Andy Warhol for a time in New York, and the singing Andy became friends with, and a patron of, Andy the artist. I hope that’s true, but in any case Andy collected Andy’s works.

We toured the theater, including some dressing rooms and the green room downstairs, and our guide told us that Andy William’s nickname, Mr. Christmas, wasn’t just about the Christmas specials he used to host. In Branson, the guide said, it wasn’t Christmas until Andy Williams said it was Christmas. For many years before his death, he said that Christmas began on November 1.

Marketing and his showman’s instincts must have been a factor in that date. But I suspect that he really wanted to see his theater, and the town, decked out for Christmas two months out of the year. And so it is. The town’s streets are adorned, lights are up everywhere, and the shows switch to Christmas iterations around the first of November. I’d prefer that Christmas not eat up early December, much less November, but Branson’s a whole other world, so I didn’t mind the early Christmas so much during my short stay, when the weather was warm and un-Christmas-like and Halloween had just ended.

Besides, when Branson decorates for Christmas, it pulls out all the stops. After dark in Silver Dollar City, for instance, you can see these kinds of lights.

It’d be churlish not to be impressed by all that, even in November.

Branson III

Since the previous BTST broke down, I’ve been a few places, worked a lot, voted in an election that a lot people believed important (and maybe I did, too), even watched “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” on a whim because I saw it was available on Hulu, and because it’s Irwin Allen at his best.

To kick off November, I took a trip to Branson. Not sure how the AP feels about Branson as a dateline, but I think it should stand alone: Branson, rather than Branson, Missouri, so famed has the place become. I’ve heard that I visited Branson when I was small, and when Branson was small, in the mid-60s, but remember nothing of that. En route elsewhere in 2001, we drove into town, ate lunch, and took away vague impressions. Mostly, I remember liking Yakov Smirnoff’s billboards lining the road between Springfield and Branson.

So this time might as well have been a first visit, even though it was my third. It was a busy press trip. Being Branson, that meant seeing more musical-variety-comedy shows than I might see in many ordinary years. In fact, I realized in the middle of my stay that when the variety show died out from television, it was reborn in Branson. The shows I saw included singing, dancing, visual gags, bad jokes, good jokes, sometimes lavish sets and costumes, adaptations of classic theater and movies and the Bible, and even an aerialist – who played violin during her aerial act, which I’ve never seen anyone else do, not even in a circus. We also met a handful of entertainers in person, namely a couple of Lennon Sisters, as well as a fellow whose act is a Neil Diamond tribute.

I noticed some relics, too. Saints’ relics aren’t what they used to be, since we tend to prefer celebrity relics in our time. At the Andy Williams’ Moon River Grill, the late entertainers’ gold records are on walls. That includes, of course, the LP Moon River (pictured), but also the Love Theme from The Godfather, among many others. That’s a movie I hadn’t realized had a love theme, much less one sung by Andy Williams. Its actual title, I’ve discovered, is “Speak Softly Love (or You’ll Sleep With the Fishes).” (Parenthesis added by me.)

Branson wasn’t all live entertainment. During my three full days there, I also managed to ride a train made of vintage railroad cars a short way into Arkansas, wander around the Silver Dollar City theme park, take the tour of Marvel Cave, and visit the surprisingly interesting College of the Ozarks – but not, unfortunately, see the Beverly Hillbillies’ truck, which is there. Branson also sports some museums, and I went to three of them – one about a maritime disaster, another about war, and a third, smaller one about Branson and environs.

On foot one day, I checked out the newly developed downtown riverfront and its attendant open-air retail space, and not far away examined a store that called itself a Five and Dime and had an usually large assortment of merchandise, over and above Branson-oriented gimcracks and gewgaws. Those can be found everywhere in great profusion.