etting out a Cajun ha-eeeeeee! a tall lanky man in a brilliantruby sequin jacket and velvet loafers launches into a rousing "Jambalaya",accompanying himself on the fiddle while strutting and gyrating about thebig stage. Backing him up is a 16-piece orchestra. Flashing lasers bathe himin a succession of hues. The song ends to hearty applause from a happyaudience of 2,000 Midwesterners.
The remarkable thing about this scene is that the face and accent of the manat center stage is as unmistakeably Japanese as the faces in the audience areAmerican. His name is Shoji Tabuchi, and he's much more than a musicalcuriosity -- he's the show's singing, fiddling, wisecracking star. What's more,the lavishly produced show is the hottest in Branson, Missouri, theself-proclaimed live country music capitol of the world.
The Shoji TabuchiTheater takes in maybe $14 million a year, more than those featuring thelikes of Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis, the Osmonds -- or just about any other bigname in the country and western music scene. Johnny Cash? His plans tobecome a part of the hottest attraction in the American music scene fellthrough when financing for his planned theater fell through. Branson isgetting so hot, even Las Vegas potentate Wayne Newton is building a bignew theater in town. In Branson he'll just be one of the new kids in town. The reigning king is Shoji Tabuchi.
If a classically-trained Japanese-born violinist can go to a tiny town(pop:3,807) in southwestern Missouri, right in the heart of the Bible Belt,marry a beautiful, talented southern blond who produces and co-hosts hisshow, and can draw busloads of heartlanders to his packed shows, why, onemust expand the universe of possibilities for an Asian male in America!
Filled with a pleasant sense of anticipation I leave Little Rock,Arkansas -- home of the Waffle House chain and our new president -- andcruise north through the Ozarks up winding Highway 65 with its absurdspeed limits, past authentic Americana, tiny clusters of peeling clapboardantique shops and antique gas stations, through mixed oak forests strippedfor winter so that from a distance they look like blankets of thick smokehugging the old low mountains, past a billboard for Dogpatch, home of Li'lAbner and kin, past a mini-mall presided over by a Walmart store. Justnorth of Harrison I pass a series of big billboards advertising the man I amgoing to see. It is a bit surreal to see an Asian face grinning down at me froma billboard in the middle of the Ozarks. The only other billboards, positionedstrategically alongside Tabuchi's, advertise the ill-fated Johnny Carsontheater.
Maybe a dozen miles after crossing into southern Missouri, I exit Highway 65and make a left to head west on Highway 76, Branson's main entertainmentstrip. It's half past noon on a mid-December Sunday afternoon but a pair ofred-striped tour buses are already lumbering up the exit ramp ahead of me. Seen from Highway 76 Branson looks to be a haphazard string of fast-foodjoints, souvenir shops and theaters fronted by garishly country-and-westernfacades, what you might expect to see in a gold-rush boomtown. DespiteBranson's obvious pandering to tourists, it is hard to believe that the townhosts several million visitors each year--more than a thousand visitors perresident. On a per capita basis, Branson may well be the earth's most visitedtown.
At about the point where the main strip turns quiet, I turn right onto anewer, relatively quiet two-lane road called, incongruously, Sheperd of theHills Expressway. A couple hundred yards past the intersection, to the leftside of the road, is a big, pole-mounted purple and pink roadside sign thatannounces, in elegant white lettering, the Shoji Tabuchi Theater. The sign'scolor scheme I attribute to Tabuchi's wife Dorothy; it could only have beencommissioned by someone with avidly--not to say fervently--femininetastes. Set back a ways from the sign is a white, tastefully-trimmedsingle-story structure surrounded by an expansive, well-attended parkinglot. The theater's exterior may be modest by Las Vegas or New Yorkstandards, but my brief tour of the town suggests it may well be Branson'sbiggest. The lobby is more impressive, with its rich carpeting, champagnelighting and expensive trim. Its pink and purple color scheme is accented bythe festive glitter of Chiristmas decorations. PAGE 2