KING OF BRANSON
The remarkable thing about this scene is that the face and accent of the man at center stage is as unmistakeably Japanese as the faces in the audience are American. His name is Shoji Tabuchi, and he's much more than a musical curiosity -- he's the show's singing, fiddling, wisecracking star. What's more, the lavishly produced show is the hottest in Branson, Missouri, the self-proclaimed live country music capitol of the world.
The Shoji Tabuchi Theater takes in maybe $14 million a year, more than those featuring the likes of Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis, the Osmonds -- or just about any other big name in the country and western music scene. Johnny Cash? His plans to become a part of the hottest attraction in the American music scene fell through when financing for his planned theater fell through. Branson is getting so hot, even Las Vegas potentate Wayne Newton is building a big new 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 his show, and can draw busloads of heartlanders to his packed shows, why, one must 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 -- and cruise north through the Ozarks up winding Highway 65 with its absurd speed limits, past authentic Americana, tiny clusters of peeling clapboard antique shops and antique gas stations, through mixed oak forests stripped for winter so that from a distance they look like blankets of thick smoke hugging the old low mountains, past a billboard for Dogpatch, home of Li'l Abner and kin, past a mini-mall presided over by a Walmart store. Just north of Harrison I pass a series of big billboards advertising the man I am going to see. It is a bit surreal to see an Asian face grinning down at me from a billboard in the middle of the Ozarks. The only other billboards, positioned strategically alongside Tabuchi's, advertise the ill-fated Johnny Carson theater.
Maybe a dozen miles after crossing into southern Missouri, I exit Highway 65 and make a left to head west on Highway 76, Branson's main entertainment strip. It's half past noon on a mid-December Sunday afternoon but a pair of red-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-food joints, souvenir shops and theaters fronted by garishly country-and-western facades, what you might expect to see in a gold-rush boomtown. Despite Branson's obvious pandering to tourists, it is hard to believe that the town hosts several million visitors each year--more than a thousand visitors per resident. On a per capita basis, Branson may well be the earth's most visited town.
At about the point where the main strip turns quiet, I turn right onto a newer, relatively quiet two-lane road called, incongruously, Sheperd of the Hills Expressway. A couple hundred yards past the intersection, to the left side of the road, is a big, pole-mounted purple and pink roadside sign that announces, in elegant white lettering, the Shoji Tabuchi Theater. The sign's color scheme I attribute to Tabuchi's wife Dorothy; it could only have been commissioned by someone with avidly--not to say fervently--feminine tastes. Set back a ways from the sign is a white, tastefully-trimmed single-story structure surrounded by an expansive, well-attended parking lot. The theater's exterior may be modest by Las Vegas or New York standards, but my brief tour of the town suggests it may well be Branson's biggest. The lobby is more impressive, with its rich carpeting, champagne lighting and expensive trim. Its pink and purple color scheme is accented by the festive glitter of Chiristmas decorations. PAGE 2