Posts tagged ‘Branson’

My first Christmas without Andy Williams

I have had a crush on Andy Williams ever since I heard him sing “Moon River” at the 1962 Academy Awards. He and his turtleneck sweaters, holiday TV specials and eight Christmas albums were as much a part of my family’s annual tradition as hot cider, corn pudding and being forbidden from opening presents until reading the biblical Christmas story in Matthew 1:18.

Now that Andy’s gone (he died on September 25th of bladder cancer), I wasn’t sure I could get through the holidays without shedding a tear every time I heard his soothing voice belting out, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

I was happy to discover that his legacy — and, indeed, the daily singing of that perennial holiday classic — is very much alive in Branson, Missouri. His Moon River Theatre, once featured in Architectural Digest, has been hosting yearly Christmas shows since 1992 when he first built the $12 million structure on 16 acres of Ozark countryside far from the glare of Hollywood, a move his agent, wife and most of his friends considered utterly insane.


It turned out to be one of the best impulsive decisions he ever made, single-handedly breathing new life into both his singing career and Branson, the city 60 Minutes dubbed the “live music capital of the entire universe.” Branson, thanks to Andy, is now also recognized as one of the best places on Planet Earth to celebrate Christmas.

In fact, on October 31st, when the rest of the country is passing out sugary treats to costumed tots, the employees of Andy Williams’ Moon River Theatre (and, indeed, the rest of the tiny Ozark burg) are busily hanging garlands and lights and festooning the 190 Christmas trees for the November 1st debut of the heart-warming Christmas show that memorializes the beloved TV specials America watched for so many years. And according to Andy’s wife, Debbie, and his three kids with Claudine Longet, who are working hard to preserve his legacy, that’s not going to end anytime soon.

Sadly, Mr. Christmas, as he was crowned, is no longer here in person to headline the nightly show, but the theater with its 300,000 lights and the show will, just as Andy wanted, go on. His spirit is alive in every holiday song, every picture (Forget going to the wax museum. You can see photos of Andy and every celebrity from Jackie Onassis to Elton John to Ann-Margret right there on the premises) and every piece of art that he collected during his 75 years in show business.


Yes, the silver-tongued crooner was a significant contemporary art collector, named by Art and Antiques magazine as one of the country’s best. Pieces from his extensive collection are on display at Moon River Theatre and Moon River Grill, everything from Navajo rugs to Willem de Kooning, from Pollock to Picasso, from Klee to Andy Warhol, who I was told was his neighbor back in the days he survived by eating Alfpo, one of the surprising details in his 2010 memoir, Moon River and Me.

The grill with its bar surrounded by Andy’s 18 gold albums (everything from the theme songs to “Love Story” to “Days of Wine and Roses”) serves all of Andy’s favorite dishes, using recipes made by his mom, Florence, a housewife in Wall City, Iowa where he was born on December 3, 1927.

The nightly Christmas show couldn’t be more endearing with dozens of acts, all hand-picked by Andy himself, lots of nostalgic clips from his eight-decade career in show business and an emcee who could easily be a body double.

At Williams’ October 24th Branson memorial, good friend Bob Newhart said it best, “Christmas will never be the same without you.” While he’s probably right, Branson is sure doing a brilliant job preserving his never-to-be-forgotten legacy.

Photos: Compliments of Andy Williams Moon River Theatre.

Branson’s Level 2 Steakhouse a cut above

Lots of places offer cheap, flimsy punch cards that entitle you to a free coffee or a free smoothie when you’ve met a certain quota.

But at Branson’s Level 2 Steakhouse, “frequent fliers” who show up a mere five times receive their very own steak knife engraved with their very own name. It’s called the Cut Club and so far, more than 3000 people have qualified. The knives are alphabetized and kept in a special case in the kitchen. Mickey Gilley and Andy Williams are just two who have earned their own engraved knife.

Even newbies have the opportunity to survey a fine collection of steak knives and pick that special one for cutting into their ever-so juicy filet mignon, Kansas City strip, ribeye, porterhouse or prime rib. Think of it as for the carnivore.

But to get a custom-engraved knife, an amazing perk if ever there was one, it does require five visits. But, believe me, that requirement is a piece of Missouri Butter Cake. Once you have your first taste of this locally-sourced, 28-day aged Midwestern corn-fed beef, fired to perfection in a 1600-degree infrared oven, wild horses will not be able to keep you away.

Already, management was forced to discontinue one of the knives, a stainless steel Bowie knife that retails as Bass Pro for several time more than five steaks.

“We’d have gone out of business if we kept that one in the collection,” joked Bill Derbins, general manager of Hilton Branson Convention Center.

Of course, steak isn’t the only thing on the Level 2 menus. There’s fresh seafood flown in daily from Hawaii, locally-raised Heritage Missouri pork and deserts so decadent you’ll definitely want to run the nearby mile and a half footpath along Lake Taneycomo. But don’t be surprised if you’re yelling, “Level 2 Steakhouse is amazingly awesome” as you run with unfettered joy.

My personal desert favorites were the Missouri Butter Cake, a gooey, moist butter cake with bourbon caramel sauce, fresh raspberries, ice cream and, as if that wasn’t enough, whipped cream, and a Seven-Layer-Chocolate Cake that could feed the entire Osmond family.

Level 2 Steakhouse is on the second floor of the sleek, 12-story tower that makes up the Hilton Branson Convention Center. It’s also known as the miracle hotel because just seven months after a Leap Day tornado blew out nearly 3400 panes of glass, the hotel was back open for business with new carpeting and new green upgrades.

Big Cedar Lodge: rustic elegance in the heart of the Ozarks

If you saw the movie “Swing Vote,” you might have noticed that Kevin Costner’s Bud Johnson was rarely parted from his Bass Pro baseball cap. And it wasn’t just because the character was a laidback, beer-swigging good ole boy. No, the Dances with Wolves actor is a fishing buddy of Johnny Morris, the guy who started Bass Pro. Costner and his band, Modern West, have performed at the flagship store in Springfield, Missouri and there’s a cabin named after him at Morris’s Big Cedar Lodge, a luxury resort in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks.

Sitting on Table Rock Lake, Big Cedar certainly qualifies as a fishing and hunting lodge, an upscale fishing and hunting lodge with cozy Adirondack-style cabins and taxidermy enough to give Teddy Roosevelt pause. But Big Cedar Lodge is much more than that.

Its 800 lushly-forested-acres have natural-fed swimming pools, hiking trails, five-star dining, tennis courts, a golf course, two spas, a cooking school, an about-to-open Natural History Museum (complete with the skeleton of a Woolly Mammoth) and the same kind of attention to detail that inspired Advertising Age to name Bass Pro one of the ten hottest brands in America along with Glee, Droid and Ciroc vodka.

The Kevin Costner cabin, like all the cabins, overlooks Table Rock Lake and has an impressive wood-burning fireplace, hand-crafted furniture, stained glass, exposed beams, a big deck and pictures of the Hollywood star scattered throughout. There are also cabins named for Tony Orlando (not surprisingly, it’s called the Yellow Ribbon cabin), Dale Earnhardt Jr., Porter Wagoner, Ernest Hemingway, former President George H.W. Bush (when his Secret Service agents first called, they were told it was sold out), Waylon Jennings (he and his wife renewed their vows at Big Cedar) and some of the conservation partners that Morris has worked with in the 40 years since he started Bass Pro in the back of his father’s Brown Derby liquor store.

Today, Bass Pro has 57 stores throughout the United States and Canada and, with turnstiles clicking, racks up some 110 million visitors a year, more than Disneyworld, the NFL and NCAA basketball. With live aquariums, waterfalls, fishing and hunting demonstrations and an elaborate Santa’s World that offers kids a free 5×7 photos with the Jolly One (Santas at the mall tend to charge), Bass Pro’s intricately-decorated Outdoor Worlds have become true family destinations.

In 1987, Johnny Morris expanded his brand with Big Cedar Lodge. Originally, he wanted a spot where customers of his Springfield store could test fishing boats. But he became intrigued with the two long-abandoned country resorts on the property, built in the 1920’s by Jude Simmons and Frisco Railroad executive Harry Worman, and decided to restore them. Today, those old wilderness mansions serve as restaurants on the property that he went on to turn into a gorgeous mountain lake resort.

There’s a cookie lady that places fresh gingerbread (shaped like cedar trees) on guests pillows at night and in the summer, families are invited out to Truman Lawn for kickball, pie-eating competitions, seed-spitting contests, wheelbarrow races and a big bonfire complete with S’mores. No wonder, Morris calls Big Cedar Lodge “his little slice of heaven on earth.”

Kevin Costner, Michael Jordan and Vince Vaughn think so, too.

Click here for more on this lodge that was once described as a cross between Disneyland and the summer camp from Dirty Dancing.