Sunday, October 30, 2005

Meet Ozark Dan in Branson

My nephew Rick and I flew to Branson, Missouri, in October 2005. We would spend 3 nights there and then go on for 4 nights in Orlando and Disney World.

The big purpose for visiting Branson was to see Petula Clark perform with Andy Williams in his Moon River Theatre there. The real reason was to celebrate my birthday.

I have seen Petula perform in concert twice. Once was in 1967, when I was a freshman at San Diego State College (later University), and a fellow student, a music major no less, took me to see the Downtown star sing an incredible range of songs in downtown San Diego. The next time I saw her was 10 years later, in 1977, in Reno, Nevada. I was stationed in the U.S. Navy at Fallon, 70 miles east of there, and drove the hour to see her perform at the Sparks casino.

I’ve seen her in her on-the-road plays Blood Brothers and Sunset Boulevard, and once at an AIDS benefit in San Francisco – she performed 4 songs. But I ached to see her again in person. I had my chance when she signed with Andy to do 6 weeks, one stint in the spring and one in the fall. We bought tickets to two performances in Branson, two out of the three nights we would be there.

Andy Williams came on first, and I must say, he looked so fragile. Andy is 77 years old. From the fourth row, we could see he appeared gaunt in the face, but spry, dancing to every tune he sang. His voice was in fine shape, and while it didn’t have the same mellifluous sound I remembered from his sixties television show, it was firm and could hit most of the high notes. He performed an hour, then we had a small break, and then Petula came on. Then they came back together and did a good 20 minutes together, doing a comedy bit and singing songs.

Petula looked marvelous, dressed differently in long, flowing gowns each night, and seemed genuinely touched by the audience’s fawning appreciation for her gift. Her voice has witnessed the ravages of time, of course, as she will be 73 next month. She performed several hits, mostly Tony Hatch-composed songs, but also added in some of her own compositions.
While we were in Branson for that one musical purpose, we had a lot of time to kill on the way. At Rick’s suggestion, we drove around Branson, admiring the lush, green scenery of the Ozark mountains. And we came across a character or two.

I like to shop for souvenirs when I go to a new town – I know, call it a vice – and so we wandered into the Dickens Gift Shoppe, a monstrous building right on the main street of Branson, 76 Hwy, and found it filled with….shall I say it?….worthless crap.

But wandering through this warehouse of WC, we found a tall man wearing a cowboy outfit stretched over his bulging stomach, a tall Stetson hat, boots, and a six-gun. He seemed to belong to the store, and engaged us in conversation like a world-weary soldier hungry for conversation.

We got to know a little about Ozark Dan, as he introduced himself. Ozark Dan told us his wife’s family owned the store, and it looked like his chief task was keeping track (and guarding) the firearms and knives on display in the back of the store. They weren’t real firearms, he explained; each was equipped with the obligatory orange cap on the barrel, and each shot pellets. The knives, however, looked real enough.

His family took him to San Francisco once, and all he remembers about the place was their visit to Alcatraz. It’s a strange way to remember arguably the most beautiful city in the world, you must admit. And his father’s claim to fame was seeing Al Capone lie in state at the mortuary at which Dan's father worked.

Dan told us that his pistol was real but that it was empty. But he proudly told us he’s a member of the SASS, the national Single Action Shooter’s Society, and his badge (which I had mistaken for a real sheriff’s badge) displayed his membership number and was pinned on his chest. He was friendly but not smarmy, and a real pleasure to meet. We had at last seen a real piece of Branson. As opposed to thousands of tourists, just like us, lined up in their cars on the 76 Hwy. A real pleasure, Ozark Dan.

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