Gaither in Branson
AVFL’s honorary historian, DA, has been on the trail of Gaither and the case of the flopping theater in Branson and has sent along this artifact, from June of 1992:
DA also sent along some text of the story about the Celebration theater, but the character recognition process mangled a lot of it so I can’t really quote anything meaningful from it. Which is too bad, because the general drift of the story suggests that the Celebration Theater was an abortive attempt by Gaither to figure out what his next big thing would be when his is singer/songwriter Gaither Trio phase started drawing to a close (there are also some interesting comments in the latest open thread about the way Gaither positioned himself in relation to the theater before and after its demise).
Recall: this is 1992. Gaither has written of this period in his life that he was facing the sunset years with uncertainly (his book from that era was titled “I Almost Missed the Sunset”) and thought that the music world “had passed me by.” He had stumbled onto the Homecoming idea in February of 1991, but the Celebration Theater in Branson would have had to have been in the works long before that now famous “Where Could I Go” video.
As a branded enterprise, “Celebration” feels like a beta version of “Homecoming” and from what commenter tommboy says, the show itself sounds like a kind of dress rehearsal for what would become the model for the Homecoming videos and tour:
I was at Gaither’s theatre in Branson the very first week it opened. Vestal was there with a pretty impressive line up. It was Franklin’s first week with GVB and was very cool to watch. He was still learning the material and at times, English would back out of his mike and sing the tenor part in his ear in the middle of an ending. They sang like there was 10,000 people there, but I was shocked to be one of about 50 people in the audience. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever watched. It was like an intense rehearsal. They really kind of had their guard down and laughed at their mistakes (which made it even more cool).
Tommyboy also notes that plenty of acts with gospel flavors have sold out up and down the strip in Branson forever, which raises the obvious question: why did Gaither’s attempt flop?
Sgdoc says poor management, and that may be true, but that’s rather like saying a candidate lost an election because he ran a poor campaign.
I spent a decent amount of time in and around Branson in 1992 and 1993 (my brother went to college there) and those were boomtown days that gave the impression anybody could succeed at just about anything. All the big acts from Nashville were building
monuments to themselves their own theaters there and the most popular bumpersticker/billboard/saying around town was “The last one to leave Nashville, turn out the lights.”
Whatever else it said about Branson, this little phrase holds the key to understanding what did and didn’t succeed there: people didn’t go to Branson to experience innovations in entertainment (unless Shoji Tabuchi counts, and of course he doesn’t). They came there to hear and see and experience deeply familiar brands of entertainment and predictable forms of recreation in a different setting. Mickey Gilley, Mel Tillis, Roy Clark, Wayne Newton, Baldnobbers, Plumbers and on and on … they were all well established names or familiar styles of performance that flourished in a new setting and benefited from Branson’s aura as the new Nashville. Gaither was undoubtedly familiar to Branson audiences, but they were used to singing his songs themselves on Sunday, not paying to see him perform on Saturday afternoon.
Then there’s the Branson experience itself. On any given summer day, Branson is a simmering swelter of heat and humidity, and waves of tourists shuffle from steakhouse to theater to buffet to trinket shop in a more or less constant effort to time their next blood-sugar crash with the opening of the theater’s doors before the next show. As I recall my experiences there, the heat and the crowds and the food and the lines at the door made me more inclined to want to vegetate than celebrate, with Bill Gaither or anyone else. That first, merciful rush of overchilled air and the welcome unfolding of one’s assigned theater seat in one of the town’s many cool caverns of musical expectancy is as a close to a religious experience as most people care to get in Branson.
In this context, Gaither was trying to sell something - an amalgamation of southern gospel and (at the time) contemporary Christian musical styles that asked people to invest in a spiritual and religious “celebration” - that nobody wanted to buy.
Update: and there’s this, as Leebob puts it:
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That would be a hard sell in Bransom when you think about it. I can count on my favorite SG groups coming into or near my area many times a year. Why pay Branson dollars while on vacation to see and hear what I already have access to? Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Sholi Tabuchi, and others I do nto have access to. From that standpoint it was a bad idea because the music is already coming to me.