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:

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.

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  1. Leebob wrote:

    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.

  2. tommy boy wrote:

    Why did Gaither’s Celebration theatre flop? It wasn’t because Gaither wasn’t known yet. In 92, the vocal band was at their peak and could easily sold out nearly any venue in the country. Branson is kind of like Vegas in the respect that if you don’t have a bedazzler to put some bling on your suit coat lapels, do the cheesiest, over the top material and jokes, you probably aren’t going to be a big seller there. It’s kind of the Holiday Inn Lounge lizard syndrome on steroids if you ask me. I also watched Gold City come to a big theatre out there and struggle to win the crowd. It’s just a different world.

  3. Kyle wrote:

    Branson, when it first became big in the early 90’s, was a happenin’ place, and became THE place to be for entertainers. The problem is, all there is to do there is see shows and shop. Sure, there’s Silver Dollar City and White Water Park, but for the most part, people get bored with the shows after a few days.

    Nowadays, Branson has become Geritol central.

  4. JM wrote:

    Las Vegas…New Orleans…Atlantic City…Branson…Myrtle Beach…etc. I remember hearing a quote a number of years ago, supposedly from Billy Graham, commenting on the ministry of the Chaplin of Bourbon Street, Bob Harrington. He commented that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association spent countless hours and thouslands of dollars to attract a crowd that would come and hear God’s word. On the other hand, Bob Harrington would “let the Devil draw the crowd and then Bob would sneak up on them from the rear.”

    J.D. Sumner and associates spent a number of years backing Elvis in Las Vegas. From what I heard, they occassionally got to sing a gospel song or two during the show. From Dollywood to Myrtle Beach theatres, SGM has attempted to play to crowds who are primarily drawn by country musicians or amusement parks or glitzy Hollywood-style shows. It has met with limited to no success. Why? Perhaps one of two answers is true: 1) As evaluated as pure entertainment, SGM is very lacking. With very few exceptions, SGM artists are not the best musicians available for the listening. 2) The issue of ministry suggests that an average consumer will pay money for a ticket to go and sit in a venue from which they will emerge feeling convicted or guilty. Now, while the minister desires this outcome, buying a ticket to feel like you got the snot beat out of you is hardly a desireable marketing tool or a building block for a Branson SGM mega-show.

    People go to Las Vegas and Branson and Atlantic City and New Orleans, etc. for entertainment. It may involve golf or booze or showgirls or gambling…but it never involves God. So, while someone’s perception of marketing came up with the concept of SGM as sheer entertainment, it has NEVER been successful in that sort of venue. While the two concepts may get somewhat mixed at times, entertainment is Hollywood and SGM is down in the woods!

  5. cdguy wrote:

    I would also suggest that, had Bill waited another 5 years, after the “Homecoming” brand was better established, he may have seen a different outcome.

    In 1992 - 1993, there WAS a lot of hoopla about Nashville singers leaving for Branson. But what was NOT pubicized was the fact that there was no net gain in the number of theaters. Stars were also moving OUT of Branson, at the same rate they were coming in. So Bill was not alone.

    I would also be interested to know what type (and how much) advance publicity Gaither had. “Build it and they will come”? Not necessarily. Many folks (and the blue-hair bus crowd in particular) have their show reservations before they leave home. Their iteneraries are generally too full to add another show, once they arrive and see another name they’d like to see.

    And Bill may have been telling the truth. he MAY have just been hired help. But from what he’s written about his early concerts that were promoted by inept others, and how he took that bull by the horns, I’d be a little surprised. It may have all been too new for him to understand what was needed. It’s not exactly the same as promoting a concert in the local NBA arena or civic auditorium.

  6. Leebob wrote:

    I went to one of the reunion forerunner concerts at 6 Flags in 1985 with Sandy Patty, Larnel Harris, the trio and GVB contemporary style and the theatre was packed for every show even in a theme park so I am sure Bill was experienced by the time he got to Branson. Now whether he was just a face or was involved in the promoting I don’t know.

  7. Kyle wrote:

    Leebob….VERY good point!! A lot of those theaters were (and are) NOT owned by the artists on the marquee. They simply lease their names to the theater and play a contracted number of dates there throughout the year.

    The Oak Ridge Boys have a theater in Branson starting this year. They don’t own it and they don’t manage it.

  8. Alan wrote:

    When we first moved to Myrtle Beach in ‘97, there were a few established country stars that had built multi-million dollar theaters here - Ronnie Milsap, The Gatlin Brothers, and Alabama to name most. The Gatlin Brothers lived in my community, and Larry lived 3 doors down the street from us. He calls their 5 years here “My backside of the desert”. Their theater is now a Methodist church. The Ronnie Milsap theater is a community church. Both are thriving. Alabama then disbanded, and they bring big names - mostly from country - in for Saturday or Sunday night shows. The theaters that remain feature some really fine variety shows. All feature some Gospel music. You could make the point that if folks like that can’t prosper and make money in a town that attracts 15 million visitors per year, who would? Branson is basically theaters and outlet malls. We have both of them too, plus an ocean with a beach and over 120 golf courses. There’s just too much else to do. In May, on the grounds where the Gatlins and Milsap theaters were (are, as church buildings) the new Hard Rock Amusement Park opened. First season, mixed reviews, and spotty crowds. Lee Greenwood left his theater in Sevierville, TN, Louise Mandrell left Pigeon Forge, on and on you could go. Rarely, it seems, do these destination theaters work. Celine Dion’s 5 years in Las Vegas are the exception. I totally agree that had Mr. Gaither waited a few years until the Homecoming tour was big, he could have been a big draw in Branson or elsewhere. An irony here in Myrtle Beach is that in the summers, almost every variety theater is nearly sold out, night after night; and the artists are hardly family names outside of our town. The Kingdom Heirs long run at Dollywood seems to have been the winning formula.

  9. Jeff wrote:

    Louise Mandrell left her theater after 8 years due to her husbands health. She was the last BIG name star to leave PF. But, she returns often to help with charity events. Had it not been for her husbands health she could still be thriving there. PEople Loved Louise and still do.

  10. Irishlad wrote:

    Did Gary McSpadden not do well in Branson post GVB and pre Homecoming? How did he manage to succeed where BG is perceived as having failed? Let’s face it they were both closely identified.

  11. Leebob wrote:

    Irishlad…you are a step ahead of me as I was thinking about that last night.

    I was thinking that McSpadden had a pretty good thing going but was it not outside of Branson in an outside venue no less? I think it was also something that may have had 1 or 2 shows a week rather than running all week long. I am not sure how long it ran either. If I am wrong someone will come along and correct me soon I am sure.

  12. Ron wrote:

    Never heard of Gary McSpadden, I have of Mandrell she is the hottest of the Mandrell ladies.
    Isn’t she doing something in Nashville now?

  13. Shel wrote:

    Louise is doing a christmas show in nashville nov- dec at gaylord oprylands delta a ballroom.

  14. Trent wrote:

    So how long did the Gaither thing run in Branson?

  15. Leebob wrote:

    Ron - how long have you been in SG or even the gospel music business industry?

    McSpadden was one of the biggest names in gospel music, not just SG. His main claim to fame is with Gaither trio. Bill thought so much of him that he moved him to the GVB. Later, somewhere near Branson, Gary hosted a show that went out over TBN, usually on Saturday afternoon. That show would host alot of the bigger named groups and even some of the lesser names. The setting was an outside venue which even then I wondered what they would do if it was raining. As I recall, as good as a show he put on, many tiimes the crowd was sparse. This leads me to think that this may have been done at one of the theme parks.

  16. Trent wrote:

    I’m fully convinced that Gary McSpadden and Dino the pianist are one and the same.

  17. Lamar wrote:

    Dino is married to Gary McSpadden’s sister.

  18. Leebob wrote:

    Lamar - Now that is something I did NOT know.

  19. 1 old fan wrote:

    Trent — Dino, Gary, and their wives all use the same hair color. I think they buy it from Clairol by the vat. It’s cheaper that way. Look at their recent pictures and compare.


  20. CVH wrote:

    So whatever happened to Dino’s first wife, was it Debbie? Kind of like Richard Robert’s first wife, Patti. Classy woman…one tell-all book and off the radar. Wives of convenience…or were they just starter marriages and/or they knew too much? Speaking of wives, Joel Osteen’s, Victoria, goes on trial tomorrow. Wonder how he’ll work that into his next sermon?

  21. Alan wrote:

    Gary McSpadden’s show was at Silver Dollar City as I recall. And yes, some of the telecasts showed a really nice crowd, but a fair few of them were indeed sparse. It ran for a long time, and he’d often have some great artists with him. His sister is indeed Dino’s second wife, and despite the ravages of time, their hair is all still a real glorious shade of black. Must be good genes. :-)

  22. Alan wrote:

    And btw - McSpadden is a pro’s pro. The first time I ever met him was at a concert I was part of. The Rambos were there, and it was after Buck’s heart attack. Gary filled in for him for a while. He was wearing a white suit that night…I’ll never forget it. When he came in from their bus, he was about as white as his suit. Dottie told us that he had a fever of over 103, and was as sick as anyone she’d seen. Not a word was said about it that night, publicly, and he never missed a lick. Evidently his throat was infected to nearly closed, and yet every word and note were perfect. I sat in the wings that night and learned a real big lesson. No wonder he’s been such a staying force. A total pro, and a nice guy.

  23. Dean Adkins wrote:

    RE #22:
    And as a teenager, Gary McSpadden filled in for Jake Hess with the Statesmen — not an easy task!!!

  24. BaritoneBob wrote:

    # 21 Alan, Echo Hollow seats just over 4,000 and the shows are performed at 7pm just after park closing, so even if if only half the seats were filled that would still be a pretty good crowd by SGM standards.

    As for Gary McSpadden, he may have been a great singer at one time but the two times that I have heard him sing in the last three years he sang Beulah Land and both times the performance was not very good as he seemed to be straining at every moment. I do appreciate his work in trying to keep SGM alive in Branson though.

  25. RK wrote:

    The entertainment scene at the Branson of 1992 is quite a bit different than it is today. Those were the “boomtown” days when all the aging country stars were flocking to Branson theaters that bore their names.

    In that context (and pre-Homecoming), the Gaither name simply couldn’t compete with the like of Mel Tillis, Roy Clark, Ray Stevens, Glen Campbell, Pat Boone, and others. Those 2,000 seat theaters relied (and still rely) on tour bus operators buying up blocks of seats for bus guests to make up a significant percentage of box office sales. Unless you’re dealing with strictly a church group, the variety show nature of the programming (a gospel number or two included) and lure of a headliner is what appealed to those operators.

    In today’s Branson, there are far fewer headliners and more variety production shows, and the clientele has become more conservative (as the new has worn off and the glut of casinos in the midwest and mid-south has skimmed off less conservative tour groups). In all likelihood, a well-produced Gaither show would sell well in Branson today, though it wouldn’t fit his current business model.

    As for the argument that poor management by the (non-Gaither) theater owners led to the show’s demise, it probably does ring true. Back in those days, bona fide stars such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Wayne Newton, Kenny Rogers and others put their names on theaters and developments owned by others that either went under or never even opened. In that regard, Gaither is in elite company.

  26. wackythinker wrote:

    CVH — #20 — I last heard about Debbie (well over 25 years ago) she had remarried (at the Playboy mansion). I think she was working on a book, “The Day He Wore My Gown”.

  27. MattPaasch wrote:

    Gary McSpadden paved the way for Silver Dollar City’s now popular SG Picnic. It is their version of NQC. It is now their biggest festival, and all theaters in the park showcase SG artists (some may be considered as bluegrass and Christian country). Echo Hollow (the outdoor theater featured on Gary McSpadden’s tv show) was filled over capacity last year and the year before! Because of the great response, the SG Picnic will continue on for years to come!

    Perhaps if Gaither had partnered with Silver Dollar City, things may have been better!

    (Note: The Herscheand Family who owns Silver Dollar City, also owns and manages Dollywood which was called Silver Dollar City before they leased it out to Dolly Parton.)

  28. Harry Peters wrote:

    Bill Gaither in Branson. What next? Ernie Haase and SSQ in Vegas?

  29. cdguy wrote:

    Harry, there are chuches in Vegas that might make a good platfore for any sg artist. And I think Gaither may have done a HC concert at the Las Vegas convention center a few years back. I don’t see anything wrong with that, as the audience would be primarily the locals, not the folks who come for the gamling, night club shows, and legalized prostitution. Although those folks need to hear the Gospel, too.

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