Jim Stafford and Brother Brother

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I had the pleasure of getting to see a legendary performer in Branson last week. Jim Stafford has his own theatre and has been performing in our little town for 25 years! I haven’t had the pleasure to interview the man that made such songs as, “Spiders and Snakes” and “Swamp Witch” famous, but I somehow feel like I already know him. I grew up watching his t.v. show and listening to his songs on the radio. He was one of the first entertainers that I remember that combined music and comedy. Before the show, I wondered how he was going to fill up two hours, but once the stage lights came on showing him sitting on the front of the stage with his acoustic guitar, I no longer had to wonder.

Jim Stafford has a gift for making you feel like he’s just an ordinary guy that happens to play a guitar pretty well and likes to tell jokes. His demeanor on stage was relaxed and professional while entertaining a sold-out audience. Once again, a favorite word of mine to describe most Branson performers is, humble. Jim definitely fit that bill. The entertainers in this town act like regular folk that just happen to have extraordinary talent. Jim dazzled everyone with his mastery of both the guitar and banjo. He also made us laugh with his off-beat, somewhat dry, sense of humor. No stunts, no over the top gags, just straight out music and funny stuff that made the evening very enjoyable.

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Jim Stafford has also done something unique and inspiring. He shares the stage with a couple of brothers who cleverly call themselves, Brother Brother. In a world concerned more with egos and money than the purity of art, it is rare that someone older and experienced gives encouragement to a newer generation on the same scale as Jim Stafford.

A few years ago there was a chance meeting between two teenaged boys and a veteran musician and performer. Before long, Jim Stafford started going to the small venues that these two brothers were playing across the state of Florida. He was gracious and interested but most of all, he saw something in these two young men that was definitely worth seeing. He saw that “it” quality. Not only can these two boys keep up with his picking on stage, but their very personalities shine with a light that isn’t often witnessed in today’s youth. These boys are the real deal and take notice of them now, because I predict within a short time, Brother Brother will be a household name.

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If you didn’t know the background story of who Bradley and Brett Anderson are and where they come from and what supportive, wonderful parents they have, you would think they were Jim Stafford’s sons. Not that they necessarily look like the famous entertainer, but when you see the three of them on stage together, there’s a bond that cannot be missed. There’s pride from Jim when they both can keep up with him and there’s simple adoration and gratefulness from the boys. There’s a quality to the performance when all three of them are playing that elevates each of their abilities to that really special place. They make magic happen!

I did have a chance to sit and talk with Bradley and Brett and their parents. I found Dwayne and Angelia Anderson to be the kind of people that you want to nominate for parents of the year. They are grounded, they are supportive of the boys’ dream and more than anything, they are involved in the best possible way. You can tell that the family is tight-knit and loving. Angelia laughingly told me that “I am not at all a stage-mother.” And, that’s the key. This family is doing this together and after copious amounts of prayer, they are in a really good place. I also had a chance to meet, “Grandma Grandma” and it was easy to see right away where this family gets it’s sense of values and determination.

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There are numerous shows that you can see while in Branson. But, if want to combine something familiar and something new, this show at the Jim Stafford theatre is a “must see.” You’ll sing along to the songs that Jim Stafford made famous and you’ll rejoice that there’s a couple of youngsters just starting out, that have such obvious talent and love for the art of music. The blending of the old with the new makes this show relevant and memorable all at the same time.

Branson Ducks

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I had the pleasure yesterday of acting like a tourist and riding the Branson Ducks. There are several of these tours throughout the country, but I can’t imagine any more beautiful than the one here in Branson. A “Duck” is an amphibious vehicle that travels on both land and in the water. My friend, John Fullerton, set this up for me and I can’t wait until I write the chapter in the book on this wonderful guy. Not only is he a historian, uber talented musician and devoted family man, he has also been associated with the Branson Ducks since he was a small child. Not only did I get to see the sights and ride in this unique attraction, but I was also privy to a history lesson on the origins of these trucks.

Yes, they are technically trucks. Originally designed in 1942 under the military auspices of Sparkman & Stephens and General Motors Corporation, they were used to transport troops and goods over land and water. The DUKW 2 1/2 ton, 6×6 was instrumental during World War II including during the Normandy Invasion in 1944. Maximum land speed is 50 m.p.h. and maximum water speed is 6 m.p.h. For land operation, the Ducks utilize six wheels powered by a six-cylinder valve-in-head engine. When in the water, the Ducks use a marine type propeller powered from the engine through the transmission and a water propeller transfer case.

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Something that you don’t see often in our world anymore is the repurposing and reutilization of items that are no longer needed in the capacity in which they were built or manufactured. The DUKWs were built solely for short term use by our military and served that purpose well. Thankfully, years after the war ended, these unique vehicles were refurbished and repurposed and became known as Ducks. There will be an entire chapter of the book devoted to the story of the Ducks made possible by the man that knows more about them than probably anyone else in history, John Fullerton.

Yesterday, however, was not about the history of these amphibious vehicles, it was about doing something fun and unique. So, I pulled down my shades, hung my “quacker” around my neck and grabbed the front row seat directly behind our driver and guide, Capt. Reno. We pulled out of the loading area and proceeded directly down Hwy. 76, which in Branson, is known as “The Strip.” We quickly turned off and took a more leisurely route which can be easily missed if you’re in town visiting. There are no windows in the Duck and it made for an incredibly fun ride through town with the wind blowing everyone’s hair. Made me feel a bit like a kid again and riding with all the windows down.

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The tour winds through the beautiful country-side before carrying us to the top of Baird Mountain. Not only is it a breathtaking view of Table Rock Lake all the way to the Arkansas line, but they also have a display on top of the  mountain honoring our military history. This is Branson and the tribute was touching and so appropriate. We are called the most patriotic city in America with good reason. Branson Ducks have created a salute to our armed forces that includes a hill-top display of the Stars and Stripes.

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Capt. Reno was engaging and knowledgeable while he drove the Duck and pointed out things of interest. He had some funny stories and some historical references that told us more about this area. He knew exactly where to stop to get the best pictures and he made sure to encourage us all to use our quackers when another Duck pulled to the top of the mountain. The two drivers had a comical exchange about the fastest way down the mountain that made most of us laugh and a few of us apprehensive about what route Capt. Reno would decide to take.

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The trip down the mountain was done by the usual road and not the short cut that was mentioned. We came to a tree with a fork and as we were slowly ambling along, the driver stopped and there to the side of the road, not twenty feet from where we were, was a young deer. It was awesome to see one of these beautiful creatures up close and in the wild. This is a protected wilderness area and thankfully, no hunting is allowed, so this little guy showed no fear as we all snapped his picture and oohed and aahed over him.

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Not long after descending down to the highway, we turned off where the Branson Belle is docked. Capt. Reno turned off the motor and seriously instructed us on how to use the life jackets in the unlikely event that we needed them. After a fairly quick demonstration, Capt. Reno started the Duck back up and then proceeded to drive through the trees. The launch leading down to the water is very narrow and until we were right upon it, it looked like we were just driving through the trees into the lake. The weird part was that even once I could see the launch, my stomach still flip-flopped a bit as I realized we were driving right into the lake. It was explained that because Table Rock Lake is at such a high level, that we had to enter very slowly as to not veer off and crash into one of the numerous submerged trees.

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Soon after we hit the water, Capt. Reno said it was his break time and asked for volunteers to pilot the craft. I was the first to raise my hand and quickly took my place at the helm. What a blast! We were not going fast, but the water was a little choppy which made for a quicker heartbeat. However, with the wheel in my hands and an explanation about how I was steering the propeller, I felt like a true maritime captain. At least for a couple of minutes.

The captain allowed some others to try their hand at piloting and though they were good, they hadn’t sliced through the clear lake water with the same enthusiasm as I had, so I really have to say I was the best honorary captain of the day. I even got a certificate proving that, once we got back to land.

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Back on dry land, Capt. Reno blasted the stereo with Willie Nelson’s, “On the Road Again.” Once again, just perfect. We gathered up speed and flew down the highway back into Branson with most of singing along to Willie.

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Once back in town, we drove the length of the strip and our guide told us about some of the theater’s and their history including the Baldknobber’s and The Presley’s. We quacked at passing Ducks and road workers before we finally pulled back into the station. What a great day in the Ozarks with picture perfect weather and views that just took my breath away. I might live to be 100, but one of my fondest memories will always be of driving my first Duck.

There are so many things for visitors to do and see while they are in town, but I doubt any of them will be as much fun as the Branson Ducks. So, next time you’re in town, stop in and take a couple hours out of your afternoon for a one of a kind sightseeing tour of Branson and Table Rock Lake. The Branson Ducks also has a station on the Branson Landing where they tour that end of town and splash into Lake Taneycomo. Don’t forget to get your own set of “duck lips” so that you too, can quack with the best of them.

The Magic of Rick Thomas

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Another long-term headliner from Las Vegas has decided to spend part of his year in Branson, Missouri. Rick Thomas brings his magic to Andy Williams’ Moon River Theatre for a limited time in the live entertainment capital of the world. The show is all the glitz and glamour that is reminiscent of sin city without much of the sin. Rick Thomas has titled the show, “Nothing Happens Until You Dream” and he creatively incorporates his magic into that theme.

Rick started his magic career when he was still a kid and by the time he was eighteen, he had his own show at the Disneyland Hotel. He comes from an entertainment family that excelled in ballroom dancing that lends a grace to the magician as he dazzles the imagination. He’s also a funny, personable man who included the audience during much of the show. He has that unique talent that combines over the top illusions, perfect timing and a little comedy thrown in to make us smile.

He is also joined on stage by his lead dancer, Tara. This lovely woman is from Zimbabwe and auditioned for Rick Thomas five years ago for his show in Las Vegas. Rick told us that more than fifty people showed up to audition, and each one was given thirty seconds to show what they could do. Well, apparently Tara fit the bill even though they would have to wait more than two weeks to have her in the show, until she could obtain her work visa. She is beautiful, graceful and has a stage presence that corresponds perfectly to the master magician.

Tara and Rick decided on June 28 of this year to take their relationship to the ultimate level by getting married in a private setting just south of here, in Arkansas. Sounds like they literally ran off and tied the knot and I, for one, love that impulsive need to live life to the fullest. So, not only is Rick acknowledged as one of the greatest magicians of our time, but now, he has Tara by his side in every way.

During the show, Rick also brought out his gorgeous Pyrenees dog, Thunder. In doing a little research I found out that the Thomas’ have another dog, Lightning, in addition to the one we met on stage. Rick’s show in Las Vegas was famous in large part because he included large cats in his act. On Saturday, Rick showed us video of his cats that were regal and majestic. He told us that he had raised more than twenty of the cats from the time they were cubs. You could tell that he has a genuine love for animals and that alone makes him an exemplary human. Especially when he explained to the audience that all his cats have retired and are living out their lives in a lush, green valley outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Yep, he’s a nice guy.

The illusions were well planned and executed perfectly. Of course, I don’t have a clue how he did any of it, but there were one or two acts that had me questioning that I just saw, what I saw. He also did a mentalist trick with members of the audience that delighted and astonished me. Rick does all of this with lots of interaction and with humbleness. He also does a military tribute and honors the men and women who have served our country.

So, to sum up: Great magic tricks, spooky illusions, a beautiful and graceful assistant, birds, a great big white dog and just a little comedy thrown in make this show fun, mysterious and entertaining. Branson is blessed to have this caliber of performer visit our town for a season. We can also thank the Osmonds who now run the Moon River theatre, for bringing such big names to town. I’m also thinking that if this trend continues, we might get a Cirque du Soleil show here, set to a Broadway adaptation of “Oklahoma.” Okay, I know that’s just wishful thinking, but hey, as Rick Thomas would attest, nothing happens until you dream.