Aaron Ketchall (2007) traces the advent of Branson as an vacation destination to the arrival of Harold Bell Wright in Springfield, MO in early 1896 when he was suffering from ill health and sought restoration in the Ozark hills. His 1907 book Shepherd of the Hills was the first of a sequence of highly-popular, melodramatic, fictional works that embraced "rural sentimentality, wholesome family values, and simple moral lessons grounded in Christian precepts." This literary codification of the Ozarks as a place to seek physical and spiritual restoration in escape from modernity was (ironically) the religious and ethical foundation for a century of commercial development of Branson into an internationally-known tourist destination.
The modern era can probably be said to have started in 1960 with the opening of Silver Dollar City, and the subsequent growth of local performing acts through the 1960s and 1970s. Mainstream commercial country acts like Roy Clark and Boxcar Willie arrived in 1980s, followed by non-country performers like Andy Williams and Wayne Newton in the 1990s. But while there came to be numerous non-country offerings on Branson's stages, the listings were still dominated by productions featuring "religiously tinged country music, a plethora of gospel numbers, spiritual and nostalgic renderings of an antimodern past, deference to civil religiosity, and 'family values' rhetoric derived from theological perspectives" (pp 86).
When my mother and I visited Branson in May of 2014, our pick was Jonah an extravagant, multi-million-dollar musical adaptation of the biblical story. While visually stunning, the evangelical objectives of the production, along with the limited amount of detail actually provided in the scriptural source material, constrained the writers to rigid, often didactic dialogue and plot structure. The program featured no names or information at all on the writers or (likely non-union) performers, presumably to avoid any distraction from the biblical origin of the plot, and/or the corporate branding of the production. The curtain call was replaced by an altar call, giving the audience no opportunity to thank (or reify) the performers. Sight and Sound (tm) as the McDonalds (tm) of theatre.
Aaron K. Ketchell's 2006 Holy Hills of the Ozarks: Religion and Tourism in Branson, Missouri is an excellent critical history of Branson for those with an interest in this unique geography of capitalist Americana.
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