Rural Missouri - April 2011 - (Page 10)
he iconic giant curved yellow arrow still beckons passersby into the parking lot and at the Ozark Opry in Osage the jig Beach. But these days, the auditorium dancing was high stepis dark. Inside, 829 seats — threadping and tap shod. And people came bare and empty — face a silent stage. from everywhere to enjoy the show. Cobwebs and a layer of dust cover the “We estimate a total audience of abandoned “Snak Bar,” spelled with more than 10 million over the years,” the “n” written backward, a reminder says Jim Phinney, who joined the of the show’s hillbilly beginnings. show in 1978 as technical manYears ago, a rural ager and session leader. “And U.S. Highway 54 that is just at the auditorium, it skirted the front edge doesn’t include the television of the Opry’s parking lot, which once held 500 cars Osage Beach audiences and the shows on tour.” a night. Today, a brand-new • The Ozark Opry multi-lane expressway, blastappeared weekly on ed through the Ozark hills, television for 29 years snakes within yards of the on central Missouri’s Opry sign, carrying unaware KRCG-TV and KMOS-TV Lake of the Ozarks visitors beginning in 1956. The Opry troupe past the birthplace of “Branson-style” toured nationally and regionally from entertainment. its inception until 1985. Founded in 1953 and in continu“We would still be running if the ous operation for 53 years, Lee Mace’s highway hadn’t taken our parking Ozark Opry entertained capacity audilot,” notes Lee Mace’s widow, Joyce, ences with six to eight shows a week who continued to operate the Ozark during the tourist season. The music Opry for 20 years after her husband’s was country and bluegrass, the comdeath in a plane crash in 1985. edy was delivered with hillbilly glee
by Dan William Peek firstname.lastname@example.org
you knew,” she says. By 1953, Lee and Joyce and their friends were touring the nation, performing the Ozark Mountain jig as “The Lake of the Ozarks Square Dancers.” “Real Old Fashioned ‘Hoe Downs’ to the tune of the six-piece Hill-Billy symphony!” read an advertisement for their performances. “Something entirely new in entertainment!” Following national television appearances on “The Original Amateur Hour” — the “American Idol” of its day — the jig dance troupe was hired by the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., to perform onstage at the famous Ryman Auditorium. Lee and Joyce also would dance during the Grand Ole Opry’s first TV broadcasts. The Maces brought their experiences in show business back to Osage Beach. They combined what they had learned with a keen photo illustration by Jason Jenkins understanding of what sort of entertainment would be most readily understood and embraced in the Ozark hills and hollers. The Ozark Opry was soon born. Lonnie Hoppers, a native of Hickory County and the Ozark Opry’s first banjo player, recollects the original “hillbilly” show. “Lee made it work with his enthusiasm and promotional abilities,” Lonnie says. “He dressed us up like “When they decided to hillbillies and made the ‘Highpockbuild the expressway, ets’ character for Bob McCoy and the they took our land.” ‘Bashful Bob’ character for Bob Penny. Any show that runs continuously People loved it.” for more than a half century goes Joyce says Lee often explained the beyond entertainment. It’s an institushow’s initial concept by noting that tion. The Ozark Opry was a unique people were coming down to the Lake Missouri Ozarks phenomenon that of the Ozarks from Chicago. engendered universal appeal. Lee and “The first thing they wanted to Joyce tapped into the broadest roots see was Bagnell Dam, and the second of American culture when they set out thing was a hillbilly,” Lee once told a to entertain tourists and vacationers reporter. “We figured we’d show them with a “hillbilly” show. Exactly how a hillbilly even if we had to go to Chithey did so would become a source of cago and hire one.” puzzlement and speculation for their Lee gradually dialed down the hillchroniclers and competitors alike. billy aspect of the show to the point In the mid-1940s, Lee and Joyce, where, by the 1970s, only one cast then in their late teens, frequently member, the comedian, wore rustic danced the “Ozark Mountain jig” with garb. The rest of the troupe dressed, as a set of friends from the three-county Lee said, “like hillbillies really dress,” area of Miller, Camden and Morgan which is to say in neat, clean street or counties. stage clothing. Joyce recalls that everyone knew Bill Atterberry, the show’s country how to dance the Ozark Mountain jig clown, “Goofer,” for nearly 40 years, in those days. “It was just something
The “Ozark Mountain jig” was all the rage after World War II, and Lee and Joyce Mace were among the best. Along with their friends, they toured the nation as “The Lake of the Ozarks Square Dancers,” appearing on television and the Grand Ole Opry.
Waiting in line for tickets to an evening performance of the Ozark Opry was a common occurrence in 1959. Back then, U.S. Highway 54, seen in the background, was a simple rural two-lane road that carried tourists to Missouri’s newest vacation hotspot.
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