Showbiz makes unlikely stand in Branson, Mo.

GOOD MORNING from Branson (pop. 4,000), Mo.: If Hollywood is the heart of showbiz, then Branson is certainly the heart-land — and its anatomy is growing by the minute. When you leave the Springfield airport and drive (an hour) to Branson you pass the unbelievably verdant, rolling Ozarks. This time of year the glistening, white dogwood blossoms seem to smile at the newly arrived strangers. The redbuds are aglow on the hillsides as the road slices through the limestoned earth, and streams, swollen with spring rains and winter snows, thunder by. The roads are chopped out of the rock formations, some hundreds of feet high. And as you approach Branson, more and more of these limestone monuments are being carved and carted away to be replaced by theaters, adding to the 38 now in operation. Also springing up are first-rate hotels and major housing. Lee Iacocca who, as first revealed here, is partnered with Pierre Cossette on the Branson edition of “Will Rogers Follies,” is an investor in a 1,400-acre Branson Hills development where it’s reported 50,000 will live. I drove past his Route 65 site where giant dirt movers and skip loaders had literally carved and carted away an enormous hill. Iacocca was on hand for the bow of “Follies” and on opening night, Cossette had cast him in the role of Wiley Post, complete with eye patch. Iacocca reminded it’s not his bow in showbiz — he did Chrysler commercials for 15 years –“And I get a (SAG) pension check ($ 300) every month, ” he smiled. He hasn’t had to join any union for his legit stint — there isn’t any union in Branson … It’s hard to believe what’s happening here — it’s faintly reminiscent of Las Vegas in the ’50s. Of course real estate is booming — it’s rumored Las Vegas interests have bought land on spec for a hoped-for gambling era — even though riverboat gambling was voted down. And it’s also rumored Disney’s bought land here — but no one would confirm. Building goes on seven days a week. A second giant discount shopping mall is being carved out — on Sunday, yet — on the neighboring limestoned hillside … Buses, RVs and cars bear license plates from all over. Heartland Country Charters & Tours’ Milita Hoffman told me they have visitors from as far away as Japan and Europe. She’s an extra added (attractive) and vocal attraction on her bus tours — as former backup singer for Cristy Lane and Ferlin Husky — she sings tourists a preview of shows to come while on board!

BROADWAY CAME TO BRANSON with the bow of the “Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Review” in the new Will Rogers Theater last Saturday. Every theater’s named for its star attraction. F’rinstance, it’s the Andy Williams Moon River Theater, Tony Orlando’s Yellow Ribbon Theater, etc. However, what happens to the name of the “Wayne Newton Theater”? The theater owners canceled (the honeymooning) Newton’s pact because of contract disputes including Newton’s lawsuit filed against the owners. He was skedded to open April 25 … Meanwhile, Pat Boone is a solid hit in Branson as Will Rogers in the “Follies.” Opening night, he was toasted by Cossette and partners Iacocca, William P. McManus and Melvin and Len Hall with a giant party inside and outside the theater’s lavish lobby. The house seats 2,000 — and the show plays twice a day. It is the same production I saw on B’way and in L.A. The sets and the costumes are as ravishing and the girls as gorgeous (and as bare — with no beef from the Bible belters). And the show’s patty-cake number is as perfect and gets an ovation. The show is minimally edited — with the subtraction of the appearance of the four Will Rogers children. And the music is digitalized, rather than live. Adding another saving, Greg Peck’s voice as Flo Ziegfeld is no longer heard (recorded) from the balcony — it would have cost $ 1,000 a week — but Peck’s voice is still heard in the national company. Tix here are $ 18 compared to $ 60 on B’way … After the opening night’s final, standing-ovation’d curtain call, Branson’s best chefs buffeted the first-nighters with tables groaning with gourmet dishes as well as local delicacies including the best chili I’ve ever eaten! Everyone was in a great mood applauding the arrival of Broadway in Branson and it’s everyone’s guess that other B’way musical hits will soon find their way here with stars to headline, as Pat Boone is doing with “Will Rogers.” Naturals would be “Oklahoma!””The Music Man” and/or “Hello Dolly”… Boone told me he’d shied away from legit musicals since his outing in “West Side Story.””I said they’d have to drag me back” on stage, but this was too good to turn down. “And anyway, I’ve been working my way back toward Nashville for years,” he laughed. He had taped a Christmas special in Branson eight years ago with producer and then-manager Tim Swift … Jim Rogers (79), Will’s son, was on hand to compliment Boone playing his dad — he’s seen three other stars in the role … More from Missouri tomorrow.