Lloyd Presley, no relation to the Presley known as “The King,” had a dream—a dream of his own theater with an actual stage, lights, and sound. In Branson, Missouri, this humble son of an Ozarks preacher man, launched his vision on a patch of farmland fronting Missouri Highway 76 West—a road less traveled back in 1967. His family, including his wife, the late Bessie Mae, and his children, took a leap of faith to build a metal box with a flat floor and double doors in the backside to adapt to Plan B—a boat storage business.
Lloyd had already made a name for himself in Ozarks music circles, performing on a flatbed trailer substituting as a stage at rural pie suppers and in caves doubling as theaters. Later he and his group, the Ozark Playboys, held regular spots on Springfield radio stations. As a teenager on his dad’s radio shows, Gary developed his character, Herkimer, now the Presley’s trademark.
Even after his family opened the original music theater on Highway 76, Lloyd held onto the job that supported his family—driving a produce truck and making deliveries to Springfield grocery stores. Dressed as “The Friendly Fisherman,” he moonlighted with his second passion—fishing—hosting a weekly report about hot spots for catching the big ones on KYTV (now KY-3) out of Springfield. Slowly, but surely, the Presleys built their fan base in Branson, one show and one season at a time. Eventually, Lloyd quit his produce delivery route and Bessie Mae switched her job in Springfield to one in Branson. Gary and his wife, Pat, both worked day jobs, and Steve and Janice, still pre-teenagers, cleaned the theater, sold tickets during the daytime, and put out brochures about their nighttime show. One Presley daughter, Deanna, and her husband, David Drennon, moved on to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and opened their own theater.
Over the years, the Presley family, led by patriarch Lloyd and supported by Bessie Mae, honed their talents onstage. They enlarged their metal box theater, elevated the floor, and installed comfortable seating. A cast of top-notch musicians, vocalists, and comedians enhanced the talents of two—and then three—and eventually, four generations of Presleys onstage. Their sound and lighting kept pace with the Broadway quality shows along Branson’s strip. Lloyd lived out his dream, standing onstage with his sons and grandchildren, and entertaining more than one generation of fans.
On October 23, 2010, Lloyd Presley left his earthly home and stage to join his beloved wife, Bessie Mae, who died in 2007. The 2011 season is a first for the Presleys—the theater seat their father and mentor had occupied since his retirement from the stage sits empty. Yet, his spirit lives in the three remaining generations performing as a singular bolt of energy in the theater the family built together.
An evening at Presleys’ Country Jubilee begins with old-time hymn singing led by Rod Phillips in the loft of the lobby—a fitting tribute to the legacy of Lloyd Presley’s brush arbor preacher-dad. The stage curtains open at 8:00, and performers enliven the audience with fast-paced country rhythms featuring Steve Presley on drums, his son, John, at the piano, and Greg Presley picking up his grandmother’s talent on harmonica. Gary Presley, a.k.a. Herkimer, bounces on and off stage, playing against the low-key image of Cecil, a character developed by his son, Eric Presley. The supporting skills of vocalists, fiddlers, and guitarists match the Presleys’ talents with tunes from gospel, country, popular, and even a bit of rock and roll.
The Presleys practice what they play, and play what they practice For half a century, this close-knit family has spent most of every day together—practicing, performing, making corporate decisions, and even vacationing.
“There is no ‘I’ in Presley,” Eric Presley says. “From putting the show together to what you see on the billboards or what kind of candy we sell in the snack bar, every decision takes all of us to make it work.”
Built on the strong foundation laid by Lloyd and Bessie Mae, the cohesive family continues to work and play together. And to Lloyd Presley’s delight, they never had to open the boat storage business.
Read more about the Presley family in The Heart of Branson: The Entertaining Families of America’s Live Music Show Capital, available at www.arlinechandler.com. Check their show schedule at www.presleys.com.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com