The late Andy Williams moved his golf clubs, his hat, and his autographed Minnie Pearl picture to Branson, Missouri, and settled right into his contemporary Moon River Theatre. One of pop music’s biggest hit makers, Williams set precedence in the Midwest’s hottest entertainment town as the first entertainer from outside the country music field to launch his own theatre and show. Many naysayers shook their heads and predicted he would fail. But Andy Williams knew what he wanted and he set about building his unique Moon River Theatre anchored on 22 lush acres that rivals any major city’s park. He studied the bluffs alongside Highway 65 leading into Branson from the South and hired masons and artisans to duplicate the weather-worn Ozark mountainside onto the outside of his theatre. Moon River, abundant with fish, flows around the outside of the theatre, falling in secluded corners into small waterfalls. No detail was lacking down to the forest of Bradford pear trees forming a veritable forest in the green spaces on the parking lot slanting on a hillside behind the theatre.
Inside the theatre, halls and staircases lead to several levels. Walls are decorated with Williams’ art collection. In the main auditorium, 2000 guests are seated comfortably in tiered sections. After the theatre’s completion, Williams stated: “…the theatre is just the right size for me. The sound and lighting are state-of-the-art. Everyone in the audience can see the stage. Branson’s crowds are nice and I’ve never been happier performing anywhere else!”
Williams adds that he did not miss the big city life. “Perhaps, because I worked more than I had ever worked—twelve shows each week.”
Williams often related on his show that his brother Don, who was entertainer Ray Steven’s personal manager, kept encouraging him to perform in a small community. “So, one summer holiday weekend, I drove into Branson. And I spent two days in my car wedged between a Chevy truck and a camper that slept twelve,” he joked. “After awhile with no traffic moving, I noticed that no one shouted or honked. For a moment, I thought I was in the middle of an episode of ‘Highway to Heaven!’ Right then, I decided to make Branson my new home!”
However, Williams was no stranger to small town values and traditions. Growing up in Wall Lake, Iowa, his first introduction to music was singing in the Presbyterian Church choir with his parents and two older brothers. “Later when our family moved to Des Moines, my brothers and I started singing hymns on a radio show,” he said. “We branched out to folk songs and then progressed into more modern music. But hearing those hymns in our home and attending church every Sunday instilled values into me that became a part of who I was as an adult.”
Six years after Williams and his brothers debuted in Las Vegas; he went solo on “The Tonight Show.” What started out to be a two-week appearance lasted nearly three years. In the meantime, he recorded songs that became standards, “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” “Canadian Sunset”, and “Lonely Street,” to name a few.
During he 1960s, Williams signed with Columbia Records and made such hits as “Days of Wine and Roses, “Charade,” and the song that became his signature: “Moon River.” The song became his theme after he performed it at the 1962 Academy Awards, where it won an Oscar for best song in a movie. Audrey Hepburn sang the Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini composition in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
His popularity as one of the world’s greatest singers launched his successful NBC television series, “The Andy Williams Show.” For nine years he performed his music via television in the living rooms of folks just like the ones in his Iowa home town. From 1959 through 1987 a dozen TV specials made Williams a household name in the United States.
Williams spoke with regret that television networks lost interest in variety shows and Christmas specials. So to compensate—as only one as successful as Andy Williams can—he staged a lavish December spectacular in his Branson theatre, complete with snow, his famous Cookie Bear from television days, and dancing, decorated cookies. He became “Mr. Christmas” in Branson, known not only for singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” but also for his sparkly Christmas sweaters.
Andy Williams spent the last 20 years of his career performing on his own stage at his Moon River Theatre in Branson. Upon his death at age 84, Jimmy Osmond bought Moon River Theatre, promising his mentor to carry on the legacy. And the wonderful shows continue in the renamed Andy Williams Performing Arts Center. The annual Christmas show is done in the spirit and tradition of Andy Williams’ television shows. The Lennon Sisters, and the second generation of Osmonds, perform.
Jimmy Osmond said his family would be “…forever grateful for the interactions we had with Andy Williams. Not only did he discover us as a group, but allowed us the opportunity to be discovered as individuals and develop our own talents,” Osmond said.
“The clarity and warmth and grace of his singing shaped my love of music as I watched my brothers perform with him on his weekly show,” Donny Osmond continued. “Andy Williams gave me several voice lessons when I was only seven.
“When I finally joined my brothers and toured with Andy as his opening act and back-up singers, I was always impressed with the way he handled an audience. He loved his audience. That was one of the most important lessons he taught me.”
Donny’s sister, Marie Osmond, who made her TV debut on the Andy Williams Show at age three, said Williams was “the first person to affect my career.
The group ‘The Osmonds’ would not exist without the foresight and generosity of our mentor Andy Williams.”
Andy Williams is not forgotten—not in Branson—not in the world. When his voice comes on television with the words, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” he is remembered as Mr. Christmas, sporting a classy sweater and serving as Marshall of Branson’s Christmas Parade of the Stars. Indeed, he was a superstar. Yet, he made himself a hometown neighbor in Branson.
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