Mel Tillis’ Dreamy New $23 Million Branson Theater (1994)
Originally published in the July 26, 1994 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Garth Brooks’ high-tech, rock-style stage shows found some competition from – of all places – Mel Tillis. The stuttering singer’s sparkling new $23 million Branson theatre has enough bells and whistles to make the Garthman green with envy.
“We’ve installed a ‘rain curtain’ onstage. When we do a song like ‘[They Call the Wind] Maria,’ it will thunder and lightning on stage. And it’ll snow, it’ll bubble.”
During a recent visit with Country Weekly, Tillis admitted the theatre is a major step for him. “It’s a big commitment. It’s a challenge,” understated the country music and comedy legend.
The Mel Tillis Theatre already boasts the largest lobby in Branson and the most total square footage (156,000) of any such building in town. Before he’s finished with it, Tillis will spend another $10 million for additional construction and equipment.
The venue sits on 24 acres in the northwest corner of Branson, on Highway 248. He owns another 14‑acre parcel across the street, where he plans to erect a motel and restaurant.
He also is planning to build a 35,000‑square‑foot TV/movie/video soundstage in the back of the theatre building, which will be the only Midwest soundstage outside of Chicago.
“The way I look at it, there are going to be about 500 TV channels by the year 2000. They’re going to need product. You have to have a place to do those things,” he reasoned.
Tillis knows all about technological soothsaying – he’s one of the original investors in cable’s Branson-based Americana Television Network, a successful country-music oriented offering.
The Mel Tillis Theatre, which opened this spring, boasts a gigantic lobby offering plenty of bench seating (“They love the benches,” he noted) as well as gift shops and concession stands. The showroom itself seats 2,400, continental‑style. “It’s easy to get in an out of the seats. There’s a lot of space in there for your knees, you know,” the entertainer pointed out.
As for the show, “I do the comedy, the singin’ and the talkin’.” Mel is backed by his fabulous 16‑piece Statesiders band, singing daughter Connie and background vocalists The Stutterettes.
“I do some big band stuff,” he continued. “I learned to dance to big band music when I was a kid. So I go back to Glenn Miller and all those big bands like that. And then, also, on the other side, I listened to Red Foley – he’s the one who inspired me the most. And I listened to Bob Wills’ band.”
His high-tech emporium is a far cry from some of the rural stages he’s graced during his 38-year career. “I was out on the road for 35 years and worked every kind of theatre – flatbed trucks, honky‑tonks, Broadway. And to have your own place where you can do anything you want to do, with great sound and lights ... I’ve got over 400 lights on the stage alone. It’s all state‑of‑the‑art, computerized.”
Mel’s performance runs two hours and 20 minutes, and he spends another 25 minutes signing autographs. Performances are at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
Funnyman Jimmy Travis’ “Morning Mania” plays the venue at 10 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday.