Shepherd of the Hills, a wholesome outdoor play about “Hill” people that included bluegrass music and audience engagement, will close following its final show later this week. Its owner is seriously ill and his daughter said in a report in the Kansas City Star that the costs keep rising while the income for the seasonal production just didn’t keep pace. The dramatic re-enactment of Harold Bell Wright’s novel was said to be one of the reasons many people flocked to the southern Missouri area in search of “Matt’s cabin,” which was featured in the book and later in movies.
Shepherd of the Hills clearly isn’t alone in its demise, as other Branson attractions also are folding. The Tony Orlando Show is completing its final season in December after 20 years and the Sight & Sound Theatre will close indefinitely after December. The Passion Play — a dramatic re-enactment of Jesus’ final day before his crucifixion — in nearby Eureka Springs, Ark., reportedly was on the verge of closing until an infusion of donations this year kept it open. Attendance figures in Branson reportedly have been down “a couple of hundred thousand last year and the one [year] before too.”
While some speculate Branson’s popularity might have waned with the death of one of its signature performers, Andy Williams, who had his own namesake theater, that can’t be the sole reason. In fact, a more likely culprit could be too much competition — with 50 theaters and 100 live shows in the area. And of the shows, many aren’t the kinds of attractions traditionally associated with Branson, including newcomers like American Idol finalist Luke Menard, Pierce Arrow Theater (“Branson’s hottest show”), and even the Price is Right live stage show. Still, the new acts are centrally located within Branson and certain to draw crowds away from venues that are a little more off the beaten track — like Shepherd of the Hills.
Whether it’s because “old Branson” no longer appeals to vacationers, or the slow recession recovery, or just plain societal changes wherein families desire more technology-oriented entertainment, it’s clear this long-standing Branson tradition will be missed.
Franklin County has seen one of its favorite events, Cowboy Days, discontinued in the past, though a new local attraction is in the works with the development of a new regional tourist draw at the Plaza Grill and Cinema’s location.
Meanwhile, Kansas area attractions are continuing to rebound with growing attendance numbers, hotel stays and airport flights, according to January 2012 data. Similarly, other new tourism attractions have started around the state, including the Wizard of Oz Museum in Wamego, the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, the Boot Hill Casino and Resort in Dodge City and others throughout the Sunflower State. Each of those is doing well and other communities, such as Greensburg, are exploring the feasibility of developing their own local tourist draws.
It’s inevitable that tourists’ tastes will change, but it always is sad to say goodbye to an old standby that once entertained the masses. The public picks the winners and losers in the tourism industry, choosing where to go and where to spend their money — or not.
— Jeanny Sharp,
editor and publisher