July 18, 2008

Branson Entertainment Steeped in Christian Values

By Jill Moon, The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.

Jul. 18--BRANSON, Mo. -- For families who long for a faith-based vacation, one place offers several attractions focused on Christianity.

People who value faith, family and country laid the foundation for Branson, known as the other "Music Capital, USA," after Nashville, Tenn. These founders, who include the Presley family of the original Branson variety show, Presleys' Country Jubilee, and the Herschends who founded Silver Dollar City, sought these same values in other attractions coming to Branson over the years.

"The Promise" is a play about Jesus Christ and the "greatest story ever told." It dramatizes creation, Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. Branson's largest cast of singers, dancers and performers unfold the two-hour drama at The Mansion Entertainment and Media Center. The latest addition to Branson's Christian entertainment is Sight and Sound Theatre that opened May 24, with "Noah -- The Musical," running through Dec. 20.

"Branson's culture and environment is what we call 'family values' based on a Christian value set of culture and community," said Tom Fish, director of the Branson Sight and Sound Theatre. "A lot of leaders in the community have maintained and ensured that over the years."

This plan for the city is apparent in that several nationwide ministries are based there such as well-known evangelists and marriage reconciliation ministries as well as many Christian summer camps and conferences.

Coming to Branson was a natural progression for Sight and Sound Theatre that originated in Lancaster County, Penn.

Sight and Sound Theatre's original theater in Lancaster is one of the most-attended theaters on the East Coast. Branson's location is the first-ever expansion of this Bible story theater, known as the "Christian Broadway."

So far, it looks like the Branson location is following suit. "Noah -- The Musical," while not sold out, is substantially pre-booked through the rest of its season. And audiences are letting Fish know they enjoy the play.

"I've had verbal and written comments expressing appreciation for the Biblical truth presented on stage and the gospel message and the plan of salvation," Fish said. "And especially the finale -- but let's not give away the finale."

Fish, who has lived in Branson for 30 years and worked during Silver Dollar City's early years as its corporate architect, definitely knows Sight and Sounds' audience. He also worked for the Springfield, Mo., firm of Butler, Rosenbury and Partners Inc., a full-service firm for architecture, interior, landscaping and structural engineering, and he consulted for tourism destinations across the country before being recruited by Sight and Sound.

Sight and Sound Theatre has a cast of more than 40 actors; live animals including camels, horses, llamas, dogs and birds; 2 million watts of lighting and surround sound with seats for more than 2,000 patrons.

"Noah -- The Musical's" massive four-story, 40-foot-tall ark wraps around the audience on a football field-sized stage filled with both live and animatronic animals.

Since 1995, more than 2 million people have seen "Noah -- The Musical." The text and musical score were written by the Sight and Sound producing group and is based on the Biblical account found in the Old Testament book of Genesis.

The musical tells the Bible story of when God told man to build a huge, floating vessel and fill it with every kind of animal, so that when judgement came they would be saved.

Other Sight and Sound productions are "Daniel and the Lions' Den,""In the Beginning," and "Miracle of Christmas."

Sight and Sound Theatre's mission is to present the gospel of Jesus Christ and sow the word of God into the lives of its patrons, guests and fellow workers by visualizing and dramatizing the scriptures through inspirational productions. It also encourages others and seeks always to be dedicated and wise stewards of their "God-given talents and resources."

"Our mission statement says exactly what we are and people identify with that and that's the market Branson appeals to," Fish said.

Glenn Eshelman, of Lancaster County, Penn., founded Sight and Sound Theatre. Coupling dramatic scenic photos with scripture verses and music led to Eshelman's popular slide shows. Eshelman and his wife, Shirley, built a theater in 1976 to house the shows.

Gradually actors were added and in 1987, "Behold the Lamb" became the first all-live, dramatic production.

The Eshelmans' first 1,400-seat Sight and Sound Entertainment Centre built in 1991 expanded the ministry but the center was destroyed by fire in 1997. Then in 1998, the Sight and Sound Millennium Theatre replaced the destroyed center in Lancaster and reopened with "Noah -- The Musical."

Once visitors see the shows depicting well-known Bible stories, many tour the College of the Ozarks, a 101-year-old Christian college.

The College of the Ozarks welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly. Its points of interest include a working grist mill, the Keeter Center, the Ralph Foster Museum, and the Fruitcake and Jelly Kitchen. All of the college's sites are operated by College of the Ozarks students through the college's work program that pays the students' tuition.

The Keeter Center was designed to reflect Dobyns Hall, a rustic Maine lodge displayed at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The lodge was subsequently relocated to The School of the Ozarks, where it stood until 1930. The lodge was recreated 100 years later.

The Keeter Center's 30 decorated suites provide lodging in a relaxed, scenic setting. The center also houses the William R. Dobyns Dining Room that serves lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.

The Ralph Foster Museum is also known as the "Smithsonian of the Ozarks," said Elizabeth Andrews, public relations director for the college.

Visit visitbranson.com for more information about these and other attractions.


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