Last weekend, dozens of past cast members, as well as several stars of the current edition of Branson’s version of “The Toby Show,” gathered for a reunion event, which included a proclamation from Branson Mayor Edd Akers naming July 27 as Shad and Molly Heller Toby Show Day.
Beginning as traveling, vaudeville-style shows, “The Toby Shows” were stories of good versus evil, with the main character representing a cowboy, lumber jack, or farmer, all depending on the region.
The Branson edition of “The Toby Show” came from local entertainer Lloyd “Shad” Heller, who was a co-writer of the original “Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama” and starred as the original “Shepherd.” Heller was one of the recognizable faces in Ozark Mountain Country, stemming from his years as a blacksmith at Silver Dollar City.
In fact, Heller was called the “persona of Silver Dollar City for the first 15 or 20 years” by co-founder Peter Herschend.
In 1969, Silver Dollar City was home to the filming of several episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and Heller and his wife Mollie became friends with Irene Ryan, who played “Granny” on the show. They chatted about the “good old days,” and the subject of the old touring “Toby Shows” came up.
The Hellers took the inspiration and ran with it, opening their version of the show at the Wilderness Settlement on “The Strip,” along with a taffy shop, a blacksmith shop, and the home of the show, the Corn Crib Theatre.
In addition to being a hit production, the Corn Crib Theatre also began to garner a reputation as a place that gave young actors a chance to do a “special kind of comedy.” Many of those actors, along with cast members from the new edition of “Shad Heller’s original Toby Show” at the Shepherd of the Hills Historic Homestead and Adventure Park. Two of those actors, Terry Bloodworth and David Burgio, represented the “oldest” and “newest” Tobys.
“I was there for opening night because I helped write the original script with Shad Heller and Pat Carruthers,” Bloodworth, who also performed off an on from 1971-77, said. “The three of us wrote that script at Shad’s house in the winter of 1970 into 71 ... Some of these people I haven’t seen in almost 50 years.”
Burgio, who has been performing as Toby for the past few months, says he’s constantly in awe of the amount of people who were a part of the original version of the show, as well as how much it still means to them.
“It’s wonderful, but I’m like ‘whoa,’ to meet all these wonderful people who have been a part of the show and knowing I’m helping carry this legacy, it’s a bit scary,” he said. “But, I’m having a blast.”
As far as advice from and “old” Toby, Burgio simply asked how to keep his cheeks from hurting from all the smiling and laughing.
“You have to build up those muscles,” Bloodworth said with a laugh. “But don’t worry about playing ‘happy Toby’ all the time ... he has different levels, you know, he’s smart, so you should let the audience see Toby think.
“We’re in a wonderful tradition with this show, and the only other advice I can offer came from Shad, and he simply said ‘remember the red bow tie,’ which meant to look for a person who stands out. It was something he did when he was a carnival barker and it was look for someone who wanted to be involved, and wants you to work to them.
“That person becomes your leader of the audience, and it doesn’t matter what you do, you can insult them even, but as long as you do it with a smile on your face, they’ll love it, and they’ll love you. So find yourself a guy with a red bow tie.”
“Shad Heller’s Original Toby Show” at the Shepherd of the Hills Historic Homestead and Adventure Park takes the stage Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 5 p.m., but dinner is served at 4 p.m.