Area residents were treated to a unique history lesson on Oct. 15, as the White River Valley Historical Society hosted Jae McFerron, director of the Toby Show, for its monthly Tuesday Talk event at the Branson Centennial Museum.
For his presentation, McFerron shared with the approximately two dozen people in attendance the origins of the Branson Toby Show and it’s recent revival at The Shepherd of the Hills. McFerron began by explaining what exactly a Toby Show is.
“Toby Shows begin roughly around the time of the American Revolutionary War with traveling shows that went from town to town,” said McFerron. “They weren’t known as Toby Shows, they were known as repertory theatre.
McFerron explained that the production companies would host two or three shows they would do in repertory, but there were also specialty acts featuring orators, singers, jugglers, flame eaters and/or knife throwers. He added that part of each show would be a melodrama.
“In these melodramas there was a central character. His name was Toby,” McFerron. “In this melodrama, as all melodramas mostly are, it’s good over evil. Toby was a young boy who bested a city slicker.
“It would depend on what part of the country you were in, depended on what type of character Toby was. In the Ozarks he’d be a hillbilly. In the northwest he’d be a lumberjack. Down south he’d be a cowboy.”
McFerron said the existence of a Toby Show in Branson can be credited to Lloyd Heller and his wife Ruth, better known as their Branson personas of Shad and Mollie. Before coming to Branson, Heller worked for the Acme Tool Company in Coffeyville, Kansas, which is where he met Ruth.
During a work trip to Branson, Heller attended a showing of the Shepherd of the Hills in a small theatre in what is now Downtown Branson, according to McFerron.
Heller loved the production so much that he brought Ruth back to see it, who also fell in love with the production. They soon both auditioned for roles and were cast as The Shepherd and Aunt Mollie and began commuting on weekends from Kansas to perform.
McFerron said when the couple decided to move to Branson, Heller wanted to transform the Shepherd of the Hills book into an outdoor drama. Heller wrote and produced the show, which opened in 1960 at The Shepherd of the Hills.
McFerron said that in 1966, the lease to the outdoor theatre was lost. Heller went on to open up a blacksmith shop at Silver Dollar City, while some of the cast eventually went on to open a vaudeville-style production in Rockaway Beach.
When The Beverly Hillbillies television series came to the 1880s theme park to shoot, Heller not only appeared in the Silver Dollar City episode, but five additional episodes of the series, as well as the TV movie. McFerron said that, during his time with the series, Heller became good friends with Buddy Ebsen (Jed Clampett) and Irene Ryan (Granny), who became the motivator for Heller to create the Toby Show.
“When Irene found out that they were doing a vaudeville show in Rockaway Beach, she said (to Heller), ‘Why don’t you do a Toby Show?’ They had already told her they had purchased property on West 76 and they were going to build a settlement there that became known as the Wilderness Settlement,” said McFerron. “That stuck with Shad and Mollie both, and they started building a theatre. That was the next chapter in their lives in show business.”
McFerron said they took the show that was in Rockaway Beach, moved it to Branson and re-wrote it. The new show, called the Toby Show, opened at the newly built Corn Crib Theatre in 1969.
Around a decade later, McFerron said he himself found his way to the Toby Show. He explained when a girlfriend was cast in the show, he also began working at the theatre doing concessions and parking cars. McFerron said he convinced them he would make a great understudy for the show.
“One night I got my chance. One of the regulars didn’t make the call. So I took the role of Mr. Bates, which was the bad guy. So I became the bad guy, and I enjoyed that for several years,” said McFerron. “It was wonderful. It was absolutely wonderful. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
The Toby Show was rebooted multiple times and went through several different versions. McFerron said he was able to remain with the show for several years before moving on to other things, but always remained close to Heller and his family.
McFerron said that one day, Heller came to him and handed him a piece of paper.
“He scribed on this piece of paper, ‘I give to Jae McFerron all rights to the Toby Show in perpetuity.’ So he gave me the show,” he said. “On the day that Shad past away or at his funeral his daughter Diane was there. I said ‘look,’ and showed her what he had given me. She said, ‘By all means, please do that. The only thing that I ask is that you always put my dad’s name on the show.’
“So that’s what we’ve done, and that is what I will always do. That’s why, even now, if you pick up a rack card, it says Shad Heller’s Original Toby Show, which gives me a great thrill. I’m very proud of the fact that Lloyd ‘Shad’ Heller’s name is still here, and you can find it in Branson.”
After sitting on the show for several years and never doing anything with it, McFerron said one day Jeff Johnson, the owner of Shepherd of the Hills, gave him a call. Now Shad Heller’s Original Toby Show is a dinner show at The Shepherd of the Hills and can be seen three times a week.
“We are very, very happy. Very excited to be a part of Shepherd of the Hills,” said McFerron. “To wrap this all up in a little bow, Lloyd Heller began his career in Branson at Shepherd of the Hills. He was the guy that put it on the map. That outdoor drama. Sixty years later his show, The Toby Show, is back where he began.”
Showtimes and reservation information for The Toby Show can be found at theshepherdofthehills.com.
The Tuesday Talk series is presented on the third Tuesday of every month from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Branson Centennial Museum.