Friday night will mark 50 years since “Branson’s First Show on the Strip,” also known as the “Presleys’ Country Jubilee” show, opened its doors for the first time.
“I think part of that is because it’s real easy for me to think back at so many things, you know your mind goes back quick,” Gary Presley, one of the show’s original cast members said. “On one hand, it seem like a long time, but on the other, it just seems like wow, it hasn’t been that long.
“I tell people all the time that I’m going to wake up one morning and I’m still going to be on the north side of Springfield in high school, and I’m going to say to the family, ‘You won’t believe the dream I just had.’”
Lloyd’s first Guitar
The story of the performing Presley family begins in the early 1930s with Lloyd Presley, who died in 2010.
“My brother, he wanted to play guitar, and I never did think much about it. I was playing marbles and catching fish and all this kind of stuff, you know,” Lloyd Presley said in 1992. “So we took an old hound dog and traded it for a guitar.”
The patriarch said his brother ended up not taking to guitar picking, so when he was around 10, he’d “sneak in and pick a little,” which is how he got started.”
Presley continued to perform all over Ozark Mountain Country, including in downtown Branson.
The family heads underground
Eventually, Lloyd was joined by two daughters and one of his sons, Gary, and the family began performing at Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, as well as at the Underground Theatre, located in a cave near Kimberling City.
“Part of the family started playing (at Fantastic Caverns) in 1962 until about 1966 and did the Saturday night show,” Gary Presley said. “Part of it was a regular stage show, and the other part was a radio show.”
The radio show was called “Farmarama,” and was hosted by local broadcaster Lloyd Evans. In fact, it was Evans who would help Gary and the family forever change their legacy, simply by needing a comedian.
“Lloyd Evans, he was a big DJ all through the United States and was the announcer for Chet Atkins, the Carter Family, and a lot of those people. Well, he was the guy who put the whole show together,” Gary Presley said. “So we’re sitting around one night talking, I was 15, and he said we needed somebody to play comedy. Somebody looked at me, and I said I’d try it.”
Gary Presley said the first thing he needed was an outfit, which he collected through family members.
“I got a pair of overalls from one grandpa, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from the other grandpa, and I had a hat I bought, so I turned it around backwards, blacked my teeth out with an eyebrow pencil I probably stole from my sister, and that’s how I put it together,” he said. “As far as the name, Lloyd Evans gave it to me. June Carter had a song called ‘Herkimer the Bull,’ so pretty much as soon as I put on the costume, Lloyd started calling me Herkimer. I didn’t care what they called me as long as the people in the audience were having a good time.”
“I started coming out on the stage and doing some one-liners, and people seemed to like it. After a while, it kept growing, growing and growing, and like Eric does now, I started to kind of steal the show. People really like what I was doing. Now here I am, 56 years later, still doing comedy.”
Gary Presley not only performed alongside his family at Fantastic Caverns, but he also worked as a tour guide in his teens.
An empty stretch of asphalt
After gaining quite a bit of success, as well as a drummer in the form of the family’s youngest son Steve, the decision was made to open a theater on what was then an empty stretch of asphalt.
“It was a little two-lane road, and Shepherd of the Hills and Silver Dollar City were there, but otherwise, there were seven businesses on the road,” Gary Presley said. “The Branson city limits back then were down by the (Farm and Auto) museum. We were out in the country by ourselves except for a hardware store across the street, and a drive-in movie down where Grand Country is, and other than that, it was the woods and us.”
The family knew they were taking a chance by building the venue, and in fact, it was also built to double as boat storage for the fishing industry, should the theater not have been a success.
“This thing was far from a sure bet,” Gary added.
The theater opened June 30, 1967, and featured Lloyd and Bessie Mae Presley, as well as their children Deanna, Gary, Janice, and Steve, Deanna’s husband David Drennon and Gary’s wife Pat.
“When we started on 76, we were hoping to have a place maybe on Saturday nights to get together and play some music, and of course, sell tickets if we could,” Lloyd Presley said in an interview from 1992.
“There were four couples that opened this, my wife and I, who were married the April before we opened, mom and dad, my sister and her husband, who are celebrated their 50th anniversary June 24, and my brother-in-law’s dad,” Gary said. “We went in together and thought it might work. We were drawing a few people at the Underground Theatre on weeknights, but it was so far off the beaten path, we thought, why not give it a shot here.”
Even though the family drew some folks from the start, it took some time to fill all the seats.
“You talk about taking a chance, we did, but then again, we didn’t have anything, so if you don’t have anything, you don’t have anything to lose.” Gary Presley said.
When asked when the family began to think the show and theater may have been a success, the elder Presley just smiled.
“When people started showing up,” he laughed. “There was one night that first season we had 12 people show up. I think there was 8 or 9 of us on stage, and 12 in the crowd, but we went ahead and did a two-hour show.”
According to Lloyd, the whole thing happened pretty quickly.
“It wasn’t too long until we were kind of amazed ourselves at the people who were stopping by to see the ‘Presley’s Mountain Music Jubilee,’” Lloyd Presley said in 1992. “In ‘67 it started, and within two or three years, we’s having good crowds of people, and went to six nights a week pretty quick.”
Gary said it would be a few years before the family began making money.
“It was a little over three years before we made a penny here, but we always paid our entertainers.”
The birth of Branson’s music scene
Making sure to take care of the entertainers has always been a priority for the family.
“Back in those days, it was tough to find musicians in Branson because they had to give up everything and move down here in the sticks,” he said. “We were the first show that I know of here to pay entertainers year-round, and that was quite a burden to take on, but we had to do that to get our entertainers to move to Branson.
“We still pay people year-round, and that’s why we have so many people that have been here for such a long time. That also helps when we have to look for new people. It makes it a little easier.”
Even though they always paid the entertainers, the family members weren’t always so lucky.
“Now the family members, we made what we could, and we used to clean the theater, and if someone happened to lose change out of their pockets and we happened to find it, then that’s what we made, but we all had other jobs, too,” Gary said. “For two years we were running full schedule, and I’d do the show here every night, then be back in Springfield to work in a factory every day at 7 a.m.”
“We made our living doing other jobs.”
As Branson and the surrounding areas began becoming a destination for live music the world over, more family members began joining the show, namely Gary and Pat’s three sons.
“The only thing we told the kids and grandkids is if you want to eat, you work,” Gary laughed. “But seriously, no one is on stage unless they can do something. Pat and I had three sons, Eric, Scott who plays lead, and Greg who plays harmonica, and they’re all three talented. Don’t ask me, ask all the people who are showing up to see the show and they’ll tell you the same thing.
“We do have family members that aren’t so talented, and guess what? They aren’t on stage.”
According to Eric, they were never pushed into the business of show, it just came naturally.
“Clay Cooper and the Texas Gold Minors moved to town, we’d all meet up out here and play music, or go swim. We had a normal childhood. It was just highlighted with a musical playground. And I think it’s the same for my kids.”
From the time they were small, the three Presley brothers joined the rest of the family on stage.
“Eric, Scott and Greg would all come out as the Little Herkimers and sing a song, and it was funny and the people loved it,” Gary said. “But, we didn’t put them out there to wear them out. They’d do about a minute, minute and a half, and then they’d be done.”
I was 3 or 4 when I started,” Eric said.
“Or 2 or 3,” Gary laughed.
As far as the character of “Cecil,” that evolved as Eric’s older brothers began becoming proficient in playing musical instruments.
“Scott, the oldest of the brothers, started playing fiddle and venturing into the music scene, so then it was just Greg and I as Little Herkimers,” Eric said. “Well, in high school there was an assembly coming up and Scott, Clay and a lot of the kids we grew up with were playing, and Greg, who was about 14 at that time, wanted to be a part of that assembly, because of girls, probably (laughs).
“So, he picked up the harmonica about a week before and started learning some blues licks, and he learned them quick.”
According to Eric, Greg kept playing, and by the time he was 16, got an endorsement from Hohner Harmonicas.
“There was no way I could keep up with that, so I stayed as a Little Herkimer,” he laughed. “I did that until I was about 14, then I took two years off where I just tried to sing, and it was just horrible. The worst.
“It didn’t work, so I went back to comedy.”
In addition to featuring some of the most popular entertainers in the area, the comedy antics of “Herkimer” and “Cecil” have been high points for several decades.
“With comedy, a lot of people think you can put on a costume and that’s it, but there’s much more to it than that,” Gary said. “Sometimes you get yourself in the tank, and you have to be smart enough to get yourself out.
“Playing comedy is like being a catcher in baseball. Everybody wants to be the pitcher, or the lead singer in the band, the quarterback. Nobody wants to be the guy on the line getting beat up. Most people don’t want to be the comedian, so you have to have something unique to make it survive.”
“And the crowd will tell you real quick,” Eric added. “We try to stay somewhere between current events and (pop culture) of the past. There’s a way to blend that, and I think that’s what we do. It all goes back to the ‘Hula Girl.’”
“You go to Hawaii, you want to see a hula girl, and that might not be the only reason you want to go, but it’s kind of neat to see one,” Gary said. “It’s the same way with the hillbillies here. And when people from all over the world come to the Ozarks, they want to see the hillbilly. That doesn’t mean you have to be totally stupid and corny out there, though.”
The ‘business’ of show
Recognizing what does and doesn’t work, as well as making the decision to not feature someone simply because they share the same name is something the family takes pride in.
“This is a business, and it is run like a business,” Gary said.
“That’s the recipe that hasn’t changed in 50 years,” Eric added. “A lot of things have changed, but that isn’t one of them.”
“Our sons and Steve’s sons are involved in the business decisions,” Gary said. “It isn’t me and my wife and Steve and his wife telling them to do this and do that. We could be gone right now, and they know how to run this business.”
Eric then spoke of an addition to the theatre that was completed almost a decade ago.
“Our backstage area was so small for more than 40 years, and I remember us talking about expanding, especially when all these other ‘big’ theaters started opening in town,” he said. “I sat there and watched dad say ‘No, those people will never see back here. We need to make sure that money goes into stuff they’re going to see.’
“So that’s what we still try to do.”
Gary said they eventually decided to expand the theater because “so many family members were jammed in the small dressing room during intermission,” there wasn’t room for everyone.
“We do 230 shows a year, plus 26 TV shows, plus rehearsals, so yes,” Eric said. “But we all learned from what dad and everyone passed down to us, and that’s get to know each other. Know when you need to give some room, or give them a pep talk, and I think that’s one of the most important qualifications to be a family member on stage, it isn’t about what you want, it’s about what (they audience) wants.
“It doesn’t matter that I love this song or that joke, if (the audience) doesn’t laugh or clap, then it doesn’t matter. We’re all here for the same reason, and that is to take care of those people.”
In addition to being “Branson’s First Show on the Strip,” the family has also been featured on “60 Minutes.”
When we were featured on ‘60 Minutes,’ (in 1991) that was just great,” Gary said. “I believe our crowds increased by 50,000 people the next year. We already had a lot of folks coming, but we made a heck of a jump that year.”
The family’s story was also featured in the 2013 documentary, “We Always Lie to Strangers.”
“Our stuff was pretty much the most boring part about that movie,” Eric laughed.
Also, while it might pale in comparison to their 50-year run in Branson, the “Presley’s Country Jubilee TV Show” is in its eighth season on RFD-TV, and draws more than 300,000 viewers each week.
The next 50
Even though the family has been an anchor of “the Strip” for 50 years now, they haven’t let it change who they are.
“We don’t let anything go to our heads,” Gary said. “We know where we came from.
“When times get tough, we keep our head down, concentrate on the product, and try to get better and better,” Eric said. “I think doing that, and doing what we do helps us realize the audience is the most important group. We support everyone in the town, and would do anything for this town.”
Today, the “Presley’s Country Jubilee” features Gary and Steve, two original members, along with second-, third- and fourth-generation members of the family. As far as looking forward to another 50 years, Gary, who turns 70 next week, approached it with his trademark sense of humor.
“I don’t know that I’ll be here for the 100th anniversary,” he laughed. “But then again, who knows?”
“For me, I see me, my two brothers, my cousins, my niece, my kids, and I see them have the heart in it that we did growing up,” Eric said. “We’re all very protective of this place. My daughter is 13, and she’s your typical 13-year-old except when she’s up front. Nobody has to tell her to take care of the people who come see us. She knows to do that, and more important, she wants to, because this is our family farm.
“Our livelihood. Our legacy.”
The Presley’s 50th Anniversary show will kick off at 8 p.m. Friday at the theater. For more information, visit presleys.com.
“They were total Tiger Woods parents,” Eric laughed. “Grandpa said for years if you want your son to play the guitar, buy one for yourself and tell him not to touch it. That’s kind of the way it was except we were never told not to touch it, it was just always there if you wanted it, and if you didn’t, you didn’t have to. We grew up in these houses back here (behind the theater), so this was like our playground. We didn’t know any different. It was so hot during the summer, we’d come to the theater and play. One day it would be laser tag, the next, music.
“Yeah, we really don’t know,” Eric said. “I just always remember doing it. Besides, kids are used as punchlines around here; they aren’t always featured (laughs).”