Below: The Williams family participated in the Christmas television shows. Moon River Enterprises photo
From his elegant dressing room and office in his Moon River Theater in Branson, Mo., Andy Williams was ready to begin another 12-hour day. He opened a six-week run in September with another entertainment legend, Ann-Margret. After that, it’s a week of rehearsals for the Andy Williams Christmas Show that will open Nov. 1 and continue through Dec. 10 at his theater.
For Williams, 83, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year.
“All of the music is so happy and jolly. Everybody loves Christmastime. It’s just a lovely time of the year,” he said.
For his holiday show in Branson, Williams gives the show a similar look and feeling as the classic Christmas television shows he did for NBC from 1962–71. In his book, “Moon River and Me,” Williams reveals the holiday television shows always were his favorite.
“My whole family was on the Christmas show with me. We had an entire week of singing, laughing and having fun,” he said.
The cherished components of the Christmas specials–favorite religious and standard holiday songs, lavish decorations, children and, of course, his holiday sweaters–are brought to the Branson stage.
“My family is not in the Branson show, but it’s very much like the old Christmas shows we used to do. The theater is so beautifully decorated, by the time they get to their seats, they’re already in the spirit of Christmas,” Williams said.
Christmas is becoming one of the best times in Branson’s year, too, with 1.4 million holiday visitors last year, according to the convention and visitors bureau. The 24th annual Ozark Mountain Christmas takes place in November and December in this southwest Missouri town of about 10,000 people, and offers visitors wonderful light displays, a parade, fantastic shopping and marvelous holiday entertainment.
We’re moving to Branson
In 1991, Williams married Debbie Haas in New York. Just a couple of days after their wedding, Williams’ brother, Don, called him from Branson, encouraging him to see this small town with 20 theaters. He made the trip, liked the area’s natural beauty and potential for growth, returned home to his new wife and asked, “What would you think about moving to Branson, Mo.?”
She–as well as family and friends–thought Williams was crazy to give up an apartment above the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and a home in Beverly Hills for the Missouri Ozarks. But Williams had made up his mind to stake a claim in this growing entertainment destination.
“She agreed to come along, and after a short time, she loved it as much as I do,” Williams said.
He shared his theater vision with architects and on May 1, 1992–two days shy of his and Debbie’s first wedding anniversary–the Moon River Theater opened. Today, there’s a restaurant inside the theater and a 500-room Radisson Hotel at the foot of the hill that’s just off Country Music Boulevard, Branson’s strip.
Williams performs at Moon River Theater September through mid-December, with other musical acts–like the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons tribute Oh What a Night!–on the bill during the summer. He said the summer crowd in Branson is comprised largely of families who are interested in other activities and acts. Next summer’s show line up will include The Cat’s Pajamas, a five-man vocal band.
An upcoming milestone
In 2012, Williams will recognize 75 years in the entertainment industry, the thought of which brought on a chuckle. He wasn’t eager to publicly mark the milestone.
“It says, ‘Come see an old man sing’,” Williams said with a dash of self-deprecation and a soft laugh. But after some cajoling by his manager and the local tourism folks, Williams “decided to let them do something.” Some details are still being worked out, but music lovers will certainly enjoy the list of guest co-stars for next fall’s season, including Dick Van Dyke, the Oak Ridge Boys, Pat and Debbie Boone, Ray Stevens and Dionne Warwick.
“I like doing shows with another star,” Williams said. “It’s good for the show. Of course, I’ll have to change my half of the show from week to week so people who come back will see something new.” Then he paused for a few seconds, as if he was processing what that would entail. “You know, if this doesn’t kill me, I’ll get to see 76 years in the business.”
Above: Moon River Theater in Branson is festive for the holidays.
Below: The Williams brothers harmonized Christmas carols for the popular Andy Williams television show in the 1960s.
Moon River Enterprises photos
A driving force
From the time he was 7 years old and singing on a Des Moines radio station with his brothers Bob, Dick and Don, Williams’ father, Jay had plans for his children. He wanted them to be entertainers, but Williams didn’t characterize his father as a typical show business parent.
“He was the force behind us; he kept us going,” he said.
Williams called on the words of his father throughout his long career, including the challenge of transitioning from being part of a singing group to a solo performer in his mid-20s.
“My father kept saying you have to work hard and learn your craft to be the best you can be,” Williams said.
He follows the advice even today, doing a mental evaluation following each performance.
“I work to keep improving all of the time. I know last night I did a really good show. Tonight, I’ll try and do a better one,” Williams said.
It’s an admirable trait for a man who has achieved so much in his long career. He’s sung for presidents and a princess (Princess Grace) was close friends with Bobby Kennedy, and worked with legends like Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. He has 11 gold albums, three platinum records and three Emmy Awards, which he displays on his piano in his dressing room. This year, he received the Judy Garland Life Time Achievement Award.
At this stage in his life, Williams says he’s discovered the pure pleasure of being an entertainer and has no thoughts of retiring. Williams divides his time between the Palm Springs area in California and his Branson home, which overlooks a golf course and Table Rock Lake. He and his wife share their home with three rescue dogs, one of which accompanies Williams daily to the theater. He regularly plays golf (he says the courses in Branson are quite good) when not working or relaxing with his wife at home. He says he doesn’t go out much, but prefers to go home after a show and relax with a glass of wine while watching Bill O’Reilly on television. It truly is a wonderful life, and he’s savoring it to the fullest.
“I don’t feel 83–more like 65. When you feel good, look good and sing good, why let age become a factor?” he said.
The man has a point.
Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Midwest Traveler.