By Gerrye Wong
Whenever one talks about the small Missouri town of Branson, the first fact says that it offers over 100 shows in its up to 20 theatres. The second sentence out will be that the best show that is everyone’s favorite is that of the Shoji Tabuchi Family, Branson USA’s first family of extraordinary musical entertainment. Since 1981, everyone coming to Branson in love with American music is enthralled with the Tobuchi family’s brand of wholesome family entertainment that is as glitzy and exciting as any Las Vegas production.
Although I had long heard of Shoji and his exceptional drawing power in his state-of-the-art 2000 seat theater, our meeting was quite by accident. Rushing to experience the brand new Payne Stewart Golf Course one early morning, I glanced at the fellow in the cart ready to play in front of me. Seeing his black hair, I said – “Hello! You’re the first Asian I’ve come across here in middle America, Branson, Missouri.” When the tall fellow turned around, gave a smile and said, “Oh really?”, I suddenly recognized from the playboards around town, this was Branson’s famous star, Shoji Tabuchi, ready to use his nimble fingers on a golf club instead of his trusty violin. Branson IS a small town!
I mentioned to Shoji I was looking forward to coming to see his show that very afternoon right after my golf game, so he gave me his number to look him up after the show. Imagine my delighted surprise when during his performance, among those special groups he welcomed, he said “And I welcome a new friend I met this morning on the golf course, and by the way, Gerrye – how did you score?” The only retort I could squeak out was – “Not as well as you, Shoji, that’s for sure!” to which he replied, “Well, let’s play together next time!” Be still, my beating heart! Branson’s biggest star – Shoji Tabuchi wanted to play golf with ME? Wonders never cease.
Following the show, I had the opportunity to meet with Shoji and his young daughter, Christina, in his office adorned with many of his photos – his favorites, he said, being the one of him with a large hanging dolphin he had caught in Maui, and the second one, he holding his ball that captured his first Hole-In-One title.
How did a Japanese violinist from Japan come to be the top performer of middle America’s town of Branson? As Shoji told it, it is a story of a love for music, a determination to play his violin, and an American dream fulfilled. With just $500 in his pocket with another $100 hidden in his shoe, Shoji came to the United States to fulfill his desire to play country music. He had grown up in an affluent family in Osaka, Japan, where he was expected to follow his father, an exec with Japan Rayon-Nylon and later president of Thai Nylon Company, into the corporate world. His mother insisted he take violin lessons and enrolled him as a Suzuki student at age seven. During his college years, curiosity led him to attend a concert headlined by legendary Roy Acuff, and he fell in love with American country music. He met Acuff who told him,”If you ever come to the United States, look me up.”
Shoji’s love of American country music continued to grow but it wasn’t until 1968 when upon meeting Acuff again, Roy invited him to the Grand Ole Opry again. This time Shoji wasted no time, drove to Nashville and fiddled his way into the hearts of country music fans, and at the Opry, giving him two standing ovations. Ultimately he has played the Opry 27 times.
Playing with legendary country music artist, David Houston, Shoji spent the next six years touring the country as a featured act and made his home in Bossier City. In no time, his name and virtuoso talent spread throughout the country, bringing him deserved standing ovations. He likes to recall playing with the “best of them” such as Marty Robbins, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and many other country music world stars. During his busy touring days, he journeyed through a small hamlet in the Ozarks called Branson and it was love at first sight due to its idyllic setting.
The rest is history!
Shoji with wife and partner, Dorothy, herself a lovely dancer and singer, bring thousands of fans back every year to enjoy their spectacular shows. Dorothy produces the sparkling family variety show bringing surround sound, wireless mikes and laser animation, and rhythmic Taiko drums featuring the 2000 pound Odaiko drum. Daughter Christina has been featured in the show since she was 6, and as she told us, “What better life could I have had than being guided by two talented parents in the exciting world of show business, yet growing up with good old-fashioned family values.” The lovely blonde Christina’s talents are divided between her family’s Branson shows and carving a career for herself in Nashville’s music scene.
Everyone coming to Shoji’s shows are amazed that he is on stage performing during most of his over hour and a half long show, and his warmth and good humor, simple as it seems, wins his audiences over immediately. He’s completely happy being based in Branson at his own dream of a theater which is reminiscent of the grand theatre palaces of the 1930′s. Called often “the Showplace of Branson”, the theater’s awed audiences have an extra treat before they leave. The bathrooms are a feature no one wants to miss, and the lines to come into the show are equally matched by the lines going into the ladies and men’s rooms.
The ladies’ powder room is complete with wainscoting and ceiling reproduced from the 1890′s Empire Period where cut orchids adorn the long row of black granite and onyx pedestal sinks shining amidst the stained glass windows and magnificent chandeliers. The gentlemen’s lounge is no less imposing with black lion head sinks imported from Italy, black leather chairs and a marble fireplace. A billiard room features a hand carved mahogany billiard table, a viewing gallery of fancy chairs alongside a burled walnut mirror from the 1860s. Yes, the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre featuring Dorothy’s decorating talents, leaves the patron’s eyes as well as ears well satisfied, and there is an atmosphere of happy faces and toes tapping as they leave Branson’s amazing productions to homes in all parts of the world.
In recognition of the family’s philanthropic contributions to Branson’s community schools and hospital, Shoji received the Daughters of the American Revolution Americanism Award, presented to an outstanding naturalized citizen who has distinguished himself by achievements and giving back to his country. He was also presented the Foreign Minister of Japan Award in 2006 which is awarded to recognize those who have shown outstanding contributions to the promotion of goodwill and mutual understanding between their country and Japan.
Shoji sent me home carrying a handful of tapes from his shows which we enjoyed listening to his violin playing in the car traveling away from Branson, this hidden gem of entertainment in Missouri. He told me, “My American dream was having the opportunity to live and work in this wonderful country, playing the music I love with my family by my side. I advise all young people to follow their dreams, work hard and surround themselves with positive people, because I am one example of that old saying – “Dreams do come true!”
Maybe mine will someday – to play golf with Shoji and be entertained at his luxury theatre to listen to his violin playing at its best! See you at his November/December holiday shows? His invitation is open to all, and he looks forward to seeing more Asian Americans come to meet him in his middle America setting. Believe me, Shoji’s talent is only matched by his friendliness and sincerity. Join the thousands who come and love him!