A Little Helping Hand

What do the following entertainers have in common? Shoji Tabuchi, Doug Gabriel, Jess Hudson, Michael and Kelly Jackson, the Texans, Buddy Green, Terry McBride, Lori Locke, George Giddens,Chisai4 Fred Carpenter, John Paul Cody, Linda Davis, Cliff Wagner, David Evans, Shauna Smith, Sami and David Straub, Bill and Randy Brooks, the late BoxCar Willie, Buck Trent, Johnny Long, Bill Holden, Jack Robertson, Susan Hudson, Scott Reiley, Joe Tinoco, Lonnie Smith, Craig White, Rick Inman, Randy Hardison, Dennis Parsons, Steve Tennehill, Kenny Walker, Kimberly Dawn, Dean Church, Shane Vorhaban, David Milligan, Greg Bailey, Jerry Dykes, David Houseman, Ava Barber, and many others.

Answer: They all had their first regular performing job in Branson with Chisai Childs at her Starlite Theatre on West Hwy. 76 between 1981 and 1988.

There’s a story behind every one of those names and Chisai is working on a book to tell them.

Some short notes include: Shoji Tabuchi is now amazing audiences’in his own theater. Doug Gabriel has had his own show for several years and is now performing in the new Starlite Theater.

Jess Hudson and Jerry Dykes are performing as “The Two Old Cats.” Michael and Kelly Jackson brought their Texas Goldminers to Branson and performed for many years and are now at the Lowe’s new BransonTown USA theater. The Texans (the Masters Four when they came to Branson) had their own show for years.

Terry McBride, who played bass for Chisai, formed McBride and the Ride and made history. Lori Locke, who started with Chisai when she was 12 years old, is now performing on Splinter Middleton’s Down Home Show at the 76 Music Hall. Shauna Smith is presently staying at home caring for her baby.

George Giddens performed on Campbell’s Ozark Country Jubilee and other area shows and is now with the Jim Owen morning show in Branson and the Pine Mountain Jamboree in Eureka Springs, AR., in the evening.

Fred Carpenter played fiddle at the Starlite and is now with Emmy Lou Harris. Linda Davis is now a major country music star. Cliff Wagner, who was the first non-country performer in Branson with his singing and dancing, is now with the Presleys.

David Evans played keyboard for several Branson shows and is now in the ministry full time.

David Straub had his own show before being killed in an attempt to rescue young men on Baird Mountain. His widow, Sami, performed with the Presleys and is now in full-time ministry with her new husband, David Stauffer. They have the Sunday morning worship service at the Braschler Theater.

BoxCar Willie bought a Branson theater and performed until his death from leukemia. Buck Trent has his own breakfast show at Wintermute’s Dinner Bell Restaurant. Johnny Long is now with Jeannie Kendall.

Bill Holden performed with Tony Orlando and the ’50s Show. Jack Robertson had two top-100 records on the Billboard charts. Joe Tinoco and Lonnie Smith are now with the Disney organization.

Craig White is now the performance director at the Remington Theater. He and Rick Inman were drummers for Chisai. Randy Hardison went on to the Grand Ole Opry. David Houseman is now producing and directing for his production company, Table Rock Entertainment.

Dennis Parsons, Steve Tennehill and Kenny Walker were the first horn section on a Branson show. Kimberly Dawn is recording for RCA. Dean Church has played fiddle for several Branson shows and is now with the Braschlers.

Shane Vorhaban, John Cody’s son, is with the ’50s Show and Remington Theater. David Milligan is with the Presleys’ and has his own recording studio. Greg Bailey has been on several area shows and toured with Loretta Lynn. Eric Steele is with the Platters and Ava Barber is back in Branson on the Welk Show after having her own show at Myrtle Beach.

Bill Brooks formed his own show, “Bill Brooks Family and Friends.” The Cody twins had their own show, “Cody Country,” and Buddy Green performed in his own show.

Greg Bailey was the first band member hired by Chisai after she purchased the theater. “I got the keys and went down to open the theater and Greg was sitting on the ground on his crossed legs,” Chisai said. “I said, ‘Can I help you?’ and Greg said, ‘I come with the theater.’ He went on to say he had been hired and didn’t get to start work before the theater was sold. ‘So, I come with it,’ he said.”

Dean Church attended the Starlite show when he was 14 years old. At intermission, he approached Chisai and said that his dream was to play the fiddle with Shoji Tabuchi. “I asked him if he could play the fiddle and he said he could,” Chisai said. “I put him on the second half of the show and he was able to fulfill a dream as well as get a job.”

Chisai will go down in history for many Branson firsts. They include tributes to Wayne Newton, Tony Orlando, Glen Campbell and Andy Williams, with all of them coming to Branson with their own theaters later. The Starlite did segments of Broadway shows and musical movies with full costume and set changes. They included the Wizard of Oz, Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, West Side Story and Copacabana.

Other firsts included a full-time hair and make-up person backstage; tours of backstage for bus groups; Christmas Special with live two-hour television coverage; New Year’s Eve show; the first show to change its schedule every night; specials for Mothers’ Day, Independence Day and Easter; going year ’round in 1983; first horn section; first dancing other than clogging; first ’50s show on Thursdays and Big Band show on Saturdays; first weekly television show from Branson; first twin baby grand pianos; and first with a stage lift and revolving stage.

The television show, “Chisai and the Ozarks,” was totally paid for by Chisai and featured all Branson performers on Springfield channel 33 at 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Chisai also had the first live radio show from Branson, “BoxCar’s Bandstand.” She was also Branson’s first female to own a Branson show, perform comedy and emcee the show.

Chisai’s dressing room was a favorite of those taking backstage tours. There was a crystal candelabra hanging from the ceiling. Lighted mirrors reflected the racks of costumes with beads and glitter. A Plexiglas wall contained sparkling earrings, combs and necklaces. Widebrimmed hats covered a hall tree and furs and flowers were stored along with more costumes and wigs. All was looked after by a full-time hair dresser and wardrobe mistress.

Chisai’s road to Branson started with her birth in Tokyo, and that explains her first name. She started entertaining at the age of six. After being named Miss Talented Teen in 1965, she toured seven countries, entertaining service men at USO shows.

Chisai owned her own dance studio for many years, teaching all types of dancing from ballet to acrobatics. She has always been interested in country music, along with all other styles of music. She owned the Grapevine Opry in Texas where she made friends with many of the country’s biggest stars when they performed for her show. BoxCar Willie was a regular on the show. The Opry was named the fastest-growing country music show in America. All that led to a performance at the Grand Ole Opry by Chisai.

Chisai entertained by singing, dancing and performing comedy. “If it comes right down to it, I suppose I get more enjoyment out of doing comedy than anything else;’ she said. “My most favorite thing in the world is to make people laugh.”

…from the Branson’s Review — Oct/Nov 1999..

Willie Nelson’s Impromptu Visit to Chishi’s Grapevine Opry…

…( Phil ) York stopped the session ( a recording session with Willie )so that he could drive to Grapevine for the radio broadcast, and Willie, his sister Bobbie, Paul English and Jody Payne tagged along, ….

Miss Childs received a call from York as he ( York ) was leaving the studio in Garland telling her that he would arrive just before the radio portion of the show began, and that he was bringing Willie. She thought York was joking, but soon learned how serious he had been.

“I was in my dressing room, ” Chisai said, “when he came in we shook hands, and he introduced himself. We went backstage, and a local group, the Focal Minority, was performing. They had just finished the second song in a six-song set when Willie said, “I want to play.” I said, “Now?” and he said, “yes.” We were near the end of the first show, with an audience for the second show in the lobby.

I went on stage and told the group they were through. A member of the group argued that they had only sung two songs and they had four more to go. I told them “no, they were through, and Willie and his band started plugging up.” I told the audience they had to get up and let those with tickets for the second show have the seats, but that they didn’t have to leave. We opened the doors to the lobby and then opened the doors to the theater. We soon had a crowd of a couple thousand people spilling into the street.

“Willie didn’t have a bass player with him, so I told my bass player to stay on stage and play with him,” Chisai said. Willie was at the pinnacle of his career, and gave one of the most heartwarming performances he has ever recorded.

He played for 45 minutes, and then moved outside to sign autographs and talk with his fans. He stayed until he had signed everyone’s autograph and had his picture made with everyone that wanted one.

“The performance was great for the Grapevine Opry,” Chisai said. “After that it was cool for world class performers to just drop in at the Opry, and over the next six months it happened again and again. Just because Willie Nelson had made it cool.”

Edited excerpts from “The Story Behind It All” by Dick Cooper

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Judith Mccoy