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Exodus in the Ozarks

Pam Mandel | Longreads | June 4, 2018 | 2,441 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Nonfiction, Story, Unapologetic Women

Exodus in the Ozarks

At a theater in Branson, Missouri, Pam Mandel finds an unexpected plot twist in a very familiar story.
Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Pam Mandel | Longreads | June 2018 | 10 minutes (2,441 words)

“Well, what are you doing all the way out…here? How’d you find this place?”

The question wasn’t fair. Billygail’s Cafe is only ten miles outside Branson, Missouri. Sure, it’s on a country road, and sure, it feels like you’ve found something special, but it’s listed on Trip Advisor and USA Today and showed up on an episode Man vs. Food on the Travel Channel. Use Yelp to find breakfast while you’re in Branson and you’ll get Billygail’s.

The real question was not what I was doing at Billygail’s. The answer to that was easy: I was there to muscle my way through a gorgeous 14-inch plate-obscuring sourdough pancake. The bigger question was, what was I doing in Branson?

The short answer is I was in Branson for a conference and to see a place I’d never been before. There’s little I like more than going somewhere new and finding out I’m wrong about it — and for a writer, no surer way to find a great story. My previous exposure to Branson was limited to a 1996 episode of The Simpsons. Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Martin take a road trip, detouring through Branson to catch a performance by Nelson’s unlikely hero, Andy Williams. I didn’t buy the Simpson’s vision wholesale. I looked at Google, too, and found plenty of references to the show scene — and to country music. I’d baked extra time in my trip to explore — and to catch at least one country music show.

“Yeah, you could do that,” said the conference organizer who helped me plan my travel. “And yeah, there’s music here, but there’s this… other thing.” She pointed me to the website for Sight and Sound, a 2000 seat theater that stages multimedia spectacles based in the Bible. The current production? Moses.

A bad West coast Jew, I know little of my inherited theology. But like many of my Jewish friends and family, I know three or four things about the story of Moses — kind of the cornerstone story of the Jewish faith. Plus, Passover — the holiday where we eat matzoh ball soup and recount how Moses led “the chosen people” out of Egypt into the Promised Land — happens to be my favorite holiday. So, while Dolly’s Stampede is the most popular attraction in Branson, and there’s plenty of wholesome country western cabaret, I couldn’t resist this opulent retelling of the history of the Jewish people.

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