Andy Williams runs stage marathon

The performer gives Moon River Theatre a sophisticated touch

Ronald Reagan once called his voice "a national treasure."

And Andy Williams's Moon River Theatre - named after his signature tune - in this big little town could be described in a similar manner.

A showplace of contemporary design, Mr. Williams opened Moon River in 1992. The theater is invitingly landscaped with a naturalized pond and colorful carp; rocks indigenous to the area make a strong presence out front.

Williams has perhaps the most elegant theater in Branson. Similar to Frank Lloyd Wright's ideas in linear space and light, Moon River is decorated with contemporary paintings and sculpture, as well as Williams's extensive collection of antique Navajo blankets and tapestries.

"I put a lot of myself into the theater, and I wanted it to represent what I feel that I am ...," he says pointedly of his sophisticated style.

At his home nearby, Williams greets this reporter looking tanned and fit. The man and his California contemporary surroundings were a perfect complement. This is his lair, complete with a private courtyard. Williams takes a seat in a Windsor rocker which forces him to "sit up straight."

Williams then starts talking about the path leading to his comfortable lifestyle today, and recalls his early introduction into broadcasting.

He was just eight years old when the Williams brothers first performed on radio station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. The family moved from Wall Lake, Iowa, to Chicago so that the brothers could become regulars on WLS, broadcasting the National Barn Dance twice on Saturdays, and a Bible show on Sunday mornings. Later, the family moved to Cincinnati, where the boys were featured on Time to Shine for Station WLW.

After relocating to Los Angeles, the Williams brothers, then just teenagers, signed a seven-year motion picture contract with MGM, making six pictures in a three-year period with such stars as Donald O'Connor and Deanna Durbin.

Later, when Andy was only 16, the brothers teamed with Kay Thompson to become one of the highest paid nightclub and theater acts in the country for the next four years.

Andy was just 20 years old when his big break came. The brothers had disbanded to pursue other individual interests. The late Steve Allen hired him as a solo act on his show where Williams, alternating with Steve Lawrence, began to carve out a niche for himself as a silken-voiced crooner of ballads.

"[The Williams Brothers] broke up because we'd been together forever, and everybody ... wanted to do other things." Thoughtful for a moment, he continues, "but when that happened, and I decided to sing alone, that was really difficult. Very lonely."

Nevertheless, his first solo record, "Canadian Sunset" in 1956 was an immediate hit, and from there he earned 18 gold and three platinum records in the US alone.

Williams revisited the silver screen, pairing with Sandra Dee in "I'd Rather Be Rich." The film did well, but Williams kept busy with his own television show, which garnered him three Emmys during its nine-year run.

"I got involved in politics with Bobby Kennedy," said Williams, "but that was only because I knew him, and I liked him so much, even though I was a Republican - my father was a Republican, so I was a Republican."

During the years to follow, Williams performed live in the US and abroad. Then, in 1991, Williams focused his attention on Branson.

"Although I don't talk about it very much, I believe very strongly in the family. I came from a fairly large family, and we were all very close. Living in a little town like Wall Lake, 700 people, you know everybody, and everything is built around the family.

"One of the regrets that I have about my career is that I didn't spend enough time with my family.... My children are grown up, so it's different now. I have my wife [Debbie] and my three dogs. And I've learned how to have our time together...."

Branson has been called "a mecca for aging artists," but performing two major shows a day, six days a week for about nine months a year is rigorous stuff, and Williams has been keeping that kind of schedule since he opened the theater. Recently, however, he decided to cut back to four months.

The live Williams show in Branson showcases his hit songs, and is laced with production numbers. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Williams's comedy routine, guaranteed to tickle even the most serious person. Williams's latest CD, "In the Lounge with Andy Williams," featuring "Music to Watch Girls By" is reportedly much in demand in London.

Williams says he was never a good entertainer at banquets or benefits where the shows are thrown together.

"There has to be a quality to it. If it isn't my own rhythm section, my own band, something I feel proud of, I'm not very good."

Andy Williams will perform his annual Christmas show at the Moon River Theatre through Dec. 9. For tickets, call 417-334-4500.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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