You can’t go to Branson, Missouri without listening to country music.
So what brought legendary pop singer Andy Williams to town?
Peter uncovers that bit of history, along with some personal stories about himself that you definitely didn’t know about, in his recent conversation with Andy Williams.
Peter Greenberg: Mr. Andy Williams, so great to have you.
Andy Williams: It is great to see you again. I haven’t seen you in a long time.
AW: That’s right, Dr. Greenberg. And we met in his office.
PG: We met in his office, and I was a young kid. I had seen you on TV with the sweater. In fact when I first saw you, you weren’t a solo singer. You were with the brothers.
AW: I was with the Williams brothers. And I was probably with Kay Thompson at that point.
PG: Another point of full disclosure, basically my godmother.
AW: I know, I can’t believe it. I didn’t know that. And I didn’t know about your mother either, Jill.
PG: My mother, Jill, who was a singer with the big bands. She sang with Joe Stafford, and Margaret Whiting, and Helen O’Connell.
AW: I remember her very well. Good singer.
PG: And my mom moved to New York at the end of World War II to sing with The Perry Como Chesterfield Show.
AW: She got you on the show, I assume?
PG: Well, here’s the real story. My mom did not want to be a stage mother. She had to see somebody on the Perry Como show one day, and she had nobody to leave me with, so she took me. I was 6 years old at the time. They were rehearsing the annual Christmas special where he was singing to all the kids around the campfire…
AW: Absolutely, I stole that whole idea.
PG: I wanted to be one of those kids, and they had to explain to me that I couldn’t because it was the director’s kid, and the producer’s kid. Obviously I didn’t take the news well, and I cried. The next year they were rehearsing for the show and they wanted a kid with a really sad-looking face! And that is how I got the job. I was on for the next six years singing and dancing. By the way, I never saw myself because in those days it was all live.
AW: That’s right.
PG: And there were kinescopes, but some idiot at NBC burned them.
AW: They burned all of the good kinescopes back then. The Steve Allen Show— I started on that—they burned most of those. They figured they weren’t important.
Check out Peter’s more recent TV segments in our TV/Video section.
PG: Unbelievable. So much history. So I have to ask you the question: What brought you to Branson?
AW: I came here because my brother Don, who was managing Ray Stevens, a country artist. He was opening here, and he had a theater. Don said to me, “You really ought to come down and see what is going on here, because this is a very unusual place.” He told me they had 20 theaters here.
AW: No, never. I said, “Where the hell is Branson?” That got me into a little trouble since people in Branson didn’t like that.
But there were a lot of people who didn’t know where Branson was. A lot of people today even, you know? Like Ethel Kennedy doesn’t even know where Missouri is, you know?
AW: I mean they are really living in their own world, people who living in some of the big cities, and they don’t think anything happens around outside of their cities.
Learn more with our Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Branson, Missouri.
PG: So your eyes were opened when you got here.
AW: My eyes were opened, and Don said, “Listen, you’d be the first non-country to come here if you did this.” And I said, “Why would I come here and give up what I’ve been doing to come to a little Ozark town?” He said, “Well just come down and see what it is.” So I came down, went to see Ray Stevens, and after the show, about 200 people came by and said, “Why don’t you come by and sing? We never get a chance to go to Las Vegas. We don’t go to New York, and we’d really love to see you.”
I was tired of working Vegas; I was tired of working New Jersey. I was just tired of traveling all over, and it seemed like a very good idea. So I sold my apartment in New York, sold my orange groves and citrus groves in California, and a plunked down $12 million and I built a beautiful theater.
More destination-centric travel in our Midwestern Travel section.
PG: And gee, what would the name of that theater be?
AW: It just happens to be named the Andy Williams Moon River Theater. And we have a restaurant across the street called the Andy Williams Moon River Grill.
PG: You also did a book called Moon River and Me. If you read the book, you realize that there are just more stories than just Moon River. In fact, there was a time in your career when you were actually eating dog food.
AW: Well, I ate dog food for a day or two.
PG: That is a time in your career.
AW: I was not doing well, let’s say. I was singing in these little dives where nobody know who I was. They knew me as a Williams Brother, but they didn’t know me as Andy Williams. And so nobody would listen to me. It was very disheartening when people get up and dance while you’re singing. You’re supposed to be doing your act and the people get up and have a beer and throw it at you and things like that. So I was desperate. I was out of money, and I had a dog with me. His name was Barnaby he was a boxer. I traveled with him occasionally. I was just doing terribly bad, and I had to feed my dog. So I got Alpo dog food, with big chunks of meat in it, gravy …
PG: … and beef by-products.
Save money, without resorting to dog food: Budget Travel section.
AW: Well, yes, probably horse meat. I would go on the air and do a promotion for Alpo, and when I was cooking it for him, it smelled so good that I just decided to taste it. I finished the can after he had finished his portion. Then the next day I had another can because I still had to feed the dog. And so I got another can. Then I called my brother Don in Los Angeles and said, “Will you send me enough money to get out of here?” I didn’t have enough money to get a bus ticket back to New York.
AW: So he sent me the money, wired me the money, and I went back to New York. Eventually I then got on the Steve Allen Tonight Show. Bill Harbach was a good friend of mine, and he was producing the show. And he said, “Steve Allen is looking for another…” And I said who is Steve Allen? Pat Weaver, the head of NBC…
PG: Sigourney Weaver’s father.
AW: That’s right … he had decided he was going to start three new shows. He was going to start The Today Show, a show called Home in the afternoon, and a late evening show called The Tonight Show. They had two singers already, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, and they wanted two more because they were going network now. So I auditioned for him and got the job. I stayed with the show for about two and half years. That was the beginning of my television career.
Check out more great interviews: Radio Show Guest List from Branson
PG: And then, Johnny Mercer.
AW: Johnny Mercer was a wonderful, wonderful writer. I loved Johnny, and he wrote a lot of the songs that Henry Mancini wrote the music to, and many of which I recorded. Many of which I recorded. Moon River, Wine and Roses, Charade, In the Arms of Love, and I had a love affair with Henry Mancini. I mean I just thought he was the best thing. I worked with Henry for a long time.
PG: You’re performing those songs still?
AW: Yeah still, a lot of them. They’re great songs.
PG: How often are you performing in Branson?
AW: I used to perform here I’ll tell you that, nine months a year, two shows a day, six days a week. Now I’m down to four months a year. I open September second. I work September, October, November, and half of December, and that’s enough. We put on a variety show like my old television shows were with guest stars. A lot of singing, a lot of dancing, a lot of choreography, great dancers, and acts that are wonderful.
PG: How long have you been living in Branson now?
AW: This will be the 19th year this season. I had no idea, really, when I started this whole transition, what would happen. I didn’t go to someone else’s theater and say, “Let me try for two weeks.”
PG: And now you’re the king of the Ozarks.
By Peter Greenberg for Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio.
For more on Andy Williams, visit his official Web site here.
Listen to the Branson show online here:
- Hour 1 – Silver Dollar City & Branson History
- Hour 2 – Branson Guide & Branson Musicians
- Hour 3 – Branson Travel & Andy Williams
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Peter’s Travel Detective Blog
- Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Branson, Missouri
- Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Kansas City, Missouri
- Travel in the Midwestern USA
- Let’s Get Political: Presidential Libraries & Museums
- Radio Show Guest List from Branson
- Theme Parks section