Fifth-grade violinists from Grandview, TX, Elementary School are accustomed to taking Branson, MO, by storm, but this year they wowed audiences despite the “double whammy” of rainstorms and a pandemic.
Founder-director Vicki Nichols, who has taken the Zebra Strings to Branson for 15 consecutive years on a chartered bus, opted out last spring when COVID-19 dangers overruled.
Contagion fears nixed bus travel this year for the 500-mile trip, so the 33 youngsters set out with parents in personal vehicles, arriving in the Ozark entertainment mecca a few hours before their first of three “pre-show” programs. Their 30-minute sets preceded two-hour “regular shows” at the Presleys, Clay Cooper and Haygood Theatres on Thursday through Saturday nights. (The Haygoods’ emcee said they have a hundred student performances throughout the year, but that the Zebra Strings are “the best.”)
In jeans and colorful shirts, they were living proof of what a dedicated musical professional like Vicki can do, working magic year after year in a program where youngsters practice only at school. (If they do practice at home, it’s with their own fiddles and bows.)
Each year when the youngsters roll into Branson, several “firsts” are recorded for many of them. For some, it’s their first trip out of state, and for most, it’s the first time they’ve laid eyes on a small town in the Ozarks that now has more than 100 entertainment venues and is viewed as one of the premiere family entertainment destinations in the United States.
At the opening show, one of the students questioned why they were seated in the auditorium for the main attraction. “I thought we were the show,” he said. (Little wonder that Grandview fifth-graders later reminisce at graduation that their trip to Branson was the highlight of their public school years.)
They close each show with a grand rendition of Amazing Grace, which is almost always followed by a rousing standing ovation.
The Strings have performed at numerous other well-known venues, including the Grand Old Opry in Nashville and at Bass Hall in Fort Worth.
At Bass Hall, Vicki forgot to bring her Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes, so she directed the group wearing her colorful tennis shoes. Oh, well, that’s what storyteller Garrison Keillor wears on stage, so she was in good company.
There were good-humored conversations about the difference in violins and fiddles. One of the youngsters claimed that violins have strings and fiddles have “strangs.”
Hard to argue that!
Though automobile windshield wipers ran during most of their three-day trip, the Strings found some indoor attractions to their liking. They enjoyed a luncheon buffet together, and “wowed” there, too, impressing staff and patrons with their “Yes ma’ams and yes sirs.”
Vicki and her colleagues seem committed to “old school” values that are heavy on courtesy and patriotism.
They make sure that they extend sincere “thank you’s” to responses of appreciative audiences. (It’s fun to listen to audience “chatter” after the Strings finish. How the youngsters manage to develop such talent in a single year mystifies them, just as it does us.
The children, of course, were eager to seek professionals’ autographs in Branson. During a “main” show intermission, one of the violinists asked an adult vocalist for an autograph. “What shall I write it on?” the professional asked. “Just sign your name right there,” the boy said, pointing to a cowboy boot he’d hoisted on a stage stool. (He may never shine that boot again!)
It’s a great blessing that the some two-dozen automobiles made it to and from Branson without incident.
Brenda and I should have been so lucky. We had two flat tires in the driving rain. In both cases, however, there was enough air left in the tires to pull into tire shops within 15 miles of picking up a nail and a screw.
So, we were blessed, too, and always are when we hear the Zebra Strings.