Pursuit of a dream leads Presleys onto the airwaves and into the caves

Lloyd, right, and Gary (Herkimer) Presley at Fantastic Caverns in the early 1960s.

Building and opening Branson’s first live music theatre, on the now famous “Branson Strip,” took more than a dream. That doesn’t mean however, like many of life’s sterling accomplishments, it didn’t start with a dream and, become realized because of its passionate pursuit.

The longtime dream of Lloyd Presley, the family’s father, was to be able to play music for a living. It was a dream he never gave up. Even as he married the love of his life, Bessie Mae, in 1942; started a trucking firm delivering produce to grocery stores in Springfield, Missouri; and began a family in 1943, he played and sang whenever he had a chance.

In the early 1940’s, he teamed up with the Luttrell Brothers to form a bluegrass group called the “Ozark Playboys.” The group became a staple performing all over southwest, Missouri just about everywhere and anytime they had an invitation to perform. The talent and passion of their performances increased their popularity to the point where KGBX, a radio station in Springfield, Missouri, invited them to put on a local show once a week. That show, “Saturday Night Jamboree” immediately preceded the stations’ nationwide broadcast of the “Grand Ole Opry.” They also played live on Springfield’s KWTO “the station that launched the careers of such country music legends as Chet Atkins, Porter Wagoner, and June Carter Cash.”

The second generation of the Presleys, “filled in” with the births of Deanna, Gary, Janice, and Steve. The young family regularly went to Lloyd’s performances together. In what should have been a surprise to no one, the kids, “of their own choice,” and without formal lessons, taught themselves to play and sing.

Loyd Evans, a promoter and a deejay at KGBX, had acted as the emcee with the “Ozark Playboys” on the popular long running radio show, “The Country Caravan.” In 1962, he arranged for the Presleys to perform every Saturday night in the 1000 seat auditorium of “Springfield’s Fantastic Caverns.” The show, “Farmarama,” was recorded for re-broadcast on KGBX later. It featured Lloyd, 18-year-old Deanna and ten-year-old Janice as vocalists, and 14-year-old Gary on guitar.

Evans thought the show could use some comedy. The result was 15-Year-Old-Gary creating the hilarious character “Herkimer.” Ever since, “Herkimer’s” been making audiences laugh as a highlight feature of the Presleys’ shows.

There was yet another cave for the Presleys to visit on the way to opening their own theatre on Highway 76 near Branson. Monday through Friday nights, Lloyd, Gary, and Janice performed in “The Tri-Lakes Opry” show at the “Under Ground Theatre,” a cave near Branson. The show was produced by Bob White and was also recorded for re-broadcast and syndication all over the Midwest.

While performing at the Underground Theatre, the Presleys realized two things. The first was the importance of air conditioning to an audience. The second was that it was time to realize the dream of owning their own theatre. Stepping out on faith; the result was the building of Branson’s first live music theatre on the now famous “Branson Strip.” On June 30,1967, the air conditioned “Presleys’ Theatre” opened, featuring the first performance of, what has become one of Branson’s most popular and beloved shows, Presleys’ Country Jubilee.