TRI-LAKES CENTER LEADS A DOUBLE LIFE
By Dawn Erickson
As one of Branson’s, largest entertainment venues, the Tri-Lakes Center features several high-profile celebrities and is a popular non-traditional site for meetings and events. It is also the full-time home of one of the community’s fastest-growing churches.
Originally built as the Mel Tillis Theater, the Tri-Lakes Center has evolved into a multi-purpose facility, sharing its space to serve a large church congregation as well as other types of audiences.
Overseeing the building’s evolution is a person who has been a mainstay since its construction. Mel Tillis’ daughter, Cindy Westmoreland Shorey, directed marketing of the theater when it was completed in 1994. In 1997, she became general manager. When the theater was sold in 2002, she was invited to remain as general manager. She supervised its transition from full-time theater to full-time church while it retained its success as an entertainment, meeting and event venue.
The vast structure is Branson’s largest multi-purpose building with 2,600 theater seats and more than 150,000 square feet. The lobby’s 20,000 square feet and exhibition halls’ 33,000 square feet can accommodate 3,000 people comfortably.
Church shares space with shows and events
“It was a matter of sharing the space,” said Shorey. “There was a marketing challenge when the name changed to Tri-Lakes Center. We had to re-educate returning visitors that we would continue to have shows.”
Tri-Lakes Center features a stellar lineup of entertainers in limited-run productions. “Dino Kartsonakis walks in both worlds,” Shorey said. “He’s a Branson performer and an international celebrity, and a very successful Christian artist. We owe a lot to Dino.
“Of course, we’re thrilled to have Mel Tillis back in the theater he created. Daniel O’Donnell was a rising star in Branson when his management approached us before the theater was sold. We talked again after it became Tri-Lakes Center, and Daniel has become an anchor for us. He has sold out nearly all his performances and taped his PBS series here. (He has) a spectacular group of entertainers.”
The television taping is another element of the broad vision that went into the original construction. The facility was built for television production and has hosted such productions as a Hurricane Katrina benefit show, Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon uplink from Branson, and O’Donnell’s PBS series. “I believe television will be part of its future,” Shorey said.
Tri-Lakes Center’s future also holds an additional 30,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space, which is being finished at the rear of and beneath the building.
Tri-Lakes Center has developed somewhat of a seasonal event pattern. Spring is a popular time for conferences, summertime features families and children’s events, and the anchor entertainers perform each fall.
Although conferences and meetings are scheduled January through October, many take place in the spring. Shorey said the focus is on larger groups for one-day events to three-day conferences. Twenty-five to 30 events are held each year.
Innovative events set pattern for future
Tri-Lakes Center’s history of special events began when it was still the Mel Tillis Theater. Tillis was performing about 400 shows each year, and his family members began thinking, “What can we do to give Dad some time off?” Shorey said. One of the solutions was to schedule the world famous Beach Boys for a 10-day run. It was the first of a series of innovative events for the theater.
The Tillis theater began promoting “Super Tuesdays,” when Mel and second-generation music legend Pam Tillis performed together for sold-out crowds.
The Tillis theater hosted an annual car auction, which continued after the theater was sold.
It also led the way in ministry events in Branson. Gary Smalley held his marriage conference at Tri-Lakes Center. David Jeremiah, James Dobson and other famous religious leaders have also been part of events at Tri-Lakes Center.
For the first time this past year, Tri-Lakes Center featured “God Rocks,” a family-oriented production, for a six-week run. Shorey said they hope to bring back the popular Canadian production for another season.
And as all this activity has taken place, the community church at Tri-Lakes Center has grown tremendously. At the time the theater was sold to the owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of retail stores, the new owners leased the building to Tri-Lakes Cathedral, an Assemblies of God affiliate. The congregation numbered about 150 members. Since then, membership has quadrupled.
‘Heavenly side of town’
Shorey’s dedication to her workplace is rooted in its history as a family project and extends to the future of the entertainment venue and church. The theater’s location on Missouri Highway 248 was out in the country when it was built in 1994. The theater was annexed into the city of Branson following its completion.
Tri-Lakes Center’s success is one reason that the Hwy. 248 corridor is seeing explosive growth.
“We’re not on the ‘Strip,’ but we’re only a few minutes away from it,” Shorey said. She names other faith-based attractions in the Hwy. 248 neighborhood. The new “Sight and Sound” theater is under construction nearby. Evangelist Jim Bakker hosts his television ministry from a studio in a restaurant just a few blocks away. Mansion America, a theater that features the popular Christian production “The Promise,” is also a neighbor.
“We like to think we’re on the ‘heavenly side of town,’” she said with a smile.
Family, faith and patriotism
When Shorey agreed to stay with Tri-Lakes Center as its manager, she made one request. She wanted to move into her father’s office. She did, and the pastor of the new church moved into her former office. She works from her father’s desk and his antique corner bookcase is a focal point. Her father divides his time among Nashville, Florida and Branson.
When Mel Tillis announced the sale of the theater and its future purpose as a church, he said, “I’m not worried about the theater now, it’s in God’s hands and you can’t get any better than that.”
“Dad is overjoyed by how his facility has been used,” Shorey said. “The activities in this building have touched many people.”
Tri-Lakes Center’s auditorium fills with audience members, the exhibition halls fill with conference attendees, and on Sundays, the lobby area fills with Sunday school classes. Shorey sees the center’s dual purpose as a living example of the characteristics that attract millions of people to Branson each year.
Branson’s entertainment industry has never hesitated to show its three-sided foundation – family values, faith and patriotism. Those elements are a staple of many of the music shows and are often met with standing ovations. Those elements join under one roof every day at Tri-Lakes Center.
Center offers versatility, professionalism
The center’s versatility makes it a popular choice with planners of larger meetings and conferences who want to combine business with the entertainment offered in Branson. As an alternative to a traditional conference center, Tri-Lakes Center can accommodate thousands of people. The business portion of conferences can be conducted from a broad stage with state-of-the-art lighting and sound, with attendees positioned comfortably in theater style seating. “We excel in stage production,” Shorey said. Stage professionals are on staff and available for conferences and meetings.
Meals and banquets from box lunches to prime rib dinners may be prepared in-house or brought in from other professional caterers.
The Branson Hall, Parnell Room and Hobby Lobby Room are available for a variety of uses, and the Exhibition Hall and Lobby offer enough space for almost any activity. Outdoor events may also be arranged on the Center’s many acres of paved parking lots.
In-house ticketing and assistance with the event registration process are also offered at Tri-Lakes Center.
Accommodations for conference attendees can be arranged with many comfortable lodgings located near the theater or a short distance away.
“Another element that makes Branson unique is the cooperative spirit among the businesses,” Shorey said. Lodgings, restaurants and attractions are always eager to become partners and co-promoters for events, she said.
(Dawn Erickson is a contributing writer from Branson, Mo.)
For more information, contact
P.O. Box 610
Branson, MO 65615
Phone: 417-335-5715 ext. 224
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.trilakescenter.com