Fort Worth

‘Belle of Branson’ Chisai Childs developed Tarrant opry scene first

Chisai Childs was “quite the flamboyant character,” said Rocky Gribble, who succeeded her as producer of the Grapevine Opry in the early 1980s after Childs left North Texas for the upstart Branson entertainment scene.
Chisai Childs was “quite the flamboyant character,” said Rocky Gribble, who succeeded her as producer of the Grapevine Opry in the early 1980s after Childs left North Texas for the upstart Branson entertainment scene.

Chisai Childs was, by all accounts in her native Fort Worth and adopted home of Branson, Mo., a savvy entertainment entrepreneur, an enthusiastic friend and definitely one snappy dresser.

“She was quite the flamboyant character,” said Rocky Gribble, who succeeded her as producer of the Grapevine Opry in the early 1980s after Ms. Childs left North Texas for the upstart Branson entertainment scene.

Ms. Childs, 69, collapsed suddenly at her home near Branson on March 1 and was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later of an apparent heart attack, friends said.

Her husband of almost three months, David Burbee, was with her when she was stricken.

Friends from her years in the North Texas entertainment industry spoke of her enthusiasm and showmanship.

Ms. Childs, who graduated from Paschal High School, opened her original Starlite Theatre in Branson in 1981, and quickly became an influential person in the Ozark town that was becoming a mid-America entertainment hub.

Bill Brooks, a Bedford-based minister, voice-over artist and producer, began his musical career in the late 1970s and early ’80s as half of the Brooks Brothers country vocal group with his brother Randy, who now lives in New York.

Ms. Childs was still in Texas when Brooks met her and the late Johnnie High, of Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue fame, with whom she partnered at the Grapevine Opry. She was also a dance instructor.

“We worked together and I knew her since 1980,” said Brooks, who had moved to North Texas from his native New Mexico. “We were her house band at the Grapevine Opry.”

That relationship changed somewhat abruptly, Brooks recalled. “One day, she announced (to the Grapevine audience) that she had sold the theater, and she and the show’s regulars, they all moved to Branson together.”

The Brooks Brothers stayed in Texas, though Ms. Childs did not cut ties.

“Because of her, we came to Branson, but we did not work with her there,” Brooks said.

“I saw her last when she performed at the Weatherford Opry,” he recalled. The show was a special one, for her friends and classmates from Paschal.

Terry Beene, Ms. Childs’ business partner and close friend, created his own annual awards show for local entertainers in North Texas nearly 40 years ago, aptly named the Terry Awards.

Ms. Childs helped him “take it to a new level” in Branson four years ago, he said, where the Terry Awards really caught on with locals.

Beene lives in Georgia, and plans to continue his Branson awards show with a special honor named in Ms. Childs’ memory.

Joy Roberts, Fort Worth-based gospel singer and Opry performer, has known Ms. Childs for about five years through Terry Beene.

“Knowing her, she was running, like nonstop,” Roberts said of Ms. Childs’ sudden death. Roberts praised Ms. Childs’ talent for production and stylish flair, particularly through the Terry Awards.

“There’s a red carpet, and 20 to 30 awards, and scholarships are given out,” she said. “It is the event of the year in Branson. I got to sing on one of them.”

Branson has 110 shows a day, Roberts said, and she and Ms. Childs often partnered to conduct bus tours and Christmas lights tours to Branson.

Even Ms. Childs’ memorial service on March 5 was a headline-grabbing event in Branson.

“It was a big, big deal,” Beene said. “About 700 people showed up. They had her service at the Baldknobbers Country Music Theatre. Then they took her down to where her old theater was built, then we took her down the Strip (Highway 76) for one last ride.”

Everyone in Branson knew Ms. Childs, Beene said.

“She had done so much in Branson, brought all kinds of people there and built new theaters,” Beene said of his business partner. They talked every day, sometimes several times.

“They all called her the Belle of Branson because when she first went up there, they (the entertainers in the hillbilly-themed shows of the time) were dressing up in bib overalls,” Beene said. “And she put them all in sequins, in glitz.”

Ms. Childs built her first theater, the Starlite, when there were only a handful of showplaces strewn along Highway 76, Beene said. Ms. Childs eventually built a newer, bigger Starlite Theatre and even a theme park.

“She was an entrepreneur,” he said, “a persuasive person.”

Beene had been staging his Terry Awards in North Texas for 35 years, and had been trying to relocate them to Branson for some time.

“About four years ago, I finally got to take my Terry Awards to a different level,” thanks to Ms. Childs’ help in producing and promoting the show, Beene said.

“She had slowed down a little, then got real active again when I moved up there with the Terry Awards,” Beene said. “That kinda brought her back to life. She started getting back in the scene again, and saw all the shows up there with the Terry Awards. That was her life.”

Since Ms. Childs headed the nominating committee for the awards, Beene said, he would visit Branson several times a year and go with her to see the club musicians and theater singers, the dancers and comedy acts.

“It’s just a great loss,” Beene said of Ms. Childs’ death. “It will be a big void without Chisai bouncing around off the walls.”

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