Terry Sanders, longtime local comedian and actor, is pictured with Silver Dollar City co-founder Jack Herschend in 2016.
BRANSON – For most of his life, Terry Sanders hasn’t been himself.
After all, for nearly 40 years, the Ozarks actor and comedian has spent more of his waking hours as characters he’s created than the man behind the costumes.
To some, he’s Homer Lee, a lovable hillbilly whose photo shines along the Branson theater where he performs. To others, he’s seen while impersonating Joan Rivers, during “Shepherd of the Hills” productions, or on billboards for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
He’s kept law and order as TV’s Barney Fife during Muscular Dystrophy Association “lockups,” and hosted his own show on The Vacation Channel for 18 seasons. In the early 1990s, he even took the national stage for a season on the “Hee Haw” television show.
And it started with Silver Dollar City, where he’s been for 38 years — making him the park’s longest-running actor.
“Right now, I’m working on my fourth generation of people,” says Sanders of his audiences. “Because when I started in 1980, there were these grandparents who had their kids. Well, those kids had kids. And those kids are having kids. And now they’re coming up and saying to their kids ‘I want you to meet Homer Lee!'”
Sanders is living the dream he’s had since he was a child. It began with a trip to Silver Dollar City in 1965, when his grandfather took his family on a summertime getaway.
“We could afford that because, at the time when I was growing up, Silver Dollar City was free,” says Sanders of the family’s efforts to minimize expenses. “I remember because we packed all sorts of provisions. We brought a loaf of bread, some ring bologna and things like that (because) we were on a budget.”
The trip resulted in more than memories for Christmas reminiscing. Ultimately, it launched a lifelong legacy.
“I told them that day, ‘I want to be here,’” says Sanders. “Because I fell in love with Silver Dollar. You had the steam train, and those silly hillbillies. Oh, that was the greatest thing in the world.”
Back at home in Mountain Grove, Sanders spent his school years searching for his strengths — but old-fashioned book-learning wasn’t one of them.
“I would struggle,” says Sanders. “Academics were just horrible. Now, acting classes, art classes, P.E. classes — straight A’s.”
As time progressed, he considered what he might want to do for a career. At one point, he even set his sights on becoming a mortician after one visited the school for career day.
“He was always well-coiffeured,” says Sanders of Lynn Hurtt, the local mortician who visited the school. “The hair was always in place, perfect little manicure. Drove a nice car. Had nice suits. And I thought, ‘Well, now, there’s a job right there. All those nice things — I like that.’”
But mortuary school required strength in science, which Sanders lacked. His parents urged him to consider vo-tech, since perhaps a university education wasn’t the best choice for their son.
Finally, however, he simply decided to act — both as he wanted to, and for a career.
“My parents were just begging me, ‘Oh, please, son. … Not that we don’t love you, but you’re not going to make it as an actor. It just doesn’t happen. It’s very rare,’” recalls Sanders. “I said, ‘Let me try it out. If it does not work, I will do whatever you want.
“But you know what? It all worked out.”
After high school graduation, Sanders enrolled at then-Southwest Missouri State University and started on a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. “And even before I got the paper in hand, I was already working in Branson,” says Sanders.
That first job took him to exactly where he wanted to be: Through the gates of Silver Dollar City.
“It’s funny. I remember the very first day,” says Sanders. “I was just giddy. There are days when I still get that giddiness. It’s still there.”
Sanders as “Junior Dugan,” his first role at Silver Dollar City. (Courtesy of Terry Sanders/Silver Dollar City)
His first job at the park was on Rube Dugan’s Diving Bell, a now-defunct submarine-themed simulation ride that “took” riders to the bottom of Lake Silver.
“The very next year I was promoted, and I got to be in the Court House Theatre,” says Sanders, where he played Melvin McCoy the Chicken Thief. “And it was great fun, because I remember us sitting down and writing and re-writing. ‘Let’s try this!’ because it was all slapstick comedy.”
Today, Sanders’ role at the park is different than it used to be. He is what he calls an “image character,” or an actor who personifies particular park people. For Sanders, that means he plays several different characters throughout the day.
He greets visitors as Mr. W. P. Warburton, the warden of Silver Dollar City’s flooded silver mine, before appearing later as Doc Harris, the fictional inventor of the Wildfire roller coaster. He’s Ichabod the Scarecrow during the fall season. He also plays the city’s banker, Colonel Paisley Alowishus Parnell, and the undertaker, Mr. M. Balmer.
Sanders’ time as the undertaker is fulfilling in one way — after all, he wanted to be a mortician way back when — but also concerning in another, since he also serves as a first-responder in case of an emergency.
“Can you imagine if you have a person who has a heart attack and I’m dressed as the undertaker? Oh, that looks good!” jokes Sanders, imitating passerby sentiment: “He’s not going to work real hard for this one, is he?”
The characters Sanders currently plays at Silver Dollar City. (Courtesy of Terry Sanders/Silver Dollar City)
Developing those characters — and a new one, tied to the park’s soon-to-open Time Traveler roller coaster — takes a lot of effort.
After all, Sanders says, each one has unique details to make them even more memorable: specific pocket watches, calling cards for visitors, and accents if a character speaks at all. And then there’s the challenge of being able to respond in character for hours at a time.
“The undertaker doesn’t talk, but on rare occasions,” says Sanders. “So that’s also a nice challenge there. How can you communicate without speaking in a theme park where people are asking for directions?”
Such comedic and character development skills are ones that have taken Sanders years of practice and observation to perfect.
“I would watch other comedians, not just locally but also on TV,” says Sanders. “I remember watching Paul Lynde on ‘Hollywood Squares.’ Every time he spoke, even before he spoke, you were already primed. You were going to laugh hard because you knew he was going to say something funny. And so my mindset was always like that: ‘Watch the professionals. See how they do it, why they do it.’
“And so, that was my mindset going in to all of this: I have to be that good. And I knew I wasn’t. And so every day, you had to get better.”
Looking back, Sanders says that Silver Dollar City has been his best training ground since no two days are the same. However, the theme park it isn’t his only place of learning. Even in his early years, Sanders was busy creating his best-known character, Homer Lee, and working several acting gigs simultaneously.
One of those — the Braschler Music Show — resulted in Sanders’ step to the national television stage.
“The ‘Hee Haw’ crew recently was in Branson, where they ‘discovered’ a comedian they plan to feature on an upcoming show: Terry Sanders, a.k.a. Homer Lee of the Braschlers,” noted a Springfield News-Leader article in September 1989. “Sanders will go to Nashville later this month to write the material for upcoming ‘Hee Haw’ episode.”
That article was right, but also wrong: Sanders didn’t appear in just an episode that year. He appeared in the entire season, and was the first Branson comedian to land a spot on the show.
The show gave Sanders a chance to show his family that his acting truly was a success.
“All I can say is I’m just thrilled and waiting anxiously to see this,” said Barbara Vancil, Sanders’ mother, in a 1990 Springfield newspaper article. “He’s wanted to do this since he was super young. From the time he was two years old, he’s been doing funny things.”
Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 7, 1990
Today, Sanders still works a variety on Branson and national stages. So many, in fact, that there are times when he averages only five hours of sleep a night. Sanders points to a recent schedule, when park and job-hopping happened every day:
“I would be at Silver Dollar, leave there, go home and change and go to Big Cedar and do my wagon ride. That would last about an hour. Come home and change into Grandma Beulah and go over and Tony Roi. … Get up and dance one of his first songs. Get out of there, go over to Shepherd of the Hills and do the play. Of course, the play’s at 8:30, get out of there at 10:30. It’s 11 o’clock by the time we’re literally trying to walk out of the place.”
Sanders inside his dressing room at the Americana Theater on Branson’s 76 Strip.
Sanders’ lifetime of showtime in Branson has given him a front-row seat to see the city’s change.
He came of age when the town’s bread and butter were made the hillbilly way. He’s seen phases when some try to shirk that same lovable, laughable, down-home image; an image that the city has progressively tried to outgrow. But even back in the ‘Hee Haw’ days, there were questions about the hillbilly-centric humor.
“I’ve grown up here and I don’t think the humor is insulting to the area or the people,” said Sanders back in a 1990 newspaper article. “Most of the people around here like it — although they may be the people these characterizations are patterned after.”
Nearly 30 years later, those questions and sentiments have only increased. Instead of questions of insult to hillbillies, however, they’re questions of image.
“The sad thing about Branson is that we are getting rid of the hillbilly look,” says Sanders. “That image. Hillbillies are really smart, you know. They’re goofy and all that, and that’s what made people laugh all these years. But they’re changing. Things are evolving.”
In 2016, Sanders joined “Patsy Cline and Friends” at the Americana Theater.
Sanders speaks of his own change, too, from his dressing room at the Americana Theater. The venue is home to his latest venture, “Patsy Cline & Friends,” in which he is the featured comedian. It’s the next step on his career’s lineup, which has evolved with the town and time.
“Is it always easy? No. I’ve been fired in this town three times,” he says of acting. “One day, you’re a hot snot and another you’re a cold booger. There’s a Homer Lee-ism right there, but it’s true.”
Ultimately, however, Sanders says he feels blessed to be able to do what he does.
“It’s still fun to have instantaneous feedback from what I’ve done,” says Sanders. “If I say something funny, and boom, people laugh? How nice. That’s the payoff right there.”
Want to see Sanders?
During its season, Sanders performs at Silver Dollar City, Shepherd of the Hills, “Patsy Cline and Friends,” and other places throughout the area. For more booking and contact information, click here.
“Branson scene,” Springfield News-Leader, Sept. 28, 1989
“He’s Hee Haw bound,” Ron Sylvester, Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 7, 1990